English Spoken Here (Sort Of)

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Last week, Hong Kong’s main English-language paper ran a story on the declining pass rates of senior high school English exams, which have hit a 12-year low, even if they are still in the region of 75%. It considered this news important enough for a front-page lead.
Whenever evidence has emerged of the declining use of English in Hong Kong since the end of British rule, there have been plenty of people – wealthy, Anglophone expatriates mostly – unable to deal with the fact. Around the breakfast tables of Southside homes, on the decks of weekend pleasure cruisers, they will say, condescendingly, that if the Hong Kong Chinese lose the ability to speak English well, Hong Kong will lose its “international competitiveness” and become – the horror! – “just another Chinese city.” I’m sure the last Romans had similar attitudes, as they watched the ragged hordes swarm through the gates uttering barbarous vernaculars (or, in our case, Cantonese and Mandarin).
Don’t misunderstand me. I love the English language, I make my living by writing it. I’m not criticizing it as a language. But any attempt to interpret its declining use in Hong Kong as a sign of cultural, social or economic decay is plainly insulting.
Does anyone say that Tokyo’s future is gravely imperiled because few Japanese speak English? Are Bangkok or Seoul living in some sort of irreversible isolation because the locals aren’t walking around quoting Byron and Keats?
Hong Kong people are tired of speaking English. To many here, it has simply been the colonizer’s language and they greet its declining importance with unrestrained joy. Being a mercantile sort of place, Hong Kong will continue to speak enough English for the purposes of foreign trade, but why should it speak more? And besides, most trade these days is carried out with China.
After 150-odd years of colonial rule, Anglophones are unhappy with the fact that they can no longer use English to address the shop assistant, the electrician, the caddy or whichever menial it is, and expect to be understood in every case. Only they can’t decently complain about a thing like that. So instead, they complain about Hong Kong’s declining “international competitiveness,” when what they really should be doing is signing up for Chinese classes.

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