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

Quality Assessment
Section Four
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Language and Society
Hong Kong's Neighbors


There are many reasons given as to why Hong Kong's universal English language (UEL) requirement is necessary. Among these are Hong Kong's diverse international community and the need for Hong Kong to remain competitive. In the previous section we estimated what might be reasonable, not necessarily true demand for Hong Kong's macroeconomic based language requirements. In this section we will look at what might be reasonable demand based on Hong Kong's requirements as a diverse international population with many languages.

Contained in this section are 41 newly created, carefully referenced graphs, as well as several old graphs and tables. Many of the documents, from which the data contained in these graphs were obtained, have been downloaded and stored on EARTH's website, so that they do not suddenly appear missing after their links are made inactive by their original hosts. There are several additional webpages including historical information and a thorough discussion of Greenberg's diversity index.

As universal language requirements are costly to implement and sustain, and the Hong Kong government is bent on raising English language standards (see Hong Kong's Window Dressers - pdf 40KB) based on artificially created demand and untested assumptions about Hong Kong society's true need for the language, it is useful to observe how other governments have employed universal language requirements as a means to overcome their own problems of ethnic and linguistic diversity. After a brief overview of what might be considered reasonable grounds for implementing universal second language requirements, we then take a closer look at three societies with varying levels of ethnic and linguistic diversity. As Hong Kong and Singapore share many common traits with regard to education special attention is devoted to Singapore.

The information is provided free of charge. Simply do not make use of it without proper reference to its provider -- EARTH.

Discussion and Explanation

State enforced bilingualism and multilingualism
Normative prescriptions

When might it be appropriate for a government to dictate that its entire citizenry be bilingual or multilingual? One can think of several democratic scenarios:
  1. There are too many languages spoken by too many people to justify making more than one language official for everyone; so everyone learns just one and the same second language.
  2. There are few languages spoken with many speakers of each, and it is agreed that one language for everyone would destroy the diversity enjoyed by all. Thus, everyone is required to learn at least one of the other tongues.
  3. The language of the people is obscure, and the number who speak the language is sufficiently small to make translation of the world's literature prohibitively expensive. So, everyone is required to study at least one.
  4. The language is not obscure, but the country is small and surrounded by many other countries with different languages and cultures on whom the country depends both politically and economically for its survival. Thus, everyone is required to study the language of at least one neighbor.
Of course, democracy is not the only form of government practiced in the world, and there are many governments that practice a form of democracy that is only partially accountable to its people -- including Hong Kong.
imposition with insufficient justification | index
So many languages and so many people speaking them

In 1998 Indonesia (new window - dark gray area) boasted a population slightly over 206 million people and 726 living languages.1 Although there are over 140 million people who now speak Indonesian as their second language, the number of native Indonesian speakers is under 30 million. The largest native language group among Indonesia's 726 languages is Javanese with an estimated 75 million speakers. Other major language groups include Sunda with 27 million native speakers, Madura with 13.7 million speakers, and Bali and Betawi with 3.8 million and 2.7 million speakers, respectively. The remaining 54 million plus people comprise the hundreds of other minor languages not already indicated. With such diversity in such large numbers it would be impossible to govern a land such as Indonesia without a common language.

Important in Indonesia's case is that the common second language is neither that of a former colonial master, nor the English language; rather it is the region's own former lingua franca (new window) -- a language little different from the national language of Malaysia. Perhaps one should not be surprised that most everyone's second language is the first language of the majority of citizens of Indonesia's capital, Jakarta. Whatever form of government Indonesia practices today, it's national language was adopted under a different system of government.


Linguistic diversity and homogenziation
Let us compare Switzerland (new window), a small, inland, mountainous, Western European nation, with a total population little larger than that of Hong Kong with Singapore (new window - tiny red dot), a Southeast Asian port city just under half its size. According to UN census data the populations of Switzerland and Singapore were 7,299,000 and 3,476,000, respectively.2 What these two nations share in common is the presence of a principal ethnic group and several smaller, large, ethnic minorities.

Ethnic homogenization en style occidental

The dominant ethnic group in Switzerland is Swiss German comprising somewhat under 60 percent of the total population. Though not German these Swiss speak a language very similar to that of Germans called Allemanisch. The second largest ethnic group is French Swiss; in 1998 this group accounted for nearly 20 percent of the total population. Together these two language groups comprised more than 75 percent of all Switzerland.3 The next largest ethnic groups were the Lombard and Italians with approximately 300,000 and 21,000 speakers, respectively. Most Lombard speakers are said to be fluent in Italian, and over 14 percent of all Swiss claim to use Italian on a daily basis. With close to nine million Lombardic speakers in the world, located mostly in Northern Italy, this is perhaps understandable.4 Although Switzerland has four official national languages, the number of speakers of Romansch, Switzerland's fourth national language, is frightfully small accounting for less than one percent of the entire population.5 In actual numbers Romansch speakers totaled about 40,000 in 1990. Other important Swiss minority groups include speakers of Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Turkish. Certainly there are a large number (new window) of languages spoken in Switzerland that are not shared by the majority of Swiss citizens.

By making German, French, and Italian Switzerland's national languages the Swiss government accommodates the needs of its citizens with regard to Switzerland's nearest principal neighbors (new window) -- Germany, France, Italy, and Austria. In primary school students are required to study one national language that differs according to the region in which they attend school. They are also required to study a second national language that is either of Switzerland's two primary national languages -- French or German. For many Swiss children, both their first and second national languages are acquired as second languages.6 In lower secondary school students continue study of their first national language and one second national language including either French, German, English, or Italian. About 80 percent of all Swiss adolescents complete upper secondary school, where they enroll in a vocational school, a sub-degree professional program, or a "college-prep" matura school. The enrolment distribution across these three school genre is over 70 percent, under 10 percent, and over 20 percent, respectively. At the matura schools between 30% and 40% of one's studies are devoted to language. At all school levels, with the exception of upper secondary school for which no data was provided, there are a very large percentage of foreign students ranging from 26% at the pre-school level to 20.8% at the lower secondary level.7 Apparently the Swiss public school system is well-respected among Switzerland's neighbors.

