New People's Party lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun made the point yesterday in the latest event in the Redefining Hong Kong series, organised by the South China Morning Post, as panelists argued the question of whether declining English standards would undermine the city's identity.
"When was the last time 'English standards' were mentioned in the chief executive's policy address?" Tien asked the audience of 100 business leaders, educators and policymakers. "It was 2008, seven years ago. After that English has been forgotten."
The future for Hong Kong is technology and for [that] to thrive we need good English. LAWMAKER MICHAEL TIEN
Citing the IELTS English proficiency test results for final-year undergraduates from 2004 to 2014, Tien argued that English standards in Hong Kong were not really declining, but that the weakest link - writing and speaking - had not improved.
Fellow speakers agreed that the government needed to urgently rethink education policy, including small-class teaching, curriculums and the supply of effective foreign teachers for kindergarten and primary schooling, otherwise Hong Kong risked losing its competitive edge as an international city.
Tien said now was the best time for the government to promote the use of English as it pushed for the establishment of the new Innovation and Technology Bureau.
"I believe the future for Hong Kong is technology and for technology to thrive we need good English," he said.
Kelly Yang, who runs an English learning programme for young students, pointed to problems such as the fact that 90 per cent of primary school teachers use Cantonese to teach English.
"We should seek innovative ways of teaching English," she said. "It's a matter of losing our identity, because we are not just a mainland city."
Alice Au, a high-profile headhunter for global executive search firm Spencer Stuart, stressed the importance of English proficiency in the corporate world and noted that locals were missing out on top jobs.
"This is always about presentation and communication, and the medium of communication is always English," she said.
Ming Chen, an executive at EF Education First, an international firm specialising in language training and education, cited annual research to counter the government's claims that there were no studies showing English standards were slipping in Hong Kong.
Looking back at last year's EF rankings of global English-language skills placing Hong Kong below mainland cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin , she said this year's findings indicated a similar situation.