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Mind Your Language: why a strong mother tongue is essential for children's learning and development

The majority of Hong Kong's international schools - though not all - use English as the main medium of instruction. Students applying to these schools are therefore expected to be proficient in English so as to understand lesson content and keep up with the curriculum.

For those from native English-speaking homes, that’s generally not much of a problem. However, for children who have had limited exposure to native spoken English, it can be very much more challenging

Which language?

With parents eager to provide their children with a top-quality English language education, a new trend has emerged. We are now seeing families opting to speak only English at home when, in fact, this is not their mother tongue. They hope that, by doing so, they can prepare their children to navigate the notoriously competitive competitive school admissions process.

While this might seem like a good strategy on the face of things, it does unfortunately have its downsides. First, unless parents possess strong i.e native English language skills themselves, they risk passing bad habits onto their children. Second, they run the risk that their children will grow up not being able to speak their mother tongue properly. As a consequence, a growing number of children born to Hong Kong parents speak very little Cantonese, preferring to use non-native English instead. Combine these facts and there's a very real danger of children growing up without native proficiency in any language at all.

Developing a secure native language base at a young age is crucial for children's ongoing learning and development. Research shows that having a strong mother tongue in the earliest years helps children learn more than just a language; it introduces important critical thinking skills and key learning concepts that will enable them to switch to a different language at a later stage more easily.

Dr Andrew Adler, Director and Clinical Psychologist at Adler Family Center states that, “Becoming highly skilled in understanding and speaking one's mother tongue has advantages in many areas of children's development. Developing strong native conversational skills equips children with grammatical proficiency and an understanding of how languages are organized. These skills then generally transfer very easily to the learning of other languages.

There are several other important advantages too. Children who have solid skills in their native language tend to feel better about themselves and are more confident in general. These children are more strongly connected to their cultures and, as a result, usually have better-developed characters and identities. The intellectual development and ability to succeed academically is also significantly better. Those of us who specialise in Child Development therefore strongly encourage parents to speak the family’s mother tongue at home regardless of the language of instruction at school.”

With all this in mind, how should parents go about introducing a second language? When parents choose to switch languages early on, children often lack a strong enough base. If they haven't developed the ability to think and reason in their native tongue, they will struggle to pick up a second language. Another issue is that parents often focus purely on vocabulary and forget to teach concepts. Explaining a concept in your mother tongue first can support children to pick things up much quicker and makes it a lot easier for them to learn the words in the other language.

Application Anomalies

International schools are seeing an increasing number of applications where the child’s first language is stated as English. It's a risky strategy. While parents undoubtedly have the best of intentions, the child will be expected to demonstrate native English skills in the assessment. If not, the school will naturally see this as a red flag. Inadvertently, parents are doing their children are disservice.

By putting a child in a situation they can't quite handle may be setting them up for failure. This can have an impact on self-esteem and confidence issues. It’s advised to give your child a good grounding in their native language and be honest on the application form. Schools are more likely to accept children students with a lower level of English if they have those all-important conceptual ideas in the way that they learn.

At Top Schools, we can confirm that the number one reason children do not pass assessments is due to a lack of the requisite English language skills … skills a child cannot learn with a tutor a couple of hours a week.

A Helping Hand

If any of this is ringing true and you’re struggling to figure out how to help your child develop the language skills they need for school, don't panic.

Younger children - aged three or four - tend to pick up things very quickly and you may notice a big difference in a matter of weeks. With other children, it can take 3 to 6 months. A lot depends on the parents’ English proficiency. One of the best things parents can do for their children is sign them up for interest classes where they can converse with native English-speaking children authentically. If they can find something that interests them where other children are speaking English, they'll learn a lot more than by sitting with a tutor once a week. To clarify, this means a class in English