I have a friend in Hong Kong. We used to work together at the YMCA, where we both played roller hockey. Like me he grew up in Hong Kong, but where I went to international school, he attended a local school. There he studied mainly in Cantonese, but also learned English as a Second Language. I knew he had failed his English in Form 5, prior to leaving school.

When I met him, his English was very good, and by the time we stopped seeing each other regularly (around 3 years later), it was probably the best English I have ever heard from a native Cantonese speaker (as an aside, Mandarin speakers mostly seem to find English much easier than Cantonese speakers). He once even taught me some English slang that I was unfamiliar with, which really surprised me.

What I, and our mutual friends, could never understand was how, during this time, he managed to fail his Form 5 English resit examination. Who could possibly assert, with any authority, that this man could not speak English?

Learning about Cummins (1996) recently, it all clicked. My friend’s BICS English was superb, and we took this to mean proficiency. However, the examiners most likely looked at his CALP English, and determined it not to be sufficiently advanced. In short, he could not communicate what he knew in a way that was acceptable to the examiners.

This insight unravelled one of my life’s biggest mysteries (my life is obviously not that exciting). However, I still find it extremely unfair that this hero of ESL did not get to bask in the glory I still believe he deserved. If only my Cantonese was anywhere near as good as his English!