ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNING DIFFICULTY IN HONG KONG: An ethnographic assessment of the Hong Kong context with proposed solutions (1993).

This wide-ranging Hong Kong University doctoral thesis by George Adams is available as a PDF file here (34.1 MB). It is also gradually being made available in HTML sections on the OTHK site. See links below.



PART ONE - Background and preparation for research

Research Project I

1. THE CONCEPT OF DIFFICULTY - Philosophical, psychological and general semantic orientation

Measurement of difficulty

Learning difficulty/disability

Chinese cognition and learning style

Chinese communication strategies

2. DIFFICULTY AND ENGLISH - General linguistic orientation


Authority and usage

Educational reports

First language errors

Contrasting first and second language errors

Linguistic acceptability


Relative difficulty of English

A universal hierarchy of difficulty

3. ENGLISH IN HONG KONG - Sociolinguistic orientation

Hong Kong English - S.E. Asian and world perspectives

New Englishes

Localized forms of English

Non-native Englishes

Non-native varieties

English as an additional language

Errors as unrecognised features of Hong Kong English

The Hong Kong identity


Hong Kong English in literature


4. ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNING - Focus on TEFL and TESL and our approach


Optimum acquisition and environment

Conditions for second language learning (Spolsky)

Constraints in foreign language learning

Transactional Analysis

A TA Education Model

Barriers in foreign/second language learning

Cultural assumptions and foreign/second language learning

5. RESEARCH PROJECT I - Focus on Hong Kong English Language Learning Difficulty

Study rationale

Possible use of the data 

Study design

School A

School B



Comparison of student and teacher perceptions of difficulty

PART TWO - Examination and elucidation of Research Project I findings

Research Project II

6. THE INTERFERENCE OF CANTONESE IN HONG KONG ENGLISH USAGE - Contrastive lingusitic aspects to perceived English language learning difficulty in Hong Kong

Morphological level

Syntactical level

Lexical level

Phrasal level



Beyond error correction and interference analysis

Psychological, didactic and sociological factors in 


7. THE DIFFICULTIES OF THE HONG KONG TEACHING/LEARNING SITUATION - Sociology, educational function and constraints

The sociological situation of Hong Kong students

The function of education in Hong Kong society

The constraints of the Hong Kong education system

The perception of learning difficulty within the education system

8. LEARNING STYLES AND APPROACHES IN HONG KONG - The perspective of the educational psychologist (literature review)

The culture myth

"Chinese culture"

Literature unrelated to Biggs

Users and sympathisers of the Biggs Study Process Questionnaire

Critical assessment of the Biggs line

9. RESEARCH PROJECT II : CLASSROOM OBSERVATION - Do Hong Kong English teachers attempt to counter the nexus of difficulty?

Classroom observation

Observation instruments

Our observation technique



Teacher A

Teacher B

Teacher C



Systems analysis

Comparisons between TA Language Learning and other methods and 


TALL in principle

TALL in practice

Intervention strategies


Results of the study

Directions of future research



GAMES HONG KONG PEOPLE PLAY - the best-selling classic guide to Hong Kong life (1992). Now out of print but about to be re-published. 'Adams is a wickedly astute people watcher who has managed to sum up, with absolute accuracy, a small mass of mankind in a minimum of words...Wonderful stuff.' TV AND ENTERTAINMENT TIMES.

TAI TAM TUK - Light reading for casual moments in tribute to Raymond Chandler.

THE HUI BOYS - George Adams' 2014 investigation of the Rafael Hui / Thomas Kwok corruption trial.

 LAST EXIT TO STANLEY - The Donald Tsang bribery and misconduct trial.

NOTE AND CONDITION OF USE: © George Adams 1992-2010. Copyright and all other ownership rights have not been relinquished on the above material.


Copies of George Adams works available in the Hong Kong Public Libraries.

Samples of George Adams USA published stories available on Google Books.

World Tribune article by Ed Neilan describing NOT THE SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST.

"NOT THE SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST" - Chapter 8 of The Suffocation Of Hong Kong.

