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English or languish - Probing the ramifications
of Hong Kong's language policy


When I left Japan for Hong Kong more than two years ago, I was eager to discover the similarities and differences between the two societies. After nine long years in Japan with almost no interruption I was also in need of a well-deserved break. In brief, I was looking forward to my new home. Upon my arrival on Landau Island I soon noticed many important differences between the people of Tokyo and Hong Kong, and my first impression was quite positive. Truly,I believed that I had escaped the English language barrier which had imprisoned me for so many years in Japan. Unfortunately, I was mistaken.

If you have not already read my papers on this subject, you probably imagine a barrier very different from the one I am about to describe. It is a widespread reluctance on the part of host nation residents to share their language with their foreign guests, because they insist on speaking a second language that they, and often their guests, have only partial or no command. The reasons for this are too numerous to mention here; certainly I have provided many of them elsewhere (Stegemann 1995 and 2001). Notwithstanding, Hong Kong residents are markedly different from their Tokyo counterparts; they are more extroverted, less polite, and more willing to share their language with outsiders. Indeed, the sudden change was quite refreshing after the long period of peaceful, but indifferent calm that one sometimes, perhaps even often, feels in Japanese society. As time progressed, however, I discovered among many Hong Kong residents the same incorrigible insistence on speaking English, when they themselves were too often inept. What's more, the problem was now complicated by my host culture's wanting to speak two second languages instead of one.

Mind you, I have no argument with those who wish to master a second, or even a third language. I myself enjoy at least some fluency in four. Nevertheless, not everyone is as interested in language as I; and there is an important difference between those who study language because they enjoy it, and those that do it because they are told. Understanding this difference is crucial to understanding the social and linguistic barrier that the English language has become for so many East Asians and their foreign guests. Of course, the problem is far more complicated than insisting that someone perform a task for which he is neither inclined, nor for all practical purposes even capable, because the conditions necessary for him to succeed are simply absent.

In my paper entitled "English: Bridge or barrier? The political economy of the English language in East Asia" (Stegemann 2002 opens to new window) I examine in some detail the barrier created by East Asian governments in their overzealous determination to catch-up and surpass Western societies in terms of economic growth and technological enhancement. In my paper I suggest probable causes and solutions for the elimination of this unfortunate barrier to cross-cultural communication and the enormous waste of human resources that are consumed to maintain it. Though I believe to have argued my case well in the aforementioned papers, there are many who, from their own vantage point, remain skeptical and discount my arguments with a wave of the hand. Others, who find my critique to be both interesting and valuable, challenge the absence of factual data to support my claims. Still others, who do not require data to appreciate my insight, wonder if it is not too late. I believe a solution can be found. Simply, the problem needs to be better understood and appropriate action taken. In short, research must be performed and reality laid bare, so as to silence the skeptics, disarm the fanatics, and enter into genuine dialogue with those who truly understand and wish to bring about change.

Since just about every East Asian is affected by this problem, its importance cannot be overestimated. Enormous time, effort, and money are spent every year trying to achieve a goal that is not only impossible to attain, but is counterproductive to the objectives so often stated to justify its achievement. The English language industry in Hong Kong is worth tens of billions of Hong Kong dollars! If these dollars are not properly spent, who is to blame? None other than the government whose policies have made these expenditures necessary. The indirect economic damage created by this barrier is likely far greater. Every Hong Kong child spends over a 100 hours each year, both in- and outside of classrooms, learning a language that he will likely never use but in the most non-essential ways. No one needs to wonder about the myriad of other more productive alternatives in which this time could be spent. The possibilities are too numerous to mention. What's more, these are only a few of the opportunity costs. There are many more!

In the following sections I propose some of the ways in which the absence of factual data can be overcome and some of the probable interpretations and utilizations of that data. As in my paper "English: Bridge or barrier? The political economy of the English language in East Asia" the following sections are devoted primarily to the problem of artifical demand. As many of the problems associated with supply are likely to disappear once the problem of demand is properly addressed, the supply aspect will only be treated so as to make better sense of the demand problem. The general hypothesis and the corresponding tests that follow require a rudimentary understanding of economics and statistics.

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