In summary, with the exception of foreign student's and immigrants the first language studied is one's mother or near mother tongue; one's second language of study is first and foremost the mother or near mother tongue of another Swiss region. With the exception of English that is taught as an alternative to French in German speaking lower-secondary schools, one's first and second languages of study up until one completes one's lower secondary formation are also those of a close foreign neighbor -- Germany, France, or Italy. With one's second language of study either spoken by one's own countrymen or a near foreign neighbor the opportunity to communicate with native speakers in either one's first or second language of study must be enormous. Neither can there be a shortage of native speakers to fill teaching slots in Swiss language classrooms. Other subjects are apparently taught in one's mother or region-specific national language throughout.
 Greenberg's diversity index (dialects are not languages)| index

Ethnic homogenization en style d'asie orientale

Now let us turn to Singapore, a much smaller, but far more heterogeneous population.

At first glance the large ethnic Chinese population (new window) -- nearly 75% of all Singaporeans -- might fool one into believing that Singapore is linguistically and ethnically very homogeneous. This is a mistake. More than a third of all Chinese Singaporeans speak a Chinese language different from that spoken by the largest group of Chinese speakers; moreover, there are seven different Chinese languages spoken as mother tongues. Among these are 69,000 Hakka speakers, 201,000 Mandarin speakers, 4,000 Min Bei speakers, 15,000 Min Dong speakers, 1,170,000 Min Nan speakers, 6,000 Pu-Xian speakers, and 314,000 Chinese Yue speakers. Chinese Yue (Cantonese) is the predominant language (new window) of Hong Kong. The 34.2 percent of all Chinese speakers that do not speak Min Nan make up nearly 30 percent of Singapore's total population.8 Min Nan, however, is not the language the Singapore government has selected as the so-called mother tongue for its Chinese ethnic population. Upon closer examination we also discover what is apparently a large numbers of Singaporean Chinese speakers who do not claim Chinese ethnicity. Comparing graphs 51a and 51b (new windows) shows that Singapore's Baba-Malays are likely split among mother tongue speakers of Baba-Malay, English, and several Chinese languages.9 After speakers of a Chinese language come speakers of English and Tamil -- each representing 10.7 and 4.2 percent of the total population, respectively.

Greenberg's diversity index (dialects are not languages) | index

Streaming with a language filter

Let us now turn to Singapore's so-called mother tongues. A Singaporean primary school student studies English and one of three mother tongues for four years before entering one of three pre-secondary language streams: EM1, EM2, or EM3. Those who enter the first stream are provided with more advanced training in the same or similar subjects for which training is also provided in the second and third streams. Proficiency in English and either Chinese, Malay, or Tamil is a crucial qualification for determining which stream a child enters.10 About 20 percent (new window) of all primary students pass through the EM1 stream. At the end of this two-year orientation stage students sit for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). This examination determines one's eligibility for entry into secondary school where the streaming filter becomes further refined. Of the four streams, special, express, normal tech, and normal art, only 10 percent (new window) are allowed to enter the elite special stream.11 Most students are placed into the express stream, and the remaining 40 percent enter into one of two normal programs of study. Close to 90 percent of all students find entry. Unfortunately, the placement is not entirely equal (new window) across ethnic groups.

The government's attempt to homogenize Singaporean society through its primary and secondary educational systems can be observed in graphs 51a and 51b (new windows), as well as graph 61a (new window).12 In graphs 51a and 51b (new windows) one views a complex society with a large amount of ethnic and linguistic diversity. In graph 61a (new window) one sees the government's targeted level of ethnic and linguistic complexity. How successful this attempt at ethnic homogenization has been can be indirectly observed by what is occurring in Singapore's private sector education.


Sanctioned alternatives for those with means

Whereas private sector, part-time enrolment can be viewed as complementary to public school enrolment, private sector full-time enrolment indicates what are likely reasonable alternatives to public schooling. Graphs 68a and 68b (new windows) depict private sector part-time and full-time school enrolment, respectively. Let us examine first the complementary function of part-time enrolment in graph 68a (new window).

More than a quarter of Singapore's private-sector, part-time school enrolment is found in tutorial schools. This suggests that many capable students are not receiving sufficient support within the system.

In Singapore those who are best suited for passage through the system are identified at an early age and promoted through it with increasing amounts of public money (new window). What is left over in financial resources is then redistributed among the remaining four-fifths of the student population. As the primary, if not sole requirement for getting through this system, is success on each of Singapore's three major examinations (the PSLE, the GCE O-Level, and the GCE A-Level); and as proficiency, in what are second languages for most Singaporean students, is an important key to obtaining the instruction necessary to pass these examinations; there is a strong incentive for many students to obtain outside of the system the training they are unable to obtain within it.13 A closer examination of student enrolment at tutorial schools (see graph 68a - new window) would probably reveal an abundance of very capable EM2 and express stream students, whose parents can afford the additional cost required to send their children to private schools. Certainly this is the pattern found in both Hong Kong and Japan, where exam pressure is high and exam preparation at public schools rarely appears adequate.14

