Government plans to teach in three languages would boost Hong Kong's competitive edge internationally and help firms break into the growing mainland market, employers said.
But teaching English, Cantonese and Putonghua on an equal footing in schools may not be practically possible, according to educationalists.
The mixed reaction came after education chief Michael Suen Ming-yeung told Sing Tao Daily, sister newspaper of The Standard, he aimed to boost Hong Kong's competitiveness through trilingual education in schools.
The levels of English among business recruits have been widely criticized by employers, who say English standards are slipping.
In a test by the University Grants Committee, conducted this year, students scored poorly in the oral and writing sections, with the average student speaking English at barely a competent level.
Employers said Putonghua would be a must for new recruits as Hong Kong becomes more integrated with the booming mainland market. Many university graduates increasingly go to work in the mainland, Taiwan and Singapore where they are required to speak Putonghua.
"Employers will increasingly consider hiring people speaking fluent English and Putonghua as more employers will enter the China market," Hong Kong Professionals and Executives Association president Nelson Siu said.
Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management spokesman Mak Ping-on argues that English standards should be elevated if Hong Kong wants to become a world city.
"In terms of hiring people, we're seeing a greater degradation of the quality of English among applicants. We've been trying to build Hong Kong into a world city where we could communicate with people from all walks of life outside Hong Kong.
"In business, English is still the most popular language. We'll be losing our competitiveness to Singapore and India where the level of English is generally higher. Language could be enhanced easily in schools at a young age," Mak said.
But while businesses have welcomed a move to a three-language system, educationalists have stressed the practical difficulties of this route.
Tim Shi Dingxu, a professor of Chinese and bilingual studies at Polytechnic University said: "Ideally, this situation would be great. Cantonese and Putonghua are closely related, so this would not be too hard but if you want to have three languages, I'm not sure that goal can be achieved. We teach bilingual studies here and it's not easy.
"The issue is how are you going to do this. I'm not sure we have the means to do this."