10/08/2012 11:14 am ET Updated Dec 08, 2012

The Importance of English

Hong Kong's English level is on the decline. Most people in Hong Kong know this, and treat it as yet another post-97 reality. Even worse, some educators and young people regard it with a shrug, as they question the importance of English. Disclaimer here: the young people I am referring to include some journalism students I've encountered.

"Why do we need to bother with English, most places that are hiring only need Cantonese or Putonghua (otherwise known as Mandarin Chinese)," one student asked me. And once again I found myself on the soap box repeating the mantra that, "a strong command of English opens up more opportunity." Yada yada yada.

Simply put, many young people don't see the point of polishing their English, much less speaking it at all.

The English level of so-called Generation Y (those born in the 80s or 90s) is on a whole mediocre at best, especially when compared to their parents generation when the education system was more traditional or old-school. The travel agent can barely understand me. The bank teller asks me to please speak Mandarin. A cell phone salesperson struggles with sentence structure and finally says, "My English is poor, can you speak Cantonese or Mandarin." My survival Cantonese is a notch above his English.

The Mandarin speaking population is on the uptick, Mandarin is now mandatory in schools, and English slowly but steadily has taken a backseat to the practicality of Hong Kong under Mainland China.

The irony is that English plays a crucial role if Hong Kong is to remain robust.

How is English tied to Hong Kong's future and fate? Try a free press. International news organizations such as CNN, Thomson Reuters, Bloomberg, and the big newspapers will want to hire trilingual reporters who can culturally and linguistically blend into Mainland China and Hong Kong.

By strengthening their English, young journalists in Hong Kong will be well prepared to tell more balanced and in-depth stories of what is happening in this region. The alternative is spending a career writing for the local Hong Kong media and press, which is undoubtedly pro-Beijing and headed by pro-Beijing chief editors. Right now the only newspaper with enough chutzpah to print anti-Beijing stories is Jimmy Lai's "Apple Daily." The rest have been seemingly subdued into either skirting away from controversial stories or churning out pseudo propaganda.

And even if they don't want to pursue journalism, at the very least a strong command of English makes them competitive globally. They could choose to work for a multinational company, try living overseas and to compete locally for jobs that young Mainland Chinese are going after.

Yes, the Mainlanders are a lot savvier when it comes to English. They take any opportunity to flex their English language muscle. They understand that English is a necessity to compete at a global level. They are motivated. One young woman in my class learned her American-accented English by watching Disney movies (now that's impressive). A young man in my PhD class greeted me by telling me he hoped we could only converse in English since he wanted more opportunity to practice. The young man was certainly aggressive, but hey he gets it. And that's wise.