In addition to the high level of enrolment in tutorial schools, enrolment in language and fine art schools accounts for nearly 50 percent of all private sector part-time enrolment. This pattern strongly suggests that Singapore's public educational system is over ambitious with regard to second language education on the one hand, and not providing students with a sufficiently well-rounded education on the other. By way of illustration, consider what has been occurring in Singapore's post-secondary, pre-university level (new window) public school system for the past half-decade. Graph 63b (new window) shows that the government has been expanding its tertiary sector, as an ever increasing number of students prepare for the GCE A-Level examination. In addition to this quantitative change graphs 62a, 62b, and 62c (new windows) show us that important structural changes are simultaneously taking place. Not only has commerce been largely replaced by an overwhelming interest in science, but science has become an important meeting place of the sexes. Of course, the incentives for pre-university students are likely very different for post-secondary students to whom entry into a national university is closed. Certainly this would explain the large number of students enrolled part-time in commerce and computer science classes in the private sector. This observation is further substantiated in graph 68b (new window), where commerce and computer science schools account for more than a quarter of full-time enrolment. Moreover, with more than a third of Singapore's private sector, full-time students attending foreign schools, and nearly a tenth enrolled in Islamic religious schools, Singapore's public sector shortcomings with regard to ethnic and linguistic homogenization are clearly underscored.

Of course, no system is perfect and allowing private sector education to flourish and interact with public sector education demonstrates a certain open-mindedness on the part of government with regard to its own shortcomings. Unfortunately, it is those with money who are able to benefit most from that which the private sector provides, while everyone's tax dollars, on the other hand, go into supporting the shortcomings of public sector education.15 In order to see just how important this issue must be in Singapore, consider graph 67b (new window) in which the number of full-time and part-time private sector students is compared with public sector full-time enrolment at various levels of education. There are nearly as many students enrolled in the private sector as there are in Singapore's entire public system of secondary-level education!

What none of the data provided above tell us, however, is the effect Singapore's socially engineered, linguistically implemented attempt at ethnic homogenization has on overall language quality and communicability across ethnic groups and national boundaries. How Singapore's language program is instrumental in determining one's status in Singapore society, and what effect it is having in the home is nevertheless observable.

hong kong's bottom line (other sources of waste) | index

The will of Singapore's national elite
and Singapore's changing homefront

Graphs 69a and 69b (new windows) show us the effect on family households of making two second languages a prerequisite for passage through Singapore's mandatory public school system. Let us consider the English language (graph 69a - new window) first. Reading from right to left across each large ethnic group we observe a general rise in the proportion of people who speak English as their first language in the home. Notwithstanding only Singapore's ethnic South Asians demonstrate a monotonic increase with decreasing age. Though no explanation for the English speaking enthusiasm among South Asians can be deduced from this graph, certainly Singapore's South Asians have embraced the government's English language policy more whole heartedly than Singapore's other surrogate language groups.16 This trend among Singapore's English speaking South Asians is confirmed in graph 69b (new window), where we see a monotonic decline in so-called mother tongue speakers of Tamil with decreasing age.17 The opposite result for ethnic Chinese suggests that many Singaporean Chinese prefer speaking the same Chinese language over English -- namely, Mandarin.18 In contrast to both ethnic South Asians and Chinese, Malays appear dedicated to their mother tongue. One may suspect that what is taught in Singaporean schools as a mother tongue for Malays is truly a mother tongue for most of them.19 Moreover, Malay is the language of neighboring Malaysia.

Of course, being told that you must learn a second language and being provided with proper incentives to do so are two different matters. As English is the primary medium of instruction at all levels of education and an important key to passing one's PSLE and GCE N-, O-, and A-Level examinations, the incentive to learn English and learn it well are very clear. Unknown, however, are both the quality of the language that is taught and its distributed, real utility after one leaves school. We are only told that English is the language of government and business, but this same story is also told in Hong Kong. Obviously, what it means for the few and what it means for the many can be very different. This is important for two reasons: one, second language education can be an enormously wasteful use of resources; and two, if learning a second language only means getting ahead, then the incentive to learn disappears when getting a head is no longer possible or even probable. Since most Singaporeans must be affected by both of these issues, Singapore's incentive scheme is worth exploring further.


Language and social status

Let us turn first to academia itself. In graph 70a (new window) we observe a one-to-one correspondence between the level of academic qualification and the proportion of Chinese and Malay ethnic Singaporeans who claim English as their first language in the home. Only among Singapore's ethnic South Asians does this one-to-one correspondence break down, but only at the top of the academic hierarchy among a sub-population already quite dedicated to the English language. In graph 71a (new window) we see this same pattern repeated but with regard to dwelling type rather than academic qualification. As education (academic qualification) and wealth (size of one's dwelling) are two very important indicators of social status in any modern East Asian society, the direct relationship between English language use and one's social status in Singaporean society appears incontrovertible.

A closer look at both graphs offers additional insight about the probable outcomes of Singapore's language policy. In both graphs 70a and 71a (new window) we observe large gaps in the proportion of home users depending on the individual's level of education and wealth. Moreover, where these gaps occur depends on one's large ethnic group. Among the Malays, for example, there is a large gap between those with a university qualification and those without and between those who live in private flats and homes and those who do not. Notwithstanding the amount of English spoken in the home for all other Malays varies little with academic qualification and dwelling type. Among the ethnic Chinese, on the other hand, the proportion of those speaking English in the home varies greatly between those with and without a secondary or post-secondary, but no tertiary qualification. This same three-tiered phenomenon among ethnic Chinese is also found with regard to dwelling type.

