In Asia: writing on the wall no longer English

Having spent my spring "break" from teaching in Hong Kong and China, I can report some trends that seem basic.

A quarter of a century ago, Hong Kong appeared to be an important British city - British in culture as well as political authority, albeit with a preponderant Chinese population.

Today, Hong Kong is fundamentally a key Chinese city, with a substantial overlay of British (and American) culture and business practices.

Response to the recent annual presentation by Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji is indicative. His speech received far more front-page treatment - and infinitely more respect - in Hong Kong dailies than State of the Union addresses and presidential budget messages receive in the United States.

This difference may reflect in part the greater interest in public policy and economic developments in business-oriented Hong Kong than in the US.

Nevertheless, the Hong Kong treatment shows how quickly Hong Kongers have become oriented to, and also defer to, the strategic role of the government of the Chinese mainland in their future.

One of the more subtle changes is in the uses of English in contrast to Chinese. Two or three decades ago, most officials as well as professional and managerial people that I interacted with in Hong Kong were truly bilingual, in English and Chinese. They still handle both languages very well.

Yet, that crisp Oxford-accented English is not heard as much, especially on the part of younger people. Moreover, these highly educated bilingual folks now converse among themselves in Chinese far more frequently, even when foreigners are around. In earlier times, they generally stuck to the king's (or queen's) English.

Another difference should be of particular interest to college students and others preparing for careers in international business, especially in Asia.

Supposedly, "everybody" still speaks English in Hong Kong (actually that has never been true in many parts of the city away from the government and commercial center). Nevertheless, it is apparent that Americans who want to work in that region are at a disadvantage if they cannot communicate in both English and Chinese - including preferably both the Mandarin and Cantonese dialects.

An examination of job openings recently listed in Hong Kong newspapers is instructive. The Hong Kong regional office of an American-owned worldwide manufacturer of office equipment wants to hire an operations manager "fluent in English and Chinese."

A US multinational furniture producer is seeking a finance manager for greater China who possesses "high proficiency in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese."

A major US insurance company is recruiting a sales support officer with "good command of both spoken and written English and Chinese."

A US transnational health-care enterprise advertises for a senior product manager; "fluency in English and Chinese and preferably Mandarin is required."

European companies with operations in the greater China area often have similar language requirements. A continental industrial products producer is looking for a treasury professional and "fluency in English and one other Asian language is a prerequisite."

A German doll manufacturer recruits a quality control manager for its Hong Kong office with "fluency in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin required."

One last and telling example: a French company seeks a controller for greater China with "good command of written and spoken English, Cantonese, and Mandarin." Given Gallic pride, it's revealing that the advertisement merely states "knowledge of French will be a plus."

Although people around the world increasingly study English, those who want to sell them something - whether a product or an idea - have a substantial advantage if they are fluent in the potential customer's native tongue.

Surely, the ability to use up-to-date computers and other technical skills is an essential part of a modern education.

Nevertheless, the current tendency to downplay the study of foreign languages is sadly misguided in an increasingly global economy.

Not everybody speaks English - and certainly not well enough to close every deal with an American business manager.

*Murray Weidenbaum is chairman of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis.

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