Language teachers always encourage students to read and write more to enhance their language proficiency. Frequent use of a language is believed to result in a higher level of language proficiency.

Thus the advancement of communication technology is often considered one of the causes of declining language proficiency.

Nowadays people have fewer opportunities to practice writing. It is common for friends and relatives to keep in touch through communication software without using standard language. As long as it serves the purpose of communication, only one or two key words together with some emojis suffice. What’s even worse is that some people choose to use WhatsApp and WeChat for formal communication such as resigning from a job. In recent years, voice messaging through communication software has become increasingly popular. Instead of texts and emojis, voice messages are sent, without using words in the written form at all. The use of written language has hit a new low. Practice makes perfect. No wonder today’s youth, who lack practice, are becoming less and less proficient in written languages.

If the abovementioned theory is valid, can we think in reverse on spoken language? With more opportunities to speak, would one become more verbally expressive? Does being talkative mean the same as being eloquent?

From what I have observed in the classroom, university students who are experienced in sitting for public examinations generally perform quite well in verbal communication. Most students are confident enough to deliver a speech. Compared with their seniors a decade ago, apparently they perform better in terms of body language, speech tempo, tone and speaking voice. However, does this imply that the current students have more effective verbal communication skills?

In fact, both text and voice are tools for expressing our thoughts. Frequent practice would definitely improve one’s skillfulness, fluency and self-confidence, but it does not mean that one’s speech is rich in content and profound in meaning. For example, under the Chinese Language Paper 4 “Speaking” in the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (HKDSE), students’ expressiveness, responses and communication skills are assessed during a group discussion. “Discourse and language” and “response and manner” each account for 50% of the score. Under “discourse”, the quality of speech content is assessed. The candidate should grasp the gist of the discussion topic, express his/her own perspectives, question unreasonable points, and even suggest solutions. He/she cannot perform well simply by responding with fluency and a natural tone. Excellent results cannot be achieved without in-depth thinking, good use of daily experiences and logical inference. The Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority recommends that candidates expand their knowledge and vision as well as read extensively. In view of this, being proficient but vacuous is a common weakness in candidates.

How to expand one’s knowledge and vision? The key is to stay in touch with the world. The HKDSE examination topics are closely related to secondary students’ daily experiences, such as school life, current affairs, thought trends and Chinese culture. Apart from reading more articles on these topics, students need to think more deeply as well. Based on their understanding of the author’s points of view, they should delve into the rationale behind the piece and analyse whether the points raised are reasonable and well grounded and the supporting arguments justified. They should then try to debate with the author by taking the opposite stance with some substantiated examples. Training our thinking skills would not only give us a more profound understanding of reading material, but also help us gain competence in information selection as well as sorting and collating data. That’s why improving our thinking skills is a prerequisite to enhancement of language proficiency.