Researchers at Hong Kong's Baptist University have found that the large number of English-speaking Filipino maids working with Hong Kong Chinese families may be contributing to an improvement in children's English language skills - a reversal of the decline which has caused concern among education authorities and industry groups here for some time.
Contrary to common perception, 98 per cent of the Hong Kong population speaks Cantonese at home. The homogeneity of the population compared to countries like Singapore and Malaysia means that a "link" language such as English is not widely required and academics consider the standard of spoken English to be surprisingly low, more comparable with Japan than with other British colonies.
However, this may be changing. "The effect of so many Filipino domestic helpers seems to produce higher efficiency in English language than was seen in the general population 20 years ago," says Dr Evangelos Afendras of the Baptist University's English department who has just completed a study on language choice in Hong Kong homes.
Filipinos began arriving in large numbers in the mid-1980s, as Hong Kong's fast-expanding economy meant a severe labour shortage and a need to entice Hong Kong women into the workforce.
Today one-third of Hong Kong households from all levels of society employ a Filipino maid, according to government figures. The maids are relatively young, mostly aged 25-35, and often better educated than their employers, many having worked as nurses or teachers in the Philippines.
Hong Kong children who have been brought up by Filipinos from babyhood are now going through school. Many maids help older children with their homework and act as English tutors.
"Tens of thousands of children are being exposed to English in the home by their Filipino care-givers," says Dr Afendras. "The gains in proficiency may not always last, particularly if maids are let go as soon as children start school. However, if even a fraction of these children improve their proficiency, it will sustain the growth in English-language skills that is now becoming evident."
Researchers believe spoken English skills may start to decline again after the handover to Chinese rule in 1997. Imported domestic workers, of which the Filipinos form the largest group, may be replaced by a large pool of Chinese labour just across the border. Chinese maids would have more cultural affinity with Hong Kong employers and would share a common language.