On speaking terms

by Grace Chan

PolyU Dept of English - aims at professionals and managers
Martin Warren, programme leader
Master of Arts in English for the Professions
Department of English, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Photo: Nolly Leung

Master's qualification helps professionals hone effective English communication skills

Although proficiency in Mandarin has grown increasingly important in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover, English remains the city's lingua franca, particularly in the world of business. For professionals and mid-level managers to perform effectively, they therefore need good spoken and written English-language communication skills.

"Most master's degrees in English in Hong Kong are primarily targeted at school teachers and require applicants to have bachelor's degrees in related disciplines. What sets our department apart is that we also offer a course that is aimed specifically at professionals other than teachers. Participants don't need to have academic qualifications related to English," says Martin Warren, programme leader, Master of Arts in English for the Professions, Department of English, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

The university offers four different Master of Arts (MA) programmes. Three are geared mainly towards teachers, but the MA in English for the Professions targets applicants with bachelor's degrees in any discipline, plus a minimum of two years' work experience, Professor Warren explains.

"This programme has a long history. Its precursor was a postgraduate diploma course, but in 2000 it was upgraded to a master's, which has been very successful," he says. "Our alumni are from a range of backgrounds, including the medical, accounting and engineering professions. Some are business executives in the private sector, government departments, university administration or other areas."

Out of more than 100 applicants per year, about 40 are enrolled in the programme, says Professor Warren. "It's obvious that there's a big demand from people wanting to improve their English communication skills."

Diverse backgrounds

While women students often make up 80 to 90 per cent of English master's courses, the male-female ratio in the MA in English for the Professions is closer to half and half, Professor Warren points out. "This reflects the diversity of the students' professions and backgrounds."

The degree can be done on a full-time basis over a year, or part time, requiring at least two years, up to a maximum of four. The curriculum covers 10 subjects. Part-time students attend three classes per week in the first year, and two in the second.

"Many local enterprises hire English-speaking expatriate staff and employees from other countries, but, interestingly, while Hong Kong colleagues might converse in Cantonese at meetings, company documents and emails are always in English. Managers and professionals also often need to use English to address certain issues in a diplomatic way. This gives Hong Kong a competitive edge, and makes effective English communication skills even more important," Professor Warren notes, adding that issues such as these are a focus of the programme.

The MA covers theory, as well as application of grammar, phonetics and syntax. "We help our students to enhance their English proficiency according to the needs of different professions and in various linguistic contexts, such as appraising colleagues or subordinates or handling challenging customers."

Real-life scenarios

The MA students are expected to develop critical-thinking and analytical skills by questioning and reflecting on professional communication practices, both in local and global contexts. "We use examples from daily life in class as part of learning," Professor Warren notes.

One actual case study used in class has been the recent Costa Concordia cruise-ship disaster off the coast of Italy. "Coast-guard officials had used both diplomatic and undiplomatic expressions in English to order the captain to go back on board, but he refused to do so. We analysed the linguistic context and communication strategy thoroughly and then worked on how they communicated their message to achieve their intended goals."

Many of the candidates have well over 10 years' work experience, Professor Warren explains. "Apart from their various professions, they also come from different cultural backgrounds, bringing with them a range of workplace linguistic situations. We encourage active participation in discussions and role-play, since these help them fully master the techniques involved."

Since most students have already achieved substantial success in their working lives, completion of the MA does not necessarily guarantee instant career advancement, but being highly proficient in English does help them perform even better at work, opening up opportunities for promotion, he concludes.

Competitive edge

  • Only Hong Kong MA programme in English aimed at professionals and managers
  • Candidates do not need academic qualifications related to English
  • Local and global real-life examples used as teaching material
  • Professional English communication skills open up promotion opportunities

Taken from Career Times 16 March 2012, A5

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