Archives of NOT THE SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST available at Hemlock's Diary.

Online Journalism Review 50 International Names To Know.

DOES IT HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS?: Education and Socialisation in Hong Kong by Anthony Solloway on Amazon.



The following are examples of actual examination papers used in past years.

Group 1: Language A1

English Higher Level: paper 2 [PDF, 200 KB]
French Higher Level: paper 2 [PDF, 200 KB]
Spanish Higher Level: paper 2 {PDF, 200 KB]

Group 2: Second language

English Standard Level A2: paper 2 (PDF, 183 kb)
French Standard Level A2: paper 2 (PDF, 183 kb)
Spanish Standard Level A2: paper 2 (PDF, 184 kb)

Group 3: Individuals and societies

History Higher Level/Standard Level: paper 2 (PDF, 260 kb)

Group 4: Experimental sciences

Chemistry Higher Level: paper 3 (PDF, 374 kb)

Group 5: Mathematics and computer science

Maths Standard Level: paper 2 (PDF, 447 kb)



1. Study with a routine

An effective study strategy is a must.

How did I handle my routine it?

Here’s my strategy that you can use as well:

  • Balance your time across multiple subjects. The #1 rookie mistake students make is throwing all their time on one subject per day. Every subject needs a bit of love and attention.
  • Let’s get more specific: time. Spend one hour on thee to four different subjects per day, every day. For your weaker subjects, 2 hours would be required. This means around 4 hours of regular study every day if you want to do extremely well in the IB.

To help organise my study schedule in the IB, I used the Calendar app. Below is a recreated version of what my timetable once looked like. Please note that the schedule is a recreation and it is too organised. The point is to give you the idea that a routine schedule for study is extremely important.

Calendar example

Example of my study calendar.


Benefits of an organised timetable

  • It ensures that you study a healthy range of subjects every evening
  • It ensures that you give equal attention to all subjects. I made sure I did 3 x one-hour study sessions for each subject every week.

A lot of students don’t use calendars because they feel restricted.

Of course, it is hard to stick to rigid guidelines.

What if an urgent assignment is due this week? What if I need to spend more time on this subject because I can’t understand it?

No problem. The time at which a subject is allocated is flexible and should evolve depending on your daily needs. Simply move the block of time to another time or another day. Add time to a block. Shorten a block of time. Do whatever you want.

The purpose of a calendar is not to enslave yourself. It’s meant to give you a well-planned but flexible guide for how you should be spending your time. It also relieves the invisible stress of having to organise your day in your head.

2. Stay ahead

stay ahead

We are successful when we are prepared. One way to excel in the IB is to stay ahead of the class material. Hey, no one said getting an IB 45 is easy.

Staying ahead means preparing early. Don’t wait for your teacher to cover the content in class. Use holidays to begin learning new content independently. When the new semester arrives, you can use class time as clarification, revision, and consolidation. Early preparation also reduces stress during the academic term–a big plus.

3. Running the long distance


Don’t be the guy who makes notes for two years’ worth of IB content in the month before finals. You won’t get good results.

Learning is like marinating a chicken.

For knowledge to seep into the deep crevices of your brain, you need to consistently and regularly immerse yourself in the subject content for two years — not a few weeks!

The IB is a triathlon (yes, I avoided the pedestrian marathon metaphor, pun intended), not a 100m sprint. If you treat the IB as a sprint, you’ll die (academically-speaking)!

It’s also a very stressful experience.

IB: “Do you want cortisol with that?”

Me: “No thanks. Ketchup is fine.”

4. Use the subject syllabus, aka train tracks


The IB outlines exactly what you need to know for your exams. This magical information is all contained in the corresponding subject syllabus. It’s pretty much a train track. Follow it and you’ll get to where you need to go (the Land of 45).

A word of warning: Syllabi change every couple years; make sure you use the correct one.

Note-making with the syllabus

I made all my notes based on the syllabus points for each subject.

  • This keeps my notes organised, concise and neat.
  • I know exactly what I need to know by sticking to the syllabus.