A closer look at Singapore's Chinese ethnic community can be found in graphs 70b and 71b (new windows). In both graphs we observe the importance of English language use relative to other languages in the determination of academic qualification and dwelling type. Looking first to graph 70b (new window) and reading across qualification levels we observe what one might expect for those holding a university qualification. English ranks above Mandarin in importance, but Mandarin ranks above all other languages including one's true mother tongue (Chinese language). With regard to secondary and post-secondary training English takes a back seat to Mandarin, but so does one's own mother tongue. This high level of enthusiasm for speaking Mandarin (Singapore's designated mother tongue for ethnic Chinese), rather than one's true mother tongue, confirms our previous observation with regard to Chinese ethnic solidarity and probable political and social dominance (recall graph 61b - new window). A somewhat similar pattern can be observed in graph 71b (new window) with regard to dwelling type. Those who live in private flats and houses exhibit the same pattern as those who hold university degrees in graph 70b (new window), and everyone else with the exception of those living in the smallest dwelling prefer spoken Mandarin in the household.20

Graph 71c (new window) focuses on the government's three so-called mother tongues, and their relationship to large ethnic group and dwelling type. As expected from our previous discussion, with the exception of those few who hold university degrees (graph 70a - new window) and those who occupy private dwellings (graph 71c - new window), most Malays speak Malay in the home (see graph 69b - new window).21 Among the South Asian population the order of mother tongue speech with regard to dwelling is exactly opposite to what we find for English language and dwelling type (graph 71a - new window). Thus, with regard to wealth we observe a direct trade-off between the English language and Tamil -- the state administered mother tongue for South Asians.

  distillation and disposal plant (disposal) | index

Imperial dreamers or wishful thinkers
A good proxy for language quality in Singapore?

One way to evaluate the effective quality of Singapore's national language policy in the absence of solid research findings is to see what others have to say about the English language spoken in Singapore.22 Consider, for example, the following passage taken from the website of the US English Foundation, a Washington, D.C. education foundation devoted to the promotion of the English language in the United States and apparently the world at large:
Being Singaporean means being fluent in English, a language which serves both as a neutral medium for all ethnic groups and as the language of international business, science and technology.... Singaporean English, sometimes referred to as Singlish, differs from English in rhythm and intonation, stress patterns, vowel length and quality and sometimes also word order. It has taken in some features of Chinese and it has some distinctive discourse particles like lah, le and a, which are frequently used in Singlish.23
In short, there are likely few members of the US English Foundation that would tolerate having to listen to a speech from any but Singapore's best educated English speakers with substantial overseas experience.

In answer to its own question about whether language problem is a problem in Singapore, it offers the following:
No problems were found. One of Singapore's greatest strengths is its self-proclaimed 'unity through diversity' which is also represented by the co-existence of four official languages.... Of Interest is the issue of Singaporean identity. Singapore's leaders explicitly rejected the ideology of the 'melting pot', offering rather the vision of a confidently multi-ethnic society.24
Surely the Singapore government has good friends in Washington, D.C. who listen intently to what the government says and publishes on its departments' websites.

 Greenberg's diversity index (dialects are not languages) | index

Hong Kong
Neither Switzerland nor Singapore, and certainly not Japan

So, where does Hong Kong fit into the above picture? One can certainly claim that English is the lingua franca of Hong Kong, but Hong Kong is not a large, ethnically diverse country like Indonesia. Though Switzerland and Hong Kong are very similar in size, Hong Kong is not nearly as diverse and is not surrounded on all sides by a neighboring country each with a different national language. Although Hong Kong and Singapore are often viewed as close international competitors for the title of Asia's world city; despite many close parallels in their systems of education, there are also a large variety of important differences. Before taking a closer look, however, let us try to put things into a more general and objective perceptual framework.


Greenberg's Diversity Index25

Graph 56 (new window) compares Greenberg's diversity index for Hong Kong and the three countries discussed above: Indonesia, Switzerland, and Singapore. Among these four countries Indonesia demonstrates the greatest diversity and Hong Kong the least. A perfectly diverse society, as defined by Greenberg's index, is a society in which no two people speak the same language; a perfectly homogeneous society, on the other hand, is one in which everyone speaks the same language. As the index measures the likelihood of two randomly met people not being able to understand each other, a society with few language groups each with a large number of speakers is likely to register a higher level of diversity than a society with many language groups, but dominated by one language group with many speakers. The relative levels of diversity indicated in graph 56 (new window) can be readily visualized in graphs 51a (Singapore), 52a (Hong Kong), and 55 (Switzerland) -- new windows. What makes Hong Kong's Greenberg index so low is the absence of any significantly large minority groups. Even more homogeneous than the Greenberg index reveals, the largest minority language group in Hong Kong comprises ethnic, non-Cantonese speaking Chinese, who -- unlike their non-Chinese ethnic counterparts that must struggle with both the written and spoken word of their native hosts -- have little trouble with written Cantonese.

Graph 27 (new window) compares Hong Kong's Greenberg index with that of its principal trading partners and Singapore. Although Hong Kongers appear to be far more diverse than their British colonial mentors; in contrast with their other major trade partners Hong Kong is not a particularly diverse society demonstrating only slightly more linguistic diversity than Germany.

More important is where Hong Kong is likely headed in the future. In graphs 53 and 54 (new windows) we observe how the composition of Hong Kong's principal language groups changed over the ten year period 1991 to 2001. Although the number of Cantonese speakers has increased steadily over this period, as a proportion of the total population, the increase has been slight -- only 0.56 percent. In contrast, the proportion of English speakers increased by more than 45 percent. Notwithstanding, most of this increase took place just prior to the revision, when there was tremendous apprehension about the coming fate of Hong Kong society under Chinese sovereignty. Although this apprehension quickly dissipated after the reversion, it has not disappeared, as the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong is frequently a subject of dispute. Nevertheless, during the period 1996 to 2001 the proportionate increase of Hong Kongers claiming English as their usual language was a mere 3.12 percent (see graph 54 - new window). In sharp contrast the proportion of speakers of other Chinese languages declined steadily throughout the entire decade.

As the number of English speakers remains less than half the number non-Cantonese Chinese speakers, the large increase in the proportion of English speakers had little affect on the the overall diversity of the population. In fact, between 1991 and 2001 Greenberg's index for Hong Kong actually decreased from 0.207 to 0.200.


