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【SCMP Education Post:Study in the UK】Time to stand up and take notice

Boarding 101


It should be common knowledge that English proficiency generates opportunities, strengthens employability and creates a business-friendly environment. According to the recently published English First English Proficiency Index (EF EPI), all round proficiency levels in Hong Kong have been classed as “moderate” with 29 other countries faring better in the rankings. Is it time for our Government and business leaders to stand up and take notice? 

The latest edition of the EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) has just been released. English proficiency levels were determined in 72 countries based on an analysis of online tests taken by around 950,000 adult participants. While the test-taking population can never be representative of a country as a whole, the EF EPI is very thorough and only countries with a minimum of 400 test takers were included in the index.

Highlights of the EF EPI report include the advancement of Singapore to the highest proficiency band; Malaysia and the Philippines ranking in the top 15 countries worldwide; and a decline in proficiency in Japan. Women, meanwhile, have stronger English skills than men in all but a few countries and age groups. Hong Kong lies behind France and in front of Vietnam in the Index.

The figures for Hong Kong are not all doom and gloom as progress has been made and several Asian countries, such as Taiwan and Vietnam, have been overtaken in the rankings. However, I wonder for a territory as prosperous as Hong Kong’s, where a little over 20% of total government expenditure is dedicated to education and the mean number of years of schooling is significantly above average, are we doing enough for our children, university students and, most relevantly, employees?

EF can be credited for doing great work in raising awareness of English language issues in business and, possibly, in schools, even though “language proficiency” is quite a loose term and has certain cultural and situation-specific connotations. For instance, in all our efforts to speak “correctly” with the right tenses and intonation, which I think is inherent in language teaching in Hong Kong, communicative competence tends to go out of the window. Furthermore, it may also be the case that more people in Hong Kong speak English now so of course their linguistic deficiencies will come under the spotlight, though not necessarily in these reports.

Over the past few years, I have followed, with some amazement, the extent to which countries and companies seeking to attract foreign investment and trade, as well as generate entrepreneurial growth, have turned to English as a means for creating a business-friendly environment. One only needs to look at the increasing number of companies headquartered outside of English-speaking countries, such as Rakuten (Japan) and Samsung (South Korea), which have adopted English as their corporate language. Indeed, Rakuten CEO, Hiroshi Mikitani, has talked openly about the advantages of “Englishnization”.

Of course, EF has been hot on the heels on the subject of global workforce English with its very own EF English Proficiency Index for Companies (EF EPI-c). EF’s findings are certainly revealing. For instance, executives tend to have lower English levels than the managers they oversee while even the most junior-level staff outscored executives.

I think these EF English skills reports do raise some pertinent issues and should stop entrepreneurs and Managing Directors such as myself from being too complacent. My level of English is possibly above that of the majority of my employees but I do believe that there is always room for improvement and that developing my consultants’ English skills could make the company even more competitive. Generally speaking, I agree with the reports that workforce English scores “correlate positively with indicators of global innovation … and ease of doing business”.

In this cutthroat business world, there is no time for business leaders to take things for granted by believing that their employees’ sound education, certificates and even time spent at boarding school in the US or UK should automatically propel them to the dizzy heights of English proficiency. I have faith in my team’s English proficiency but it is nevertheless an issue I should keep tabs on.

Instead of jumping aboard the “declining or stagnating standards of English in Hong Kong” bandwagon and blaming the Government, business leaders need to scrutinise the issues at hand and seek out ways to improve the English skills of their workforce. For instance, the advantages of English proficiency for specific job functions could be highlighted to workers. What about investing in resources and materials which seek to improve employees’ communicative competency?

Overall, I am glad that we have the EF English Proficiency Index as a reference point as it contributes to the continuous global conversation about English language education. As for Hong Kong, there is a lot of work ahead of us and the EF EPI serves to confirm this state.

Origianl Article:

原文作者為英識教育Britannia StudyLink創辦人陳思銘 Samuel Chan。