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Hong Kong’s language advantage is good for business. Tech can make it better

November 17, 2021 GMT

One characteristic of small, open, advanced economies like Switzerland and Singapore is a recognition of the importance of a multilingual workforce for economic competitiveness.

Switzerland has four official languages ” German, French, Italian and Romansh ” while Singapore also has four official languages ” English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil. Hong Kong’s official languages are Chinese and English, which are arguably among the most important languages for the 21st century.

The case for promoting the learning of languages is not new. Mastery of Chinese and English enables young people to pursue career goals and achieve upward social mobility.

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What is new in 2021 is how much technology has changed the game, levelling the playing field and allowing motivated students from all backgrounds to acquire language skills efficiently, effectively and at a reasonable cost.

Today, websites give students access to native-speaking teachers at a fraction of the price charged by traditional language institutes. Programmes such as Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone provide mobile app-based language courses.

Writing assistants like Grammarly offer suggestions for improving spelling, grammar and punctuation. And the popularity of Netflix and YouTube means there are informal ways to learn languages.

Technology also opens up a world of possibilities with regard to advanced levels of language learning, given that the ability to make compelling presentations is essential for career development these days. In Hong Kong, the start-up Moodie.ai uses artificial intelligence to analyse videos uploaded by users and makes recommendations on how to improve communication skills.

A total of 70 indicators are covered, encompassing everything from facial expression, tone of voice and speech content to body posture and hand gesture. Upload a video of three to five minutes, and a full analysis is available after 10 minutes. Universities in Hong Kong are already deploying such a tool and the company is in talks about roll-outs at other institutions.

While technology has made language learning easier and more accessible, some fear that machines and AI will overtake humans in language skills altogether. Currently, Google Translate supports translation in 108 languages, and smartphone apps can readily translate restaurant menus written in foreign languages.

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But machines, tools and AI are as yet unable to fully capture humour, irony, wordplay, idioms, slang, accents and cultural nuances. While machine translation can be improved in the long run, a machine today still can’t quite grasp the meaning behind a Chinese aphorism like ren zAi jiāng hU, shēn bU yOu jǐ, which refers to how people living together in “rivers and lakes”, a Chinese metaphor for society, need to compromise and are not free to do as they wish.

Consider the Korean phrase nun-i-nop-a, which literally translates as “eyes are high”, although it, in essence, describes people who have extremely high standards and expectations.

For Japanese, a machine translation of the saying nō aru taka wa tsume o kakusu yields “a capable hawk hides its claws”. However, such a rendering still misses the Japanese cultural context for this expression.

Indeed, communication, negotiation and deal-making in the local language are essential ingredients in commercial success, whether in the boardroom or over dinner ” or Mao-tai or sake, as often happens in Asia. It is still through language that entrepreneurs demonstrate their passion for their work and executives evaluate the collaborative potential of a business partnership.

While Chinese and English remain the most important languages for business in Hong Kong, other languages are also useful. According to an annual survey conducted by the Hong Kong government, Japanese firms now top the list of non-local companies that have set up regional offices in Hong Kong.

Companies from Japan have set up 423 regional offices, followed by those from the United States (410), mainland China (377), Britain (208), Germany (147), France (115), Taiwan (101), and Singapore (100).

Of the regional offices surveyed, 68.2 per cent have geographical responsibility for mainland China, underscoring the importance of Mandarin. But next on the list are Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. In line with market needs, there are headhunting firms that specialise in recruitment of Japanese and Korean speakers.

According to statistics from the Society of Japanese Language Education Hong Kong, more than 7,000 people in Hong Kong and Macau signed up for each of the two sittings of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test in 2019.

Interest in the Korean language has also surged in recent years, as evidenced by the increasing number of candidates taking the Test of Proficiency in Korean. While there were only 395 applicants in 2010, by 2018, the figure had risen to 3,217.

According to the web page of the Korean Studies Programme at the University of Hong Kong, students who excelled in the language have landed dream jobs at Korean banks, Korean cosmetics firms and the Korean Cultural Center run by the South Korean government. This suggests there is more to learning the Korean language than watching K-pop videos and K-dramas.

In a business hub like Hong Kong, where languages are critical for deal-making and partnerships, a strong case can be made for leveraging technology to promote language learning. After all, multilingual skills are a differentiating factor that could set a world city like Hong Kong apart from the others.

Pauline Yeung is programme director at the Asia Business Council

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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