The Sound of English Fades in Hong Kong


At a recent college fair, a gaggle of boys in crisp British blazers and ties bypassed a booth emblazoned with a Union Jack with just a quick glance backward. They headed toward the stall of a Chinese university--and toward Hong Kong’s future.

“I like learning in Cantonese better because my English is very cheap,” said one student from Po Leung Kuk school. “Hey,” said a classmate, elbowing him in the ribs. “You mean poor.”

Just as stamps and coins bearing Queen Elizabeth II’s visage have melted out of circulation, and British subjects have trickled home since China took over Hong Kong on July 1, the use of English in this former British colony is slowly slipping.

In schools, courtrooms and government offices, the rounded tones of the queen’s English are giving way to the distinctive diphthongs of Cantonese. In downtown shops, hotels and restaurants that have long catered to an international clientele, tourists are finding less fluent English and more blank looks and flustered giggles.


“English,” noted Gladys Tang, an English professor at Chinese University here, “has changed from being a second language to being a foreign language.”

Barely eight months since returning to Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong has wedded itself to a future of Chinese. English, despite its importance in making the territory an international entrepot, seems destined to become the language of the past.

Half a century ago, on Ken Lee’s first day of school here, the 13-year-old refugee from China couldn’t understand a single word his British schoolmaster said. “But I knew that English was the key to success,” said Lee, now the principal of a junior high school, “so I thought I had better learn.”

Under the stern eye of his teacher, a Roman Catholic priest, Lee started by memorizing the dictionary “from ‘Z’ upwards,” then spent the summer reading the Charles Dickens novel “Nicholas Nickleby” over and over until he could nearly recite it. By the time he graduated from high school five years later, he said, “My English was better than my Chinese.”

Lee still believes that English is the key to success, and 80% of Hong Kong’s secondary schools chose to teach in English under British rule. But as colonial influence fades here, that zeal to learn English is becoming as old-fashioned as memorizing a dictionary--and test scores show that many Chinese students learning in English are not doing well in either language.

Out of a mixture of pragmatism and patriotism, Hong Kong’s new government has mandated that all public schools, with the exception of an elite group, teach in Hong Kong’s mother tongue, Cantonese, starting this autumn.

That decision is yet another step in the “Sino-fication” of Hong Kong. The use of Chinese--both the Cantonese dialect of Hong Kong and the Mandarin spoken as the standard on the mainland--is on the rise. Hong Kong’s new chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, took the lead by giving his inaugural address last July in Cantonese, the first time the territory’s leader had spoken to its citizens in their native tongue.

Other officials have followed suit in important policy speeches that once were made in English, then translated. Announcements in train stations and airports now repeat three times: in English, Cantonese and Mandarin.


Many of the changes seem like common sense for a territory where Chinese is the first language of 98% of the people.

Since the return to Chinese sovereignty, white-wigged judges still preside over courtrooms in the British manner, but now defendants can face justice in a language they understand. Top civil servants, once selected in part for their English ability, hold meetings and write memos in Chinese. And after nearly 10 years of searching for Chinese equivalents for English common law terms, translators have finally finished putting Hong Kong’s laws into Chinese.

“As we face a future with China, our priorities are changing,” said one of Tung’s Cabinet members, who speaks fluent English and Cantonese but admits to having to brush up on her Mandarin. “I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t even write a proper letter in Chinese!”

Part of the move is meant to help mold Hong Kong’s new identity under Chinese rule. Each member of Hong Kong’s new generation, Tung said in a recent speech, should “be a person who has deep love of our mother country, committed to the development of the mainland as well as Hong Kong, [a person who is] bi-literate and trilingual.”


But many worry that Hong Kong’s shift toward the mainland may mean a slow sacrifice of what makes it special--its unique international role.

“English ought to be given more importance than ever after the change of sovereignty,” said Cheng Kai-ming, a professor of education at Hong Kong University. “Hong Kong can survive under ‘one country, two systems’ only when Hong Kong is different from other mainland cities in China.”

Headhunters are finding that for positions that require Mandarin and English ability, many top candidates now come from the mainland .

“Some mainlanders can speak excellent English as well as Putonghua [Mandarin],” said Lily Chu, the branch manager of Job Access in Hong Kong. “We recruit in China for positions in information technology, management and sales, and there are some very capable people” who have made more of their opportunities than Hong Kong people.


Recruiters for British and American universities say that admissions of Hong Kong students are dropping as their English ability diminishes and more graduates apply to local and mainland schools.

“The standard of English is no longer so good in Hong Kong,” said Andy Lam of the Center for Educational Development, which helps place Hong Kong students in colleges overseas. “There’s not so much opportunity to make use of it here.”

For many students who speak Cantonese at home, school is the only place they are exposed to English, he points out.

“With the new policy of mother-tongue education, the quality of English will be even worse,” he said. “If we want Hong Kong to be involved in the international market, trade, finance and management, English is very important.”


The key to maintaining Hong Kong’s internationalism lies with the schools. Most educators, including Lee, the principal who taught himself English the hard way, agree that students learn best in their own language.

But many in Hong Kong, especially parents determined that their children have the best education, fear that Hong Kong’s bilingualism will fade away--and along with it, top jobs and opportunities.

Of Hong Kong’s 400 secondary schools, only 100 of them, mostly Catholic schools with a strong English tradition, will be allowed to continue teaching in English for a three-year grace period. The rest must switch to Chinese-medium instruction this year, and concerned parents are pulling their children out.

The Jockey Club Ti-I College, a secondary school that has been ordered to teach its sports and arts curriculum in Cantonese instead of English, usually receives 700 applications a year for its 180 spots. But so far this year, the school has received only 100, said its principal, Terence Chang Cheuk-cheung.


Lee’s school, the government-subsidized Maryknoll Fathers’ School, is appealing the order, hoping to join the elite group of English schools. Although one student has transferred, Lee says, most parents are waiting for the results of the appeal.

Strolling around the school grounds festooned with banners that say “We love learning in English!” students converse confidently, if not completely correctly, in English to visitors and teachers, but they speak to one another in Cantonese.

“We’ve been teaching in English for 40 years with success,” Lee said. “If we can’t continue, I will resign.”