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Shanghai English learners outscore Hong Kong

The Financial Times November 30, 2014

People learning English in Shanghai have scored higher in fluency tests than those in the rival financial centre of Hong Kong for the first time, according to a study ranking proficiency in the language in 63 countries worldwide.

Rivalry between Hong Kong and the mainland has been highlighted recently during weeks of civil disobedience in protest against China’s plans for the introduction of a restrictive form of universal suffrage in the territory. However, tensions between the sister societies are not just political. Some Hongkongers deride mainland visitors as “locusts” who overcrowd the city, contribute to the world’s highest housing prices and even in some cases allow toddlers to urinate in public – a practice that clashes with social norms in the former British colony.

Until recently Hong Kong had the edge when it came to speaking English, the language of global business and still one of the territory’s two official languages. But since the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, Hong Kong schools no longer teach mainly in English and proficiency has slipped.

“The growing middle class in China recognises the . . . importance of English as China’s economy internationalises,” according to a study published on Wednesday by EF Education First, a subsidiary of the global group Education First. “Therefore it has invested heavily in private English training. Also, China sends more students abroad” – and most of them go to English-speaking countries.

Between 2007 and 2013, proficiency in English declined among Hong Kong adults tested by EF, while it improved in the mainland. And although Hong Kong continues to outscore the mainland as a whole, the study finds that adults in Shanghai have higher English proficiency than those in the former British colony, while those in Beijing and Tianjin score as well as their Hong Kong counterparts.

EF says the national results of its tests, which are taken online, may not equate with spoken English proficiency of the man on the street in either Hong Kong or Shanghai. Those tested are self-selected; EF calculates a country’s average adult English skill level using data from two tests completed by hundreds of thousands of adults every year – one a test for enrolment in English courses and another a free test open to any internet user.

Most English-speaking residents of both cities report anecdotally that it remains easier to use English in Hong Kong than in Shanghai.

Shanghai is seeking to rival Hong Kong as a global financial centre – and the English fluency of its labour pool will be key to that. But Simon Lance of Hays, the global recruitment company, in Shanghai said: “Hong Kong candidates are still perceived to have some strong advantages in mainland China.”

And Jennifer Feng, chief human resources expert at 51job, a leading mainland employment agency, says that “although Chinese students nowadays can score higher than Hong Kong students on English tests, they don’t have the same environment that Hong Kong students have for using English extensively in daily life”.

Zhu Jisong, lecturer of College of Foreign Languages and Literature at Fudan University, agrees.

“I personally doubt the conclusion of the EF study with my own experience in Hong Kong and Shanghai. In Hong Kong, many urban functions are still highly dependent on English signs while it is not the case in Shanghai. The impact of the century-long colonial history cannot be ignored.”

Ms Feng believes language no longer matters as much as it once did. “Overall, the advantage of language skills in applying for jobs is actually weakening as more and more employers believe language skills can be picked up naturally and quickly but knowledge and other skills that are suitable for the particular position matter more,” she said.

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