Use of English

It is true, as another columnist in this newspaper recently pointed out, that people in Hong Kong like to complain about the alleged declining standard of English. It makes for a good opinion piece during a quiet news period, especially in the summer when LegCo is in recess. A good stirring of the pot can guarantee follow-up letters to the Editor, thus proving that his column is read. I agree with him, too, that the complaint is to some extent exaggerated. After all at one time we had 1.1 million people working in manufacturing and few if any foreigners ever met them, so we simply didn’t realise they only spoke Cantonese. Now the manufacturing jobs have left, the people are serving in shops and restaurants or driving our taxis instead so we do get to meet them.

My beef is from a different angle: the declining use of English in many areas of public life. The chief executive makes one high profile speech per year in English. A few weeks after his policy address – delivered in Cantonese only – he attends a luncheon in his honour hosted by the international business community and the main local chambers, and repeats the main points in the language of international business. Similarly our financial secretary has one major set piece – his budget speech – always since 1997 in Cantonese only, followed a few weeks later by a similar address in front of the business community in English.

With those two exceptions, can you think of any other important speeches in Hong Kong by any of our top officials given in our second official language? What would be wrong in giving one of the two major set-piece speeches per year in English, with the other in Cantonese, and then swapping round the following year?

Have you noticed, too, that increasingly in ministerial stand-ups there is no sound bite in English and we have to make do on the TV or radio news with a voice-over? Very few questions are raised in Legco in English these days as well (take a bow Claudia Mo, one of the few exceptions). The debates are virtually all Chinese efforts as well. The only exception I can recall was pre-1997 during the repeal of the anti-homosexual laws. Presumably no-one wanted to say "consensual heterosexual buggery", as one member did during the discussion, in Cantonese. I wonder how the interpreter coped.

Most of the candidates in the Hong Kong Island constituency in the recent Legco elections made some effort to have a summary in English so full marks to them. But in between elections? The only elected member who ever writes to me periodically does so solely in Chinese (I wonder what she is saying) but it would not be fair to name her because the others don’t write at all.

This monolingual practice is spreading to other areas of life too. Some supermarkets only put up signs in Chinese or have the English in very small writing which can only be read with a magnifying glass. Who normally goes shopping with one of those in their pocket? This is an especially disturbing practice when it comes to special offers, for example for wine (buy two, get one free etc). Do only Chinese customers deserve the bargains? In the supermarket in mid-Levels which I frequent most of the customers are foreigners or their non-Chinese helpers, yet still the signs are largely in Chinese or larger in Chinese.

There are advertisements on TV and radio urging people of all ages to improve their employment prospects by upgrading their English language skills, and senior officials often stress that being a bilingual city is one of Hong Kong’s advantages as a place to do business. Do you think the message would be more convincing if they walked the walk as well as talking the talk?