Sunday, September 2, 2007

English Skills in China and Hong Kong

Ordinary Gweilo’s post about ludicrous translations of Chinese menus makes me want to rant on the poor standard of English in Hong Kong these days.

Before I do that, I just want to remark that good translation work depends very much on a good understanding of both Chinese and Western cultures and the ability to master both the Chinese and English language. In my opinion, the general standard of translation in the Mainland is below par is because the majority of ordinary Mainland Chinese (even the fairly well educated ones) are still very much strangers to Western culture and are unable to speak simple English, let alone master the language.

Those lucky enough to have received Western education overseas and good exposure to Western culture would usually end up working for multinational corporations either in Hong Kong or the Mainland, or stay and live abroad altogether, thus leaving the domestically educated, whose standard of English cannot be anything but sub-par, taking on less well paid jobs in government and public institutions. Therefore I am not surprised to hear that people working at places like the Beijing Tourism Bureau are not up to the task of producing good translations and their work often tends to be hilarious.

It is a good thing though that at least the authorities are aware of China’s English and translation skill deficiency in general and are taking steps to improve on it. Hopefully, the Olympics are going to bring about a general elevation in China’s standard of English and understanding of Western culture, amongst other things. Let us face it, China is still a developing nation which has yet to catch up with and learn from the English-speaking world in a lot of areas. Let us also be aware that English-speaking businessmen and professionals from the West are scrambling to learn the Chinese language because they want to learn from and about China. So there is no question of any loss of face for the Chinese trying to learn English and the Western culture. It is merely a two-way exchange that would enhance mutual understanding and respect.

Ironically, the development in Hong Kong seems to be running in reverse gear. Ever since the implementation of Tung Chee-Hwa’s ill-advised policy of teaching in the mother-tongue, the standard of English among secondary school and university students went from bad to worse. In recent years, there have been abundant reports that multinational firms are constantly complaining about the acute shortage of local staff with reasonably good English skills, both written and spoken. These go some way to show that that policy has done more harm than good.

It is simply paradoxical for Hong Kong to claim to be an international financial hub on the one hand, and on the other to have a dearth of suitably qualified staff whose basic skill sets should include good English skills.

Before over-zealous patriots start throwing stones at me for daring to promote the language of the hateful colonial gweilos, let us ponder for a moment on the pragmatic side of the issue. Using the words of my former boss, “It is only in the interests of Hong Kong people to speak and write good English. After all, English is the international language used in the business, finance, science, technology and medicine arenas. Being able to master the language is a prerequisite to a successful career or enterprise.”

It would really serve no purpose to use excuses such as nationalism, decolonization, respect for Chinese culture etc. etc. to deprive Hong Kong people of their right to properly learn to master the English language, spoken and written, which has more or less been hampered by the teaching in the mother-tongue program.

My nephew is one of the victims of the society slighting the learning and usage of the English language, made even worse by that program, in the days following the handover. His parents sent him to Vancouver to continue schooling here last year because of total frustration with Hong Kong’s education system. At grade 10 (equivalent to Form 4 in Hong Kong), his English standard was found to be far below that required for that grade and as a result he had to take extra-curricular English lessons. After struggling for a year, he made some progress and got just passing grades in English at his final exams. If he can’t catch up with his classmates in his grade 11 and grade 12 years, he will not stand a chance of reaching pre-university standard of English and will possibly be declined university entry because of it.

I can now understand why some parents in Hong Kong are willing to fork out a fortune to try to get their children into English-speaking international schools.


Anonymous said...

"Therefore I am not surprised to hear that people working at places like the Beijing Tourism Bureau are not up to the task of producing good translations"

Perhaps they might be up to the task of actually ASKING someone who does speak the language? Or would that lead to a loss of face?

TX Carmen 德州卡門 said...

I learnt about your blog from ESWN. I enjoy reading it a lot.

I totally agree with you about the declining English skills of people in HK. Back in my college days in the CUHK, I was an English major & was so amazed at how bad some of my classmates' English is. And, when I was working in the (Chinese) media in HK, I was shocked at the sub-par of some of my colleagues' English standards. A lot of them would request for an interpreter when doing interviews with English-speaking interviewees. I was just too shocked at the fact that they didn't have the slightest shame to ask for an interpreter.

I haven't been back for a few years now & could only imagine how bad the general English standard has become.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it has anything to do with the mother-tongue education.

Throughout the colonial era the average Hong Kong college student's English was poor to deplorable.

It is quite understandable that since the withdrawal of the British overlords people have totally lost the incentive to speak it in public life. A limited number of multinational companies are not enough to support a vigorous language community.

Alice Poon said...

(To MyLaowai)
I know. It beats me!

Alice Poon said...

(To 德州卡門)
Thank you for reading my blog and your comments. It's always nice to know there are some readers!

nanheyangrouchuan said...

"Let us face it, China is still a developing nation which has yet to catch up with and learn from the English-speaking world in a lot of areas"

We can't keep letting China use that excuse over and over again, it becomes a security blanket for everything that China doesn't want to fix. Take english education for example, I don't know about HK, but in China, knowledgeable and intelligent english teachers who learn how to use and teach english correctly are often overruled by school bosses because english must be taught "with vibrant chinese characteristics". Even in Beijing, the official media once in a while defends "chinglish" as merely "different" instead of "incorrect".
There is a right and a wrong way to use a language, especially if you don't want to offend native speakers or look like an idiot.

Beijing's Olympic officials are even refusing to let western volunteers hunt down and change bad english translations, instead they rely on the same language bosses to decide whether a translation is "good enough".

Same ol' China.

Alice Poon said...

(To nanheyangrouchuan)
In fact I wasn't trying to give China any excuse, but rather to say that China really needs to do better with the standard of English, as she still has so much to learn from the West (language is an important tool of learning).

Your comments are absolutely warranted. I am totally baffled as to what the Beijing officials are thinking - probably a case of face-saving carried to the extreme!! Sometimes I feel that I don't understand Mainlanders any better than a gweilo does!

little Alex said...

Thing is, on the HKCEE (sp?), while the students' English scores have gone down, their scores in other subject areas have gone up. Or at least that's what I heard.

So now we have to consider, do we want the students to do well in English but poorly in all the other subjects, or do we want them to do well in the majority of the subjects but do poorly in English...?

It shouldn't have gone down to a choice between the lesser of two evils, but unfortunately here we are...

(got here via ESWN, btw)

Alice Poon said...

(To little alex)
Thank you for your comment. My personal view is that the key lies in how well one can master the English language (which is not difficult if the teachers are well qualified, and with all due respect to non-native teachers, native English teachers can naturally do the job much better but of course they demand higher wages). Once the student has a good grasp of the language, it will be easy for him/her to absorb knowledge in other subjects via the English medium. My own experience (and I am sure it is the experience of many from my generation) of being taught by native English teachers would attest to this.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alice,

How are you? I was wondering if you do english to simplified mandarin proofreading and translations? My company is launching their first mandarin edition and looking for someone to translate/edit the magazine. Are you interested? Please kindly let me know at shahina at