English standards must be measured in overall context

Updated: 2013-11-19 06:48

By Tim Hamlett(HK Edition)

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A recent survey suggesting that Hong Kong was falling behind other Asian countries in its general English standards hit a sensitive spot. Actually, the methodology of this particular piece of research was unreliable; most of the population tested were volunteers recruited over the Internet. But the results added to the anxiety which has been a permanent feature of Hong Kong education for the last 30 years, over the territory's ability to teach large numbers of people English.

Anyone who works in Hong Kong education - even small potatoes like me - will be asked regularly if, in his or her experience, the standard of English of local students has risen or declined. My reply was always that in the course I taught the standard had risen. But this has nothing to do with overall standards: over the years, the course had become more popular and also well-known to applicants English was good. Under the new admissions system, this course has been submerged in a larger entity so it is no longer possible to state requirements in such detail. I expect that English standards will now decline, but this will again be a result of local factors and nothing to do with overall standards.

In fact, it is difficult to know exactly what people mean when they make wild generalizations about the standards of English in Hong Kong. Clearly they do not mean that nobody speaks good English in our city. Some people speak it beautifully; a disproportionate number of them are Indian. Do complainers mean the average, but how would you measure such a thing? Do they mean the standards of school leavers, policemen, taxi drivers?

Best in my experience is not to get sucked into this elusive concept, but ask a rather simpler question: Is the standard of English generally proportionate to the amount of effort put into teaching it?

English standards must be measured in overall context

Here we are on firmer ground, because educational effort can be measured in a rough and ready sort of way by looking at the amount of time put in. Let us start with the British Army interpreters' course. This aims to teach the students one language from scratch and used to run for three months full time. Let us say the students studied 40 hours a week for 12-13 weeks. This would mean in round numbers that the army could teach you a language in about 500 hours.

In a completely different context, when I learned French it was a subject taught only in secondary schools. Let us take A Level French as denoting a reasonable knowledge of the language, allow two hours a week and say that schools are open 40 weeks a year. Then a student who took seven years would have spent 560 hours on the language. Those who did six years, which was not uncommon, had 480 hours but they were a select group.

In the light of these numbers, we can look at your average Hong Kong student, spending the years from age six to age 16 in a succession of schools, all of which aspire to teach him English. We will overlook similar efforts in kindergarten. Sticking to two hours a week and 40 weeks a year we can say that the students now emerging from the Hong Kong educational system have had 800 hours of tuition in English.

You would think this would be enough to induce a decent level of competence in the vast majority of students. It is disappointing - some would say scandalous - that this huge outlay in time and effort does not produce any such thing. Partly this is due to the "devil take the hindmost" nature of Hong Kong education. In other places, a student who is falling behind is the focus of extra attention. In Hong Kong schools, he may be encouraged to drop out to improve the school's averages. Partly it is due to the tendency of English teachers to devote excessive attention to fine points of grammar and usage that are lost on native English speakers. This probably reflects the content of examinations.

I must say that in the 1980s it seemed that English teaching was a joint effort of locals who didn't speak the language well enough and native speakers who knew nothing about teaching. But we seem to have got over that. Also, it cannot be a problem with teachers generally because Hong Kong's international rankings in other subjects are impressive.

Still, while excellent English is a prestige accomplishment people who have it are unlikely to go into teaching, which is not a prestige profession. This is a serious problem because in countries with notably successful education systems, like Finland, teaching is a respected pursuit and highly-qualified people are happy to take it up.

Here, by way of a contrast, the government will not even take the obvious and entirely costless step of allowing the Hong Kong Institute of Education to call itself a university.

The author's work in journalism has won him honors in the Hong Kong News Awards and the International Radio Festival of New York. He is well known as a columnist, reviewer and broadcaster.

(HK Edition 11/19/2013 page9)