Do not be lazy and just rely on the textbook. Textbooks are made by third-party companies. These textbooks like to add redundant information and do not stick to the syllabus. Of course, good textbooks are also extremely important, which brings me to my next point.

5. Textbooks: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


As you go through your IB journey, you encounter the good and the bad. There are some textbooks that are indeed quite bad to learn from, not just because they contain glaring mistakes and misprints in both questions and answers, but also because they babble on and on about irrelevant content.

I have yet to write more textbook and learning resource recommendations for different subjects. You can read the textbook and resource recommendations for IB Chemistry.

6. Be proactive and ask for help

Never leave problems unsolved.

Deal with problems in your understanding immediately. Knowledge is like a house of cards. You need a solid foundation (basic skills, SL) before you can build the beautiful arches and domes at the top (advanced skills, HL).

If you build on a weak foundation, everything you learn later in the course will not be able to hold itself up. “London bridge is falling down…”

Avoid these troubles by ensuring your complete understanding of course material when it is being taught.

  • Ask your teacher.
  • Consult YouTube.
  • Ask a friend.
  • Sell a kidney and trade it for wisdom (not really, although…).

Don’t let problems fester and come back to haunt you.

7. Get to know the IB–with QuestionBank


How do I realise that I don’t understand a concept properly?

If you can teach a concept to a friend or peer, then you understand the concept.

We don’t always have a convenient friend that we can just steal and force upon them with our teachings.

Enter QuestionBank.

QuestionBank is a collection of past IB questions collated officially by the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO). I recommend that you ask your IB teachers about QuestionBank first because it is expensive.

Anyway, after I made my notes and felt that I understood the theoretical concepts, I used QuestionBank to test myself. Success in IB exams requires you to be familiar with the style of IB questions.

After working through a question, I check the Mark scheme (Official answers key) which conveniently pops onto my screen. I then compare my answers with the Mark scheme and adjust how I answer that type of question.

This will maximise your exam score, GUARANTEED.

8. Do an Anticipated subject (Bonus)


Doing well in the IB is mostly about being organised and consistent. But there are also times when the IB can be made, strategically, into a mad sprint–for your own benefit.

Doing Anticipated subjects is a great way to minimise stress and academic workload in your final diploma year, when TOK, CAS, EE and countless IAs are all due in a conveniently squished period of time. I talk about the benefits of doing Anticipated subjects in the IB in my recent article.

We reproduce this important article temporarily from the Daily Telegraph in full for the benefit of Hong Kong students contemplating study in the UK.

Private school pupils 'being rejected

from university'

By Graeme Paton, Eleanor Harding and Heidi Blake
Published: 10:00PM GMT 12 Feb 2010

Oxbridge applications

Entry at Oxbridge is especially hard this year Photo: IAN JONES

Headmasters are blaming a shortage of university places caused by funding cuts, combined with the effect of Labour’s “social engineering” drive that prioritises bright children from under-performing comprehensives.

Two out of three top independent schools approached by The Daily Telegraph said teenagers were finding it harder to get into higher education this year compared with 12 months ago.

Related Articles

In some cases, pupils predicted to get three A*s at A-level – along with a string of perfect GCSE results – are being turned down from all five of their choices.

Entry to Oxbridge is especially hard this year, heads claim. Some schools reported a drop of around three-quarters in the number of students with offers from Oxford and Cambridge.

Heads said the squeeze was being exacerbated by the Government’s “widening participation” policy. It encourages universities to give lower grade offers to bright pupils from poor schools showing the most potential.

It is also feared that universities are prioritising foreign students who can be charged far higher fees.

Richard Cairns, head of Brighton College, said: “The financial pressures and the social mobility agenda are leading to a situation where children who have worked very hard to get the grades that their forebears got are finding it more difficult than their predecessors to get into university.”

One student from Brighton – rated among Britain’s top 20 schools in a recent league table – has been rejected from Oxford, University College London and Durham, despite being predicted three A*s at A-level, on top of straight As at GCSE and AS level.

The Telegraph interviewed the heads of 30 leading independent schools and two-thirds reported concerns over the admissions process.