Imposition with insufficient justification

Let us now return to the four justifications for a government to impose a universal second language requirement on its citizens. Obviously Hong Kong is neither Indonesia nor Singapore, so it is difficult to understand why nearly 90 percent of all Hong Kongers must learn English in order to cater to the remaining, slightly over 10 percent, who do not speak Cantonese. This is especially true when one considers that more than half of these nonspeakers speak another Chinese language as their usual language (see graph 52a) - new window). Moreover, in 2001 the proportion of non-transient residents who usually spoke English barely accounted for more than 3 percent of Hong Kong's total resident population! Even if one adds to this number Hong Kong's highly concentrated, ever changing, transient tourist population, the results are little different, because more than two thirds of these tourists come from either Taiwan or the Chinese mainland. Furthermore, EARTH has estimated that the number of non-Chinese people (residents and nonresidents) in Hong Kong on any given day comes to just over 6 percent.26 Now, 430,000 people is no small number and is just about twice the number of Hong Kong's non-transient population who claim English as their usual language.27 Is this reason enough, however, for the remaining 6.5 million Hong Kongers to spend nearly 20% of their childhood in pursuit of the English language? Most probably not.

Moreover, with one Hong Konger claiming English as his usual language for every two non-Cantonese speaking resident and tourist, it appears that the communication gap has already been filled by Hong Kongers studying abroad. In 2001 there were 32,511 native Hong Kongers studying in a major English speaking country.28 If each of these Hong Kongers were to spend an average 2.8 years abroad, then there would be a sufficient number of Hong Kong workers to equal the number of Hong Kong residents who claim English as their usual language (see graph 76 and table 42 - new windows). Now compare this figure with the just under 950,000 students enrolled in Hong Kong's day-time primary and secondary public education system in 2001.29 There is an overkill of nearly 30 to 1.

In 2001 there were 76,718 secondary form V (see table 1b - new window) Hong Kong students attending a publicly certified day school and 29,202 students enrolled in a secondary form VII (see table 1b - new window) program. Of these secondary form VII students 14,575 entered into a UGC-funded Hong Kong university in 2001-2002; the remaining 14,627 students were barred entry.30

When a young Hong Konger enters into primary form I it is already known that he has a less than 20 percent chance of making it into a Hong Kong university. That his chances of making it into secondary form VII are less than 40 percent are also very apparent.31 Although these odds do not change for the average student during the long, nine- to eleven-year two from primary I to secondary forms III or V, they become knowingly and increasingly worse and better for all of those that deviate from the average over time. So much so, that nearly 20 percent of all secondary students do not even bother to sit for the HKCEE - Hong Kong's examination hurdle for entry into secondary form V.32 Indeed, if 20 percent are very certain that they will not pass, then are there not likely just as many who are fairly certain that they will? This means that when the remaining 60% of secondary form V students sit for the examination, they are competing for only the 20 percent remainder that is not already occupied by those who are relatively certain of passing. In effect, the chances of this remainder passing are already less than than the two in five odds that they started out with in primary one; rather, they are now only one in three. For many among these remaining 60% their odds of passing, after a full decade of study, examination, and opportunity for comparison with their peers, are obviously much worse. Thus, the only reasonable explanation that so many even bother to sit for the examination, is that they have already been sitting together for so long anyway that they might as well make the HKCEE their last stand together before parting ways. One can also imagine that many have been repeatedly duped by their parents and teachers into thinking that they have a chance of passing, when in fact they do not.33 What Hong Kong and Singapore children need at a very early age is a strong foundation in mathematical probability -- not phony mother tongues and useless second languages.

distillation and disposal plant (disposal) | index

Real Incentives and poor excuses
One can dictate
neither language nor allegiance

Despite the important differences in the amount of language and ethnic diversity between Singapore and Hong Kong both societies make mastery of the English language a prerequisite for entry into a locally administered and funded university. Although the paths by which one obtains entry into these institutions are different, the English entrance requirements and the various English language hurdles that must be jumped in order to sit for entrance examinations function very similarly. Moreover, in both systems secondary students are trained using English language texts no matter the medium of instruction. In short, in both societies the English language has been made the door to knowledge and through each society's government certification procedures, in many cases, also the door to the use of that knowledge.

Although similar information is not yet available for Hong Kong, the data from Singapore is clear: the English language has become Singapore's language of the elite and is gaining increasing acceptance among certain segments of society as Singapore's national language. Notwithstanding, Singapore is not Hong Kong, and no matter what the governments of either society do, neither can dictate the language that its members speak in the home, or for that matter, in the street.

As language is an important delimiter of group identity, and group identity is an important determinant of individual identity; ethnic and national identities are natural competitors for an individual's allegiance. Consequently, before an individual can reject his true mother tongue in favor of a government prescribed pseudo mother tongue or second language, governments must make allegiance to the societies they promote more attractive than the individual's allegiance to his own family, friends, and community -- namely, the societies delimited by one's true mother tongue. Governments can force individuals to choose between prison and fighting on an open battle field, and they can compel individuals to choose between learning a language and not in order to get ahead, but they cannot force individuals to abandon their true mother tongue and ethnic group, unless those individuals' mother, family, friends, and community believe that what their government promotes is truly better than the closer social network in which each individual is raised and is likely to spend much of his or her life.

Obviously school is that one place where government can best intervene to serve itself in the molding of citizens' attitudes towards government and the societies that governments seeks to promote. Nevertheless, individual attitudes change over time, and no matter what one is taught in school, unless the reality perceived by individuals out of school match the notions they are taught in school, no amount of image building on the part of government ministries, school administrators, and teachers will survive the onslaught of family living and daily life either before or after graduation. This is where language streaming suffers from important weaknesses with regard to the successful implementation of second languages as a medium of social discourse for the masses.

