Last week (8 June), the South China Morning Post published two articles about the use of English in government: "Official use of English being 'neglected' by Hong Kong government” and “The Hong Kong Government’s Language Barrier”. Each of them raised the question of whether government officials are deliberately ignoring or sidelining English, thus contributing to steadily declining English standards in the government.
Cygnet has been providing English editing, copywriting and training services to various government departments for many years. Based on our experience, I think it is certainly the case that many government figures — and departments — are failing to lead by example. But while some commentators are quick to give this a political slant, we should not forget that maintaining a high level of proficiency in English among non-native speakers is not easy. In my view, a significant part of the problem is the fact that the government does not have any consistent formal support framework for sustaining the use of confident, accurate English across the Civil Service.
1) There is no centralised office responsible for liaising English language issues, overseeing English matters, and providing authoritative advice for various Government departments. The closest responsible body is perhaps the Official Languages Division (from which the SCMP sought clarification about government language policy), but in my experience the OLD acts primarily as a translation unit and does not itself have a consistent internal English usage policy in place.
2) There is no centralised Style & Usage Guide available for government writers of English. As a result, English practice varies hugely from department to department, and even within departments, at such basic levels as British versus American spelling usage. Furthermore, there is little awareness of the Plain English principles which have transformed government writing for the better in countries like the UK and the US in recent decades.
3) There is no dedicated English-language training unit. The Civil Service Training & Development Institute (CSTDI) under the Civil Service Bureau does offer a small number of cross-departmental English language courses, but these are voluntary and often insufficient to meet demand. There is no cross-departmental liaised programme of English language training in government. In short, it is difficult for many government employees to obtain satisfactory English training from their employer.
Regardless of issues about political will in the use of English, the fact is that government writers lack consistent, centralised resources, adequate training, and access to an authoritative arbiter on matters of grammar and usage. If the government wishes to improve the quality and frequency of its English use, then addressing these three key issues could make a big difference to the standard of government English in Hong Kong at relatively little cost.
About this blog
This blog arises from keeping an eye on English in Hong Kong. I often use signs, notices and advertisements that I see as starting points to write about English issues that commonly challenge Hong Kong writers.