No mother-tongue woes with English

Editorial | Mary Ma 2 Nov 2018

Education company EF English First found the right critic when its local representatives invited Executive Councillor Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee to comment on the organization's latest survey findings on English proficiency.

It's the eighth year EF English has conducted the online survey. This time, some 1.3 million adults from 88 non-native English-speaking countries and territories took part in the reading and listening test.

Rather shockingly, Hong Kong - which was a British colony for 156 years - ranked 30th, falling one spot from last year.

Among Asian countries, it remains fifth, trailing Malaysia, the Philippines, India, and now Shanghai. What a surprise, not to mention embarrassment!

Meanwhile, Singapore came in third globally, behind only the top two, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Those skeptical of the EF English survey - especially officials at the Education Bureau - are finding it hard to accept the results that English-language standards in Hong Kong have dropped so much even the Shanghainese read and listen more proficiently than their SAR counterparts.

It's a shame they're finding reality difficult to face up to. The policy bureau led by Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung simply brushed off the survey, claiming it was unreliable as it only targeted adults with access to the internet.

Of course, it would have been an admission by Yeung and his colleagues that English proficiency had declined here if they had responded otherwise. As officials responsible for education policy, fingers would be pointed at them after the controversial education reform in 1998 that replaced English as the teaching medium with the so-called "mother-tongue" policy.

In 2008 - 10 years after the use of English in teaching was suppressed - then secretary for education Michael Suen Ming-yueng assembled enough clout to reverse the policy. But even he had to do so carefully to avoid criticism he was downgrading the "mother-tongue" teaching that the first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, championed. Instead of declaring a policy U-turn, Suen gave it an extremely low-profile description: fine-tuning.

It wasn't fine-tuning. Indeed it was a policy reversal to restore to schools the freedom to determine which language to use. Another 10 years have now passed, and bitterly, English proficiency has yet to return to pre-1997 levels, as expected by employers.

EF English has found the right person to hit out at the situation.

Ip is unpopular even in the political circles where she belongs. However, she has been consistent in her opinion about the English standards at schools - so keenly that it's one of the items central to her political agenda.

It wasn't groundless when Ip drew readers' attention to the late Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew's approach to the touchy language issue in one of her recent articles. She noted that while Malay, Tamil and Chinese were all designated as mother-tongues to take into account the ethnic diversity of the city-state, Lee made English the official working language for everybody.

And today, Singaporeans in general are fluent in multiple languages.

Instead of fiddling with the Putonghua-Cantonese divide, wouldn't it make better sense for Yeung to work hard to mend the Hong Kong populace's English skills?

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