Who successfully makes it to the finish line in public education, and who does not, depends on two important factors -- namely, talent and reward. With regard to talent some of us are better endowed and trained to succeed in school than others. Not everyone who graduates from a university can make it in the world of business, government, and society at large, and many who fail to graduate from a university become far more successful after leaving school than those who complete their training at the top of their graduating class. In short, public school systems are institutions that mold certain individuals better than others.

With regard to individual reward public school systems are little different from other public systems and social institutions; they reward those who perform well and penalize those who do not. Those who are rewarded perform better and those who are penalized either correct their mistakes or perform worse. As the mistakes that are made are not always considered mistakes by those that make them, penalizing those who make them does not always lead to better performance even after they have been corrected. Thus, those who perform well in the system move forward, and those who perform poorly eventually, if not sooner, find their way to the door. As the people who serve the rewards are always found at a level above those who receive them, moving forward through the system also means moving upward through it. Who decides the material that are contained in the examinations, who selects the textbooks utilized in preparation for them, and who appoints the teachers that prepare students to pass and fail them all play important roles in who makes it to the top. These are topdown systems with hermetic recycling: information flows to the top and instructions to the bottom; what is learned is largely programmed by the same technocrats that the system produces. These self-perpetuating systems focus on technology as a means to control people and the world around them. Unlocking the mysteries of the universe, the human condition, and life itself, are only rewarding endeavors insofar as they bring notoriety to those who unlock them and a better means of control to those who fund them. In effect these systems can never be better than those who sit at the top, because it is the top that these systems are designed to serve and populate. Indeed, one way to understand these systems is to examine the amount of money spent per student at each level of education, for it is through the pyramiding of individual incentive that the competition is created that serves as the basis for the stifling, elite education that these distilleries of refined programmed intelligence effervesce at the top and belch out at the bottom.

Once again, let us put things into perspective at the outset. Graph 19 (new window) compares the proportion of total government money spent on education at each major scholastic level. The data provided are for Hong Kong's principal trade partners and Singapore and are organized by the amount spent on tertiary education. In ascending order from top to bottom Hong Kong is at the bottom as the largest single spender on tertiary education. In near descending order from top to bottom Hong Kong is also at the bottom as the smallest single spender on primary education. The proportion spent on secondary education is approximately the same for all societies. What makes Singapore and Hong Kong stand out most in this list is the order in which spending is prioritized in both societies -- namely, tertiary (largest), secondary, and primary (smallest).34 Greater detail for both Singapore and Hong Kong can be found in graphs 65, and 77 (new windows), respectively. In order to understand this data properly please keep in mind that government spending per student means little more than dividing the money spent at each level of education by the number of full-time equivalent students. By no means does it mean that this money is actually spent on each student's education. Certainly in Hong Kong, much tertiary spending goes into paying enormous faculty salaries, very generous expense accounts, expensive research equipment, and plush working environments not found at the primary and secondary levels. At the tertiary level the name of the game is publishing in acclaimed international journals, entertaining lectures that attract large numbers of undergraduate students and their parents' tuition money, cheap graduate student labor, and eventual graduation from a world famous institution -- not student education.

Now you may be asking yourself once again what any of this has to do with language quality. The answer is simple. Once a student is ejected from the system the incentive to learn the second languages imposed upon him while in school suddenly disappears. What is left is an unused tool of knowledge that is likely subject to substantial attrition for want of use. In short the only people who truly finish bilingual in these systems of education are those who make it all the way to the top, because it is only there where the incentive to utilize them remains after graduation. Primary among these people are management trainees and graduate students who will eventually occupy top positions in government, business, and academia.

Viewed from a slightly different perspective, the vast majority of the language training at the bottom is for the convenience of those at the top who depend on the language for their professional survival. In the first instance second language training serves as a filter that allows only those, who are able to master a second language, passage to the top; in the second, it frees the system's elite from having to learn their profession's terminology in their own native tongues. The tremendous waste in time, energy, and money for everyone else is, of course, only of concern to these systems' elite, insofar as they must look for phony excuses to justify their neglect. Unfortunately, they find all too eager ears in both the government and business sectors, where top management and government officials are busily courting investment capital from large multinationals looking for cheap, well-educated, overseas labor markets. That one could be more cheaply and better educated in one's own mother tongue is not an idea that is eagerly entertained by these elite. Thus, no one has bothered to measure either the waste or damage that necessarily results from second language academic distilling. To put it bluntly these are self-serving elite with a developmental agenda, who can afford to purchase whatever protection they need from the social and biological environments they destroy along the road to industrialization and international acclaim. What is worse, they are applauded by those below them, who measure their standard of living not by the quality of their social and biological environments, but by what they can look at through store windows, see at the cinema, watch on television, and read about in their own native language. Their share in the overall pie is small. Graphs 36b and 36c (new windows) bring this point home quickly. Each provides an international comparison that divides the annual incomes received by the top 10% and 20% income earners of each society by that of the bottom 10% and 20%, respectively. If this is not convincing enough evidence, look where Hong Kong and Singapore rate on the United Nations scale of human development (new window). As a high HDI rating indicates a poor rating, both Hong Kong and Singapore score poorly relative to their economic peers for the overall quality of life in their respective societies.

No, industrial and commercial development is not easy, but if one does not make periodic checks along the way to see where that development is leading society as a whole, much will be for not.35 The world we live in today cannot afford the waste of time and energy required to learn second languages that are used as little more than instruments of international vanity for the majority of our nations' citizenries. It is high time that the government elites of East Asia's tigers take note. The 19th century ended in East Asia when Japan was defeated in the middle of the 20th century. The need for every child to master English as his first second language is neither necessary nor possible -- at least not for the moment (see English: Bridge or Barrier).

