MB March | The English patient in Macau

I recently shared an elevator with a higher education (HE) student from Macau. ‘How are you?’ I asked; back came the answer with a smile: ‘I am fine’. ‘A bit stilted’, I thought, but so far, so good, more or less. ‘What are you studying?’ I asked. Silence; she had no idea what I was talking about. Anything beyond a template question and answer threw her completely. To all extents and purposes her communicative competence in English was zero.

By: Keith Morrison

Author and educationist

Time and again the old chestnut is revived of poor English in Macau. In late 2017 the international organization Education First (EF) published its English Proficiency Index for those aged 18 and above. It is uncomfortable reading. Macau was in the lowest but one category (‘low proficiency’) out of five categories, 42nd out of 80 countries and territories worldwide, 12th out of 20 in Asia, and worse than its 2016 ranking. Though the sampling strategy might not represent Macau well (self-selected test participants with internet access), EF indicated that ‘the sampling bias would tend to pull scores upward by excluding poorer and less educated people’.  

The EF report noted that ‘English correlates positively with key economic and social indicators’ and high quality of life; it unlocks innovation, research and development. English and ‘individual earning power’ go ‘hand in hand’, and having English improves logistics, business and service exports. It is ‘the language of science, business, and diplomacy . . . in our deeply interconnected world’.   

Better English correlates positively with internet use, improving trade and exchange, according to the EF report. Macau is well placed here, as the world leader in the number of mobile cellular telephone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants (332 in 2016: latest figures). In 2017, 81.6 per cent of its population were using the internet (the 6th highest of 35 Asian countries and territories), and Macau ranked 26th out of 176 countries and territories worldwide on an ICT Development Index.  

‘Nothing new there’, you might add. All of these points are familiar, and, indeed, routinely preoccupy Macau’s societal, economic and political ambitions and its claims for internationalization, development and diversity.  

According to the EF results, Macau people would be able to ‘navigate an English-speaking country as a tourist’, ‘engage in small talk with colleagues’ and ‘understand simple emails from colleagues’. I doubt this, but that’s a problem of using only average scores: some Macau people might be able to do these, but many would not.   

Why is Macau so poor at English? There are many reasons. Secondary schools and HE institutions graduate students in English, whose English is awful. Here I focus on just two reasons at HE level: collusion and lack of externality.  

Question: how do some Macau’s undergraduates ‘pass’ compulsory modules in English when their English is, being generous, pathetic and they patently cannot speak or write even a half-decent phrase, let alone a sentence?  

Answer: there are too few compulsory external standards, and you – the instructor – can pass students and have an easy life. Pass them and they are off your back for ever but fail them and they come back to repeat your module. Pass them and they give you a good evaluation of teaching, but fail them and you could be summoned to an appeal or to a senior manager’s office. Pass them and everyone is happy; you avoid any trouble and, indeed, your contract is renewed. Fail them and you suffer.  

Question: why do some HE institutions in Macau insist on using English medium for students who cannot understand the tutor’s English or the English textbook?   

Answer: Doing this lets the HE institution claim to be international and, anyway, the tutor can break the rule and revert to Chinese and students can go to Zhuhai and buy the Chinese version of the textbook. 

My point is that there is dishonesty and lack of externality in some HE institutions in Macau with regard to student’s English performance. Macau’s HE institutions are trusted to be guardians of standards, but accepting – qualifying – low standards betrays that trust.  

If more of Macau’s HE students were to deservedly fail English, with compulsory external assessment and benchmarks then the standard might just rise. I have been saying this for nearly two decades in Macau and so have many others. But this is Macau, folks; collude, protect yourself and don’t rock the boat. Standards? Who cares?