Brush up on your English
Ilene Frankel chats to Libby Wong about her new book...
‘I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’. That grammar lesson in primary school will surely trigger some fond – or nightmarish – memories. Perfecting language as a child might have been tedious but, let’s face it, learning English enables international marketability later on in life and Chinese author Libby Wong understands that fact all too well.
Wong, a retired public servant, poet, singer, teacher (the list goes on and on), laments the declining state of English skills among Hong Kong’s youth and attempts to find the solution in her new book, A Basic Course in English and Poetry. From grassroots grammatical rules to unleashing the poetic nature of the language – ‘poetry teaches us to see things others cannot’ – it spans the gamut in substance and delivers as both a smooth read and resource guide filled to the brim with information to practice and prevent all those literary pitfalls.
Attributing the decline of English proficiency in Hong Kong initially, in part, to the ‘feeling of being back to the mother country’ since the 1997 British handover, Wong feels it is vital to rectify the situation and get the kids back on track to being viable on an international scale. When we meet her she says: “We hear a lot of English words – nouns, verbs – but they can’t join them together. It is quite funny sometimes because they don’t know what the nuances are. I’m not being critical. It’s not something they can help. It’s the way it is.” Wong fears exposure to native English speakers has dwindled in recent years due to the decreased presence of the British since the change in power.
Wong seeks to provide help to parents and those teachers who need it. “There was an education expansion in a short period of time,” she says, “we didn’t have enough teachers to go around. That’s how things got a bit funny.” Geared towards Chinese speakers, the book is not limited in scope to this niche audience. Native English speakers can benefit by brushing up on the basics sometimes lost in later years and rediscovering their own tongue. “The English language is so beautiful,” says Wong. She also says that people can find out ‘how to appreciate poetry’ in the tome.
Aside from the book, Wong also owns letters addressed to her father (with actual signatures) from former US President Eisenhower. And she has an insurmountable knack for speaking languages (she is fluent in many). Her comfort with both Chinese and English is so natural she isn’t consciously aware which one she’s speaking in. “I’m a schizophrenic,” she jokes.
As a poet and advocate for the arts, Wong finds the Hong Kong scene to be in a ‘lacklustre state’ and speaks passionately of the need for a major kick in the right direction. “Artists need to be encouraged in more ways than one,” she says. “You have people who accept mediocrity, which I don’t. They will forever be praising themselves. You need someone to say you need to do better.” Strong words to jolt people into action – and we guess applicable to students, artists and frankly just about everyone at one point or another. Except, maybe, for Wong herself.
A Basic Course in English and Poetry is published by the Academic & Professional Book Centre, priced $128.