English or languish - Probing the ramifications
of Hong Kong's language policy
Part IA - Demography and language
Part IB - Economy and language
Part II - The theoretical case for distortion
Part IIIA - Probable waste - Learning
Part IIIB - Probable waste - Instruction
Part IV - Hong Kong’s UEL requirement
Part V - Conclusion
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Apple and Other Users
As the language of a former colonial power and an important language of global trade, world government, and regional cooperation English plays a controversial role in the education systems of many countries. For this reason considerable prejudice towards the language, both positive and negative, has developed. The purpose of this section is to overcome these prejudices by introducing you to a few important facts about Hong Kong English and society.
Every Hong Kong child must study the English language close to 20 hours a week for a minimum of nine years. The vast majority of Hong Kongers study the language for at least eleven years. A smaller number study English 13 years, and still fewer study it another three at a Hong Kong university. Still, many secondary graduates find it difficult to hold even a simple conversation in English, and many of those who graduate from a Hong Kong university possess only modest oral and written ability.
Demography and Language
There are many reasons for a government to want to provide its people with a common language. One can only wonder, though, why a government would seek to provide its people with a common language different from the one they already have -- nearly 90% of all Hong Kongers speak Cantonese.
More than twice the number of Hong Kong residents enter Hong Kong every year as tourists. On any given day, however, these tourists do not make up 4% of the entire population of Hong Kong -- including the tourists! More importantly, the majority of these money wandering passers-by come from the Chinese mainland and Taiwan. Indeed, nearly 95% of all Hong Kong residents and tourists speak a Chinese language, and nearly 90% of all Hong Kong residents speak Cantonese. Moreover, among those nations of the world that claim English as their primary language, Australia and New Zealand are Hong Kong's closest neighbors -- many thousands of miles away!
The value of Hong Kong's external economy is four times larger than its domestic economy. This means that Hong Kongers are trading far more than they produce. Accordingly, of what Hong Kongers do produce very little is exported that does not service the external economy. As only a quarter of all Hong Kong economic activity is devoted to the external economy, the remaining three quarters of activity is devoted to Hong Kongers serving other Hong Kongers.
This section takes a careful look at Hong Kong's external economy and provides unique insight into Hong Kong's information technology and telecommunication (IT&T) industry. Yes, there are many reasons why the English language is important to Hong Kong, but like other important market commodities, the importance of the English language is relative and must be weighed against a myriad of other domestic and external wants and needs.
The Theoretical Case for Distortion
Language competency is something that we acquire over time from a variety of different sources. In order to acquire it we expend time, energy, and money, and thus incur important opportunity costs that can be measured. Once acquired we can sell our knowledge, talent, and skills on the open market in the form of labour services of varying quality. It is in this light that we can speak of an industry and a market for languages and seek to model them.
As a primary source of language education and certification governments around the world play an important role in the supply of language to the market place. Governments are also primary users. Through their education policies governments influence the variety, quality, and ubiquity of language in society as a whole and have a major impact on the structure of language markets. In order to formulate and implement effective language policies this role must be clearly understood.
This model demonstrates the perverse effect that universal second language requirements can have on the efficient allocation of human resources in the absence of true demand. Although this model can be applied to many places of the world, for the purpose of presentation Hong Kong's universal English language (UEL) requirement is the focus of analysis.
For whatever good the English language can bring to Hong Kong and East Asia, in general, one must weight the costs against the benefits of its acquisition.
These costs are not simply the enormous amount of money spent each year by East Asian governments in teaching the language to their nation's citizens, in particular, youth, but also the sacrificed opportunity to each student or adult compelled to study the language -- not necessarily learn it -- in order to satisfy government mandated education or professional requirements.
Though many excuses are given for requiring the learning of the language, the bottom line is that many other things are sacrificed in the process. In the end, unless students can make use of the language in their daily lives, learning the language is a tremendous waste. Just how wasteful it can be, both to the individual and society as a whole, is estimated in this section.
This waste is estimated for both the absence and presence of artificial demand created by the government.
Will be made available on a DVD after all other sections have been reformatted.
One can know how effective is a government's language policy by simply interacting with the people brought up under that policy. In order to understand why a policy fails to achieve its objectives, however, one must look more deeply.
This section examines the results of two recent attempts on the part of the Hong Kong government to measure its own progress toward achieving stated policy objectives. In particular it examines the results of a recent survey of primary and secondary school student movitation towards language acquisition and university student language test scores. As the results are not particulary good a careful examination of Hong Kong's language and education policies are examined as a function of current socio-economic conditions and the educational system in place. This examination makes use of international data bases related to income inequality and the quality of life, as well as Hong Kong's education budget and teachers' payroll incentives. Also, tapped are locally generated primary labor market employment and wage data, secondary school test results, and domestic and overseas school enrolment figures,
If the only thing you know about Hong Kong is its sleek waterfront, high international test scores in mathematics and science, and what the Hong Kong government tells, you are in for a real eye-opener.
Yes, the English language is important to the Hong Kong economy, but importance is relative and should be measured, not dictated by governmental decree. Quicktime