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The Language Barrier in Hong Kong

I would like to take this opportunity to address a topic which is becoming more of an issue in Hong Kong – the English language skills of the local construction industry as this will balance the regular requirement or preference for Cantonese language skills that is well known about.

According to the Basic Law of Hong Kong, English and Chinese (Cantonese) are the official languages of Hong Kong. With this simple statement, it could be concluded that the population of Hong Kong has a decent level of English skills (spoken, written and reading). By and large, this is often true. However, in comparison to a lot of other East Asian countries, Hong Kong can be seen to be trailing behind. This is somewhat strange as Hong Kong is a former British colony with English being the sole official language up until 1974.

Education First’s English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) took a survey in 2011 which revealed that most adults in Hong Kong took Mandarin language skills as precedent over English. However, it should be noted that there is a lot more pressure for Hong Kong locals to learn English to a native, fluent standard as opposed to such countries like Singapore or Malaysia. For the Hong Kong population to be fluently tri-lingual (Cantonese, Mandarin and English), large amounts of time must be dedicated in primary and secondary education systems to achieve this. 

Throughout my time as a bi-lingual construction industry recruiter in Hong Kong, there have been many occasions where candidates are uncomfortable speaking English and requested to continue conversations in Cantonese. This is not automatically a bad thing as it is perfectly normal to want to speak in one’s mother tongue given the opportunity to do so.  However, as a recruiter, demonstrating a reluctance to actually demonstrate you are in fact bilingual would influence where I may choose to send a candidate’s CV.  For example a candidate with poor English skills in some skill sets may not fit into an international main contractor where most of the senior management might be expats and English is expected to be the primary language of communication. It is also worth noting that from a career options point of view, a candidate with excellent English skills will not be restricted to a career in Hong Kong only, but can also gain opportunities overseas to progress further in the field or escape regional construction recessions by working overseas when necessary or desired.

In summary, I would note that in a broadly bilingual environment such as Hong Kong, construction professionals that speak only English or only Cantonese may both limit their career options, especially in the current construction boom where versatile and highly skilled staff are needed to work, often in international joint venture consortia to international standards and across cultural and language barriers.

Donald Leung

Maxim Recruitment
Hong Kong & Asia Region

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