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.


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.