Author and renowned educational academic Professor Keith Morrison recently gave an illuminating and topical breakfast briefing for the British Business Association in Macau – his subject, ‘Rewiring Macau’s English’. His talk examined the value placed on English in Macau, the English proficiency in the workplace here, and the challenges and how businesses can meet these challenges.
Studies show that there is a relationship between low proficiency in English and areas of low performance such as individual earning power and quality of life (World Bank). In terms of GDP per capita however, Macau stands third highest in the world after Luxembourg and Switzerland. (This positioning is undoubtedly inflated by income from our gaming operations that underpin most of what Macau is about, coupled with our small population size).
So, whilst the GDP per capita is extremely high in Macau, English proficiency remains relatively low. In the World EPI (English Proficiency Index) rankings, 2017, (Education First (EF): www.ef.com/epi) Macau ranked 42 out of 80 countries, and except for one, is in the lowest category in English proficiency – lower than China (36/80), Japan (37/80) and Taiwan (40/80). In the EPI rankings in Asia, Macau comes 12th out of 20 countries.
Why do we care whether the standards of English are high or low in Macau? The answer is simple: there’s no disputing that English is still THE language of international business. If Macau wants to be an international player (as is so often mooted – we don’t want to rely solely on tourists from across the border – we want to attract more international visitors) then standards of English need to improve.
Morrison highlighted a number of challenges facing English in Macau:
- English is not an official language of Macau: a status matter.
- English and high quality English are not needed for many jobs: a demand matter.
- Employers are fishing in a small pool (very low rates of unemployment) of a pool of poor English speakers, and sometimes have to accept poor English speakers: a supply and demand matter.
- Employment with poor English is easy to find in Macau: a politico-economic matter.
- English is regarded by some employees as difficult, boring and unnecessary: an attitudinal matter.
- Poor quality English is accepted and credentialized in educational institutions: an achievement/performance/standards matter.
- Whilst English is needed, Mandarin currently may be needed more: a regional demand matter.
Morrison’s answer to improving the standards of English is to target what is taught at school, from kindergarten right up to higher education.
“Low levels of English place a burden on employers. There is a need for downstream repair instead of upstream prevention. Whilst not discrediting the hardworking teachers and students, it’s a problem that reaches down to the start of education where a low level of English in primary and kindergartens is tolerated,” he explains. “The children can recite rules of grammar better than a native speaker, but can’t put it into their own sentences, there’s no authentic language generation. In kindergartens there should be diagnostic examination at entry, annually and at exit – it’s NOT happening in Macau. External regular benchmarking in English at our schools is needed”.
How can the business community help? If businesses follow what Morrison refers to as the ‘Optimism of idealism’ and increase their entry standards, because they are fishing in a small pool and a pool of low talent in English, employers will simply not get the staff. So the alternatives are to support and develop those that they are recruiting.
Again, Morrison offers a number of strategies, including providing ongoing compulsory English training inside office hours with external standards to be reached and incentives offered; and recognition of achievement, rewards, incentives, including English achievement/assessment in performance appraisal, performance-related pay and promotion.
The aim is to move from a vicious circle to virtuous circle – from low standards, low competence, limited externality and low expectations, to high standards, communicative competence, external recognition and high expectations.
The linguistic capital of being able to speak English opens doors in many nations where English is not the first language; if you want to excel in business, invariably English skills are required.
“But let not the perfect get in the way of the good,” Morrison stresses. Basic English communication skills could be adequate; fluency may not be relevant in Macau because of different business needs.
And it’s not all bad news for English. According to a recent Macau census on language used at home, (based on population aged 3 and above) from 2001 to 2016, English-speaking at home rose from 13% to 27%. Interesting to note that Cantonese dropped from 94% to 87%, and Mandarin rose from 26% to 50%.