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Why are Hong Kongers afraid to speak English

Why are Hong Kongers afraid to speak English?

Hong Kong is a former British colony, financial centre, and international economic and business powerhouse attracting citizens from all over the world. However, Hong Kongers seem to avoid speaking English in a lot of situations. 

What brought about the locals’ lack of confidence in speaking one of the SAR’s official languages? Continue reading to learn why Hong Kongers seem afraid to speak in English.

Why are Hong Kongers afraid of speaking English?

Hong Kongers’ aversion to speaking the English language primarily stems from their lack of confidence in talking to or keeping up with native English speakers during a conversation. 

The specific reasons behind this anxiety vary from person to person, but the perceived inability to speak English generally comes from a lack of proficiency.

What are the reasons behind Hong Kongers’ lacklustre English skills?

Despite a history of decades of exposure to English, Hong Kong locals’ lack of command of the English language is mostly due to systemic issues in the field of education and a lack of need to speak in a foreign tongue.

Let us talk about these in greater detail.

Hong Kong’s English Education System

Hong Kong’s English Education System

Some preschools in Hong Kong teach English to children, with some students learning the language alongside Cantonese and Mandarin. There are also tutors and teaching centres that can help supplement learning.

To further improve the English skills of students, Hong Kong established the Native-speaking English Teacher (NET) scheme in 1998. 

Through this system, government and government-subsidized schools will employ English teachers from abroad for two years, 

So, if Hong Kong students get taught by native speakers, why are they still a bit behind? 

And if they are exposed to the language at a young age, why do Hong Kongers struggle with speaking English?

The answer to this lies in the system of teaching. The teachers focus primarily on reading, writing, grammar, and listening comprehension, which surely develops written language skills but does little to help English speaking proficiency.

Properly learning to speak a language involves actual practice and exposure, but schools and homes often fail to provide an environment conducive to English use.

There is little opportunity or need for Hong Kongers to speak English, which is an issue not only in school but also outside the academe.

Hong Kongers’ Lack of Practice

Hong Kongers’ Lack of Practice

It is not only the students that encounter the lack of speaking opportunities but also the general population. 

Much like other surrounding cities and regions, Hong Kong is exposed to English-speaking media. 

The locals have access to movies, books, songs, and other English-based media, with Hong Kongers even developing Kongish, a mixture of local languages with English.

Laws, recruitment agency contracts, and company registration forms also come in English.

But aside from the worlds of media, academia, and corporations, there is not much need for speaking English in other contexts.

Not all Hong Kongers have a reason or need to speak in languages other than Cantonese or Putonghua, which leads to a lack of practice and overall disuse of the English language.

How many people use English in Hong Kong?

Numerous statistics show that over half the population of Hong Kong can speak, read, and write in English. However, only 4.3% of the population say they use English as their primary spoken language.

This data may provide a slight glimpse at just how little use English is in Hong Kongers’ daily lives.

What language do Hong Kongers use in schools?

Students in Hong Kong use Cantonese and English in school. However, English is primarily taught as a separate subject alongside Mandarin. 

In some schools and universities, professors are encouraged to use only Cantonese or English. 

However, according to a study conducted by students of the City University of Hong Kong, professors prefer to use Cantonese alongside English as it makes topics easier to understand for students.

This further eliminates the need for students in Hong Kong to prioritize learning another language.

How does Hong Kong perform when it comes to English speaking?

According to a study conducted by the University of Hong Kong’s Social Sciences Research Centre, only 6% of the respondents spoke English well, and only 1.5% had a native-like command of the language.

However, the SAR doesn’t lag too far behind in terms of proficiency.

The Education First’s annual English proficiency index gives Hong Kong a “moderate proficiency” rating and places the region at 32nd worldwide and 4th in Asia, putting it on par with South Korea and China. Ahead of the region are Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore.

Can you live in Hong Kong if you only know English?

For the most part, people can survive in Hong Kong even if they only know English. Many dense areas and tourist spots have Hong Kongers speaking decent English.

Street signs, large businesses and shops, and other essential places in the cities often use English and Cantonese simultaneously. Policemen and public officials also speak English, which is helpful, especially for foreigners.

However, the further you go away from the centre and the bustling cities, the less prevalent English becomes. 

Smaller inns and establishments and the elderly may have difficulty interacting with foreigners, especially if they do not have frequent interactions with them.

Foreigners may also be surprised at the variant of English used in Hong Kong called Kongish. Kongish, much like Singlish, is a variant of English with differently pronounced words and unique syntax that resulted from combining Cantonese words with English.

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