Jun 10, 2015

    HK's English chops a boon, not bane

    EVERY now and then, concerns are expressed in the media about the declining standard of English in Hong Kong.

    It is true that these fears crop up every few years, and probably owe something to the general tendency of the middle-aged to bemoan the decline of almost everything since some idealised past era; still, in the tightly networked modern world, all countries and regions worry whether their international competitiveness is being hampered by a lack of foreign language skills (even the British worry about it occasionally), but nowhere else does this issue carry quite the same political overtones as in Hong Kong.

    In the first place, Hong Kong is poised delicately in a transitional period, less than 20 years after the end of colonial rule and the resumption of Chinese sovereignty. There are suspicions on the mainland that some elements in Hong Kong are too keen to hang on to colonial links and not sufficiently prepared to integrate fully into China, and the English language can be seen as a symbol of this attitude.

    Of course, English is the language of Hong Kong's former British coloniser, and it is also true that English owes its "world language" status purely to Britain's imperial history. But should this still be a factor in the modern world?

    The age of empire has gone, and nobody is interested in bringing it back. But it is part of history, both for the colonisers and the colonised. The English language is part of Hong Kong's unique culture and, at the same time, English constitutes one of the major advantages it has in maintaining its position against strong regional and global competition.

    Compare Singapore, whose founding father, the late Lee Kuan Yew, made English an official language from the start. As a sovereign nation, Singapore was not bothered by an ambivalent status such as Hong Kong's, but could make its own decisions. (Mr Lee also, of course, promoted the teaching of Chinese and its culture; he was no neo-colonialist.)

    Likewise for India, likely to be a major rival of China in the 21st century. The circumstances there were slightly different, as India, unlike China - has a large number of native languages. But it has still embraced English as a business language whose mastery provides its citizens and enterprises with a concrete advantage. An exaggerated reaction against colonialism has no place there.

    And, although the global economy is being rebalanced in the 21st century towards Asia (and towards China in particular), there is no serious chance of English being replaced as the global language any time soon.

    The real driver of the Chinese economy is now cutting-edge science and technology, and one of the world's great engines of this is the practical Sino-US academic relationship; English is well-established as the international language of science. China has long since become the top international collaborator for United States research programmes, and about half of Chinese-foreign research collaborations are with American academics. If Hong Kong fails to keep up, it will fall further behind mainland cities in the drive for innovation.

    And, however far the global economy gets rebalanced towards China, it is most improbable that command of Chinese will ever acquire much of a foothold outside the Sinosphere.

    The truth is that Chinese is simply too difficult for many foreigners to learn. Many of the international businesspeople in Hong Kong speak four or five European languages, without having much of a grasp of either Mandarin or Cantonese.

    But this fact will enable Chinese people to hold on to one of their great advantages; that, while business is being conducted in another language, they will always have a "secret code" in which to chat among themselves, and that, for the foreseeable future, foreign businesspeople will always need Chinese assistance in operating in the Sinosphere.

    So the upholding of English as a working language in Hong Kong should not in any way be seen as a subversive mechanism to make the territory somehow less Chinese.


    The writer is a former British diplomat specialising in China.