In many cases, they said universities imposed last-minute rises in A-level entry requirements – often after students had applied.

The disclosure follows the publication of figures this week showing applications to degree courses are up 23 per cent compared with 2009. More than 100,000 extra applications have been made and demand for places at some institutions has doubled in just 12 months.

The rise is being driven by students reapplying after being turned down last year combined with a dramatic increase in demand from mature students returning to education because of a shortage of jobs in the recession.

Despite the surge, separate research from the Telegraph suggests that as many as a quarter of universities are actually cutting the number of places for British undergraduates after a drop in budgets.

Last week, universities were told that spending would be slashed by £449m in the autumn, including a £215m reduction in cash for teaching and warnings of further reductions in the future.

Steve Smith, the president of Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, told the Telegraph that admissions tutors still had a “duty” to identify good students with poorer grades despite the admissions crisis – potentially placing further pressure on places for independent school pupils.

“Many students who have shown a desire to go to university are going to be very disappointed this year,” he said. “But data shows that people often do better coming in with lower grades from a poorly-performing school then if they come in with higher grades from a well-performing school.”

Antony Clark, the head of Malvern College in Worcestershire, said outstanding candidates who would have received five offers from top universities were now lucky to receive one or two.

“I think admissions tutors are looking closely for the rough diamond who has not been through the private school system but is showing huge potential,” he said.

Peter Roberts, the head of Bradfield College, Reading, said: “We will have some boys and girls who are turned down for all five universities they apply for in the upper-sixth and that’s very hard for a young person who has worked hard and done well.”

Many independent schools send a small number of students to Oxbridge every year. But some told the Telegraph that numbers had plummeted in 2010.

Woodhouse Grove School, West Yorkshire, said it usually had three offers, but only received one this year.

Elizabeth Enthoven, head of sixth form, said: “I think the competition is much fiercer, and they have their agenda about open access.”

Sunderland High School said it had no Oxbridge offers, despite normally receiving around two. One boy had three A* predictions and straight As at GCSE and AS level but was rejected.

Queen’s College, Taunton, said the three or four places pupils normally gained had dropped to one, while Emanuel School, Battersea, said numbers dropped from around three a year to one in 2010.

Mark Hanley-Browne, Emanuel headmaster, said: “It’s harder to get into the top universities in 2010. We had very good students that didn’t make it who in previous years would have done - people with 10 A*s at GCSE and four As at AS level.”

Other schools told how students were finding it significantly harder to get into other universities, suggesting that the squeeze is being felt across the sector.

In a separate disclosure, the Telegraph surveyed 30 top universities. A quarter said they planned to cut student numbers. This included Lancaster, Leicester, Manchester and the West of England. At least half said numbers were being frozen.

In all, between 750,000 and 800,000 students are expected to compete for around 480,000 places.

Graham McQueen, head of sixth form, Warminster School, Wiltshire, said: “It’s never been more competitive to get into the Russell Group universities.”

King’s School, Rochester, said the grades offered for red brick universities were noticeably higher.

Kevin Jones, head of senior school, said: “My main concern is what happens in the summer. The people who miss their grades by a whisker are going to have problems.

“It’s going to be much more difficult to negotiate on results day.”

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, denied that private school pupils faced discrimination.

“Although admissions are rightly a matter for individual institutions, the Government is committed to ensuring that entry to university is determined by aptitude, potential and merit, not where a student was educated,” she said.

“There are a record number of students – over 2m – at university. That’s 390,000 more than in 1997 and next year we expect there will be more students than ever before.

“But getting a place at university has always been, and should be, a competitive process. Not everyone gets the grades and some decide university is not for them.

“But, it is early days and students haven’t even sat their A-levels yet.”

We do not offer miracle cures, quick fixes or mindless cramming.

Our aim is to produce a better-prepared student who can cope with anything the examiners may confront him with.
We do not crowd our students into stuffy, noisy cubicles in Central.
Intsead we mainly offer home visits, office tutorials or teach wherever the student feels comfortable.
ALL our tutors are Oxford graduates or are of similar academic standing.