Although there are a great number of globalists promoting what one might call global culture, as a proportion of the world's population the culture they are promoting applies to only a handful of people. What is worse, this culture is often self-serving and ignores the needs of those who are exploited by it (see Language as Medium: A two-layered cake with icing and a linguistic partition).



Although no society ever stops developing, at some point in time a developing society becomes a developed society and must shed the skin of its developmental past. Although many Hong Kongers and Hong Kong's many visitors tend to view Hong Kong as a developed society, its current UEL requirement has all the trappings of a developing state. In its rush to import technology from others and establish itself as a credible exporter of new knowledge, it has failed to develop its own language as a means of knowledge transfer and development within itself.  Although the short term political and economic motivation for this policy is all too clear, the long term opportunity it is foregoing is enormous. Rather than providing a beacon of knowledge for all of China by making this technology available to all Chinese, it has pushed forward as would a small nation whose language is largely unknown, and whose expected return on making the world's knowledge available in its own language phenomenally small.

No, there is no vision in Hong Kong's Education and Manpower Bureau -- just outdated developmental bureaucracy.


1 These numbers appear to be rough estimates and were not all obtained at the same time; nevertheless, they do provide a general picture of Indonsesia's language diversity and the hopeless situation in which the Indonesian government would be, if a common second language were not taught. Sources: Ethnoglogue. Languages of Indonesia. [online document]. Also, United States Library of Congress. Country Study: Indonesia. (see Indonesia's languages and Indonesian (new window) for online source and article). (text)
2 Ethnologue. Languages of Singapore [online document] and Languages of Switzerland [online document] (06 March 2004). (text)
3 According to Ethnologue there were 4,215,000 Alemannisch speakers and 1,272,000 French speakers reported in the United Nations' 1998 Census report. 4,215,000 / 7,299,000 = 0.578 = 57.8% and 1,272,000 / 7,299,000 = 0.174 = 17.4%. Then 0.578 + 0.174 = 0.752 = 75.2%. Source: Ethnologue. Languages of Switzerland. [online document] (08 March 2004) (text)
4 Source: Ethnologue. Lombard: a language of Italy. [online document] (06 March 2004) (text)
5 Ibid. According to Ethnologue there were 40,000 Rheto-Romance speakers reported in the Swiss 1990 Census. Thus, 40,000 / 7,299,000 = 0.0055 = 0.55 or 0.6%. (text)
6 Allemanisch differs considerably from standard German in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar; nevertheless, standard German is what is taught in schools where Alemmanisch is the primary language. For many German Swiss either standard German or Alemmanisch is the medium of instruction. By way of further example Lombardic Swiss learn Italian as their first national language and either French or German as their second national language. Thus, for Lombardic Swiss both their first and second national languages are acquired as second languages. (text)
7 Source:
The Swiss Education Server/The Swiss Education System [online documents] (07 March 2004) This information was obtained under the headings Course Content/What is Learned? for the following categories: Pre-School Level, Primary Level, Lower Secondary Level, and Upper Secondary Level. Additional information was obtained under the heading Statistics wherever provided. (text)
8 Source: Ethnologue. Languages of Singapore [online document] (07 March 2004). In 1993 there were approximately 1,799,000 speakers of a Chinese language. Among these approximately 609,000 spoke a Chinese language other than Min Nan. Summing across each Chinese and non-Chinese language group obtains 2,129,452 Singaporean. Dividing 609,000 into 2,129,452 yields 0.286 or 28.6%. This is approximately 30% of the total population. Note: As the data provided by ethnologue are drawn from different time periods these figures are necessarily rough estimates of the true situation. (text)
9 The large pinkish orange wedge in graph 51b (new window) represents the Baba-Malay. Taking large portions of this pie wedge and adding them to the Chinese Yue, Min Nan, and English ethnic populations yields a pie graph very similar to that found in graph 51a (new window). Caution: The data used to construct these pie graphs were obtained from As such, the years in which it was obtained do not always match, and can be different sometimes by even more than a decade. (text)
  Eighty percent of a child's classroom hours are spent learning English, a so-called mother tongue, and mathematics. Singapore Government. Ministry of Education, Planning Division, Management Information and Research Branch. Education Statistics Digest 2002. Moulding the future of our nation. Overview of the education system. Primary education, pp. v-vi. (text)
11 Apparently the Singapore government refers to these four streams as courses. Although one distinguishes between normal tech and normal art students by subject matter, the distinction between special, express, and normal is clearly one of continued streaming. Only those students,
who enter into the special and express streams, and a small number of normal students who do well on the GCE N-Level examination and study for an additional 5th year, are allowed to sit for the GCE O-Level examination. The O-Level examination is a crucial hurdle on the way to Singapore's three national universities. Source: Singapore Government. Ministry of Education, Planning Division, Management Information and Research Branch. Education Statistics Digest 2002. Moulding the future of our nation. Overview of the education system. Secondary education, pp. vi. (text)
12 Ibid. (text)
13 In addition to the GCE O-Level examination is the GCE N-Level examination that when passed entitles some students to an additional year of secondary school training and a chance to sit for the O-Level examination. See graph 60. (text)
14 Graph 19 (new window) compares how public money is distributed across the primary, secondary, and tertiary sectors of Hong Kong's principal trade partners and Singapore. Careful observation shows that both Singapore and Hong Kong spend extraordinarily little at the primary level where the general public is best served and extraordinarily large amounts at the top where only the elite benefit. Spending at the secondary level is fairly similar across all countries. Though one can justify such an arrangement insofar as the top serves the bottom through better guidance for the majority, in democracies of the elite such as Hong and Singapore, the voices at the bottom are largely ignored. (text)
15 Why East Asian governments behave in this way can be explained by the fact that people with money have better means to cause trouble for government, and would likely do so, if the private sector alternatives were not made available. People without money may complain, but their cries go unheard, because they have no means to make good on them. (text)
16 The absence of a monotonic increase with decreasing age among English speaking Chinese and Malays, or alternatively its presence among English speaking South Asians may be explained by demographic migration factors. Without further research, however, it is difficult to say. (text)
17 Unlike the linguistically highly diverse ethnic Chinese who have much to gain by mobilizing around the Mandarin language (see footnote 18), the equally diverse South Asians may see little value in speaking Tamil. As South Asians are the smallest group among Singapore's three large ethnic groups, who would listen to them, even if they did unite. Thus, there may be little to gain by everyone learning Tamil. (text)
18 It may be that ethnic Chinese view the consolidation of so many Chinese languages and dialects into a single language -- namely, Mandarin -- as an act of empowerment. They may see a beneficial trade-off between sacrificing their true mother tongue and preserving their Chinese way of life. With everyone speaking a different Chinese language it would be more difficult to promote their own cross-cultural political agenda. In addition, they may see their own future in Singapore closely tied to China's growing economic and political prominence in East Asia and the world as a whole. (text)
19 Not only are Malays the original inhabitants of Singapore, but their mother tongue is very close to the national languages of Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore's very large and important neighbors. (text)
20 To the extent that we are viewing census, rather than statistically derived data, small difference between the values of different populations for the same variable can be accepted as valid without concern for statistical significance. (text)
21 Although nothing has demonstrated that those living in private dwellings are the same as those holding university degrees, general knowledge and common sense about East Asia would suggest that they are indeed one and the same. (text)
22 Government and university websites were carefully searched for data regarding language quality. None were found. (text)
23 US English Foundation, Inc. [online document] (March 2004) Research/Official Language Policies Around the World/Official Language Research/Asia/Singapore/Language in everyday life. (text)
24 Ibid. Research/Official Language Policies Around the World/Official Language/Research/Asia/Singapore/Language issues. (text)
25 Greenberg, Joseph H. 1956. The measurement of linguistic diversity. Language, vol. 32, 1, March. (text)
26 The calculation can be found in footnote #28 (new window) of the subsection entitled Language as Tool. (text)
27 According to Hong Kong's 2001 census 3.2 percent of all Hong Kong residents claim English as their usual language (see graph 52a - new window). In 2001 the non-transient resident population of Hong Kong was tallied at 6,724,900 (see Language as Tool, footnote #20 - new window). Thus, 6,724,900 X 0.032 = 215,197 or approximately 215,000 residents. (text)
In 2001 there were 32,511 Hong Kongers studying abroad in major overseas English speaking countries. Source: EARTH. HKLNA-Project Proposal. Understanding the nature, cause, magnitude, and direction of English language attrition in Hong Kong society - Measurement and assessment. [online document - pdf 1.4 MB] Appendix I, Figure 10 - Overseas enrolment 1990 to 2001, p. 74. (text)
29 The exact total was 949,530. Source: Hong Kong Department of Education (Recently consolidated under the Education and Manpower Bureau). Planning and Research Division. Statistics Section. Enrolment Statistics 2001. April 2002. Table 3.1 - Classes, accommodation, enrolment, and repeaters in primary day schools by grade, 1992-2001, 49. Also, Table 4.1 - Classes, accommodation, enrolment, and repeaters in secondary day schools by grade, 1992-2001, 81. (text)
30 University Grants Committee. FTE student enrolment of UGC-funded programmes 1995/96 to 2001/02. (text)
31 In 2001 there were 77,532 Hong Kongers enrolled in primary form I. The average number for the period 1992-2000 was 74,981. Dividing
29,202 into 77,532 yields 0.377 = 37.7%. Dividing 14,575 into this same number obtains 0.188 =  18.8%. Under the assumption that what a primary form I students faces in 2001 will be similar to what he will face by the time he reaches secondary forms V and VII, then his chances of obtaining entry into secondary form V and a Hong Kong university are actually less than 40% and 20%, respectively. Source: See table 1b (new window). (text)
32 HKEAA. 1978 to 2002. HKCEE Exam Reports. Age distribution of school candidates sitting the examination. Though several volumes were missing when I last went, copies of these reports can be obtained at the Hong Kong Central Library. Also, see
HKLNA-Project Proposal. Understanding the nature, cause, magnitude, and direction of English language attrition in Hong Kong society - Measurement and assessment. [online document - pdf 1.4 MB] Appendix I, Figure 1 - HKCEE school candidates at ages 16, 17, and 18, p. 65. (text)
33 Compulsory education is just that compulsory. As such teachers and parents must be inventive in order to provide children with sufficient motivation to see it through to the end. (text)
34 Government spending here refers to both current and capital expenditure. Also, there are other categories of education money that cannot be neatly classified in those provided. In the case of Hong Kong and Singapore these categories likely include post-secondary education in sub-degree programs at
colleges and universities in Hong Kong, and similar programs in Singapore's polytechnics and junior colleges. Government spending on pre-primary education is included with primary education for all societies. See table 17 (new window) for the exact figures. (text)
35 In August 2003
Chris Wardlaw, the Deputy Secretary for Curriculum and Quality Assurance, Education and Manpower Bureau, Hong Kong Special Adminstrative Region, China was presented with a proposal to explore the degree to which language attrition is taking place in Hong Kong society. In September 2003 that proposal was rejected. What the government unwisely chose to do instead is outlined in the EARTHs' Viewpoint under the heading Hong Kong's Window Dressers (pdf document - 40KB). To its partial credit it has more recently undertaken a large study of Hong Kong's need for enhanced Putonghua training. Unfortunately, this will do nothing to alleviate the problem of artificially created excess demand for the English language and the poor quality of English language proficiency among Hong Kongers that has necessarily resulted. (text)
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