The Government is putting its money where its mouth is in launching the Workplace English Campaign (WEC) and it is already reaping dividends. So far, over 14 000 employees have passed the English language benchmarking tests for their respective occupations.
Ms Subrina Chow, Secretary of the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research (SCOLAR), which steers and oversees the operation of WEC, says at least another 10 000 are either undergoing training or their applications to the Campaign's Funding Scheme for Workplace English Training are being processed.
"In the three years and seven months the scheme has been in operation, 44 870 applications have been received, 33 654 of them from individuals and another 11 216 from 1 120 companies who applied on behalf of their employees," she said.
"Altogether, $42.97 million has been earmarked, or already disbursed, for these approved applications under the Campaign. Disbursement is made upon proof of the applicant's passing of their benchmark test."
The Campaign, which is financed by the Language Fund, was launched to enhance Hong Kong's competitive edge as an international centre for business, finance and tourism by heightening people's awareness of the importance of workplace English and raising their English standards. Its two key components are the establishment of Hong Kong Workplace English Benchmarks for various occupations and the provision of the Funding Scheme for Workplace English Training where employees will be given subsidies to study to attain the benchmarks for their occupations.
The four-level benchmark system in ascertaining English proficiency is linked to the Council of Europe's Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. The International English Language Test System, adopted by the University Grants Committee as the assessment instrument for Hong Kong University graduates, is also referenced to the same framework. Among other things, the system eliminates any ambiguities in an employer's expectations of his prospective employee's English proficiency, while allowing a job seeker to apply for a position commensurate with his command of the English language.
"Some of the most prominent participating companies have told us that they would be introducing the benchmarks as an integral part of their staff's language training programme and a factor in assessing their promotion prospects," Ms Chow said.
The Mass Transit Railway Corporation's Deputy Corporate Relations Manager, Miss May Wong, said that MTRC joined WEC to support the Government's initiative and also to enhance the English proficiency of its front-line and behind-the-scenes staff.
"As a world-class railway company, MTRC strives to provide the best customer service," Miss Wong said. "An integral part of the service is the ability of our staff to communicate effectively with our passengers. The Campaign has certainly helped raise awareness of the importance of a high standard of English in the workplace. And supervisors of the more than 300 participating MTRC staff have noted a general improvement in their English proficiency. In fact, feedback from our staff shows a strong momentum to continuously learn and practice English."
Amway, one of the largest direct selling companies in Hong Kong which also took part in the Campaign, reported a marked improvement in the presentational skills of its staff who took part in the Campaign.
"The wide range of our product line and the different target groups – including distributors, customers, guests and senior non-Chinese speaking colleagues – means a good command of English would give the staff the self-confidence and linguistic flexibility to handle different scenarios," Amway's Senior Human Resources Officer, Miss Phoebe Yu, said.
"Our staff have gained so much from WEC that it has inspired us to create our own Amway English Campaign in which we even introduced a fun element in a non-threatening competitive atmosphere that allowed for company-wide participation. There is no doubt that in our business, better linguistic fluency equals higher productivity. So it's only fair that the higher benchmarks an employee attains, the greater his or her chances for promotion are," she said.
Ms Chow said SCOLAR would like to encourage more small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) to benefit from the funding scheme. "They need not have their applications endorsed by their employers. Upon passing of the relevant benchmark tests, they would be entitled to a subsidy of up to $4,550. It is open to all non-civil servant employees who need to use English in the workplace."
The Government will meet 50% of the employees' English training costs and examination fees. Funding will be given to them after they have attained the minimum benchmark(s) in the specified international business English examination(s). For more details on funding, please call 2607 8899 or 2186 8800 or visit http://www.english.gov.hk.
The response to the Campaign and experience gained in its first three years have prompted SCOLAR to recommend that expected English competency should be specified for university graduates and entry-level professionals to give them a better idea of employers' expectations. The committee would consult human resources experts and specify the level of English competency expected of university graduates with reference to the Association of Language Testers in Europe's scale or the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.
It would also encourage professional bodies to specify expected English language competencies for entry-level professionals in their respective sectors.
"The exercise to specify the expected level of English competencies for university graduates will involve both multinational corporations and SMEs in Hong Kong from a variety of professions, businesses and industries," Ms Chow said. "We hope that in the first half of next year, we can invite the employers to nominate graduate employees to participate in the study."
"The nominees should be degree-holders who graduated about a year previously, and their English performance at work should be satisfactory to their employers. They will be invited to take an international English test, and their test results will show the range of English competency that employers are generally satisfied with.
"Through the study, we hope to create a uniformity of acceptable English standards among university graduates from various disciplines which they must meet. Employers can also be assured of the English standards of their university graduate employees," Ms Chow said.
The next publicity drive for WEC will kick off in November led by local pop star Kelly Chen, who remains the Campaign's ambassador for the second year running. It will retain its current slogan "Greater Confidence, More Recognition".
A series of Announcements in Public Interest concerning the Campaign will be broadcast via local TV and radio, while posters featuring Miss Chen will appear in the MTR and KRC stations and bus stops.