For decades, the running as to who in Asia speaks the best English has tended to involve two main contenders – Singapore and Hong Kong.
Both have a tight historical relationship with English and use it as one of their official languages. Both lay claim to being Asia’s leading business hub.
But while English proficiency is surging in Singapore, Hong Kong is falling painfully behind.
Indeed, a new global study by the language group Education First (EF) for the first time puts Singapore in the highest proficiency band, alongside countries like Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands.
The EF English Proficiency Index, which measures skills in non-native English-speaking countries, put Singapore at number 6, the first Asian country ever to enter the top ten.
“The big news is that Singapore for the first time has broken in to the top ten. That’s quite remarkable,” Minh Tran, research director of EF, the world’s largest private educator, said in an interview in Hong Kong.
The study pulled its results from almost one million people in 72 different countries who took a free online English test.
Hong Kong, meanwhile, placed 30th. Five years ago it was ranked 12th. Although the number of sampled countries was fewer back then, Hong Kong actually got a lower score this year than it did in 2011.
Several other Asian countries also beat the former British colony: Malaysia, the Philippines, India and South Korea. In fact, even the French now speak better English than Hongkongers.
How good is your English? Take the test here.
Hong Kong is focused on root learning and repetition. A survey from last year showed that Hong Kong primary school students spend more time doing homework than their counterparts in Singapore. But the number of hours spent both in classrooms and doing homework doesn’t create smarter children – quite the opposite. The quality of schooling is more important that the number of hours, Minh Tran said.Minh Tran said the growing gap between Singapore and Hong Kong not only boils down to education, but to smart education.
It might sound like an obvious thing to blame, but you would be surprised by the high number of Hong Kong parents who compel their kids – some from the age of just three or four years old – to spend hour after hour each day immersed in tedious, mind-numbing study instead of going out to play or interacting with other children.
“It’s not about drill and kill. It’s not about memorizing. It’s not about grammar or vocabulary”
“In Hong Kong, children start to learn English in kindergarten and then study for some 12 years. But often when they finish, they can’t communicate in English,” Minh Tran said.
He explained how he has sat in on English classes in local schools in Hong Kong to observe the system. He has witnessed entire English classes being taught in Cantonese, the native Chinese language of south China.
“This is wrong from so many perspectives”, he said, shaking his head. “In Singapore you would not see that.”
His advice to parents who wants to boost their kids’ English skills is to engage them in a natural English environment. It’s better for kids to play with English speaking friends, or watch films and listen to music in English, than to spend hour upon hour doing monotonous copying work.
“It’s not about drill and kill. It’s not about memorizing. It’s not about grammar or vocabulary. These parts are naturally important building parts, but you will get those naturally if you are exposed to the language,” he said.
“Just think about your first language – how did you learn that? Not in school, right? You learned it by being exposed to it.”
There’s also a difference in the quality of teachers, he argues.
“Singaporean teachers are just so much stronger than elsewhere. They are really top-notch. They are being well-paid, and working as a teacher is one most prestigious jobs in the country,” he said.
“Before the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, people spoke better English. Now more schools focus on teaching Mandarin”
“In Hong Kong, even if we have the Confucian tradition of respect for your teacher, the profession is not seen as a very desirable job. It’s a job you get if you can’t get more desirable jobs – banking, consulting, doctor, lawyer.”
Some blame Hong Kong’s mediocre English skills on the rise of Mandarin, the standard language of mainland China.
“Before the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, people spoke better English. Now more schools focus on teaching Mandarin,” said one British PR consultant who was born in Hong Kong. “Maybe it makes sense, but it’s shortsighted. With Chinese you can do business in China; with English everywhere.”
The Netherlands was ranked number 1 in the EF English Proficiency Index, and was followed by four Nordic countries: Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland. Iraq, Libya and Laos came in last.
China was ranked in the low proficiency band, at 39th. Japan has dropped from moderate to low proficiency, coming in at 35th, which “highlights the country’s struggle to implement sustainable English education programs,” the report said.
The education company concludes in the report that English is a key component of economic competitiveness at both the individual and national levels. Higher English proficiency correlates with higher incomes, better quality of life, more dynamic business environments, greater connectivity and more innovation.
“On the individual level, English has the potential to generate opportunities, strengthen employability, and expand horizons,” it said.
That’s a message at least the Singaporeans should able to read.
Non-native English speaking countries, 2016 rankings
VERY HIGH PROFICIENCY
16 Czech Republic
23 Dominican Republic
26 Bosnia & Herzegovina
27 South Korea
30 Hong Kong
38 Costa Rica
VERY LOW PROFICIENCY
58 Sri Lanka
Source: EF English Proficiency Index 2016
How good is your English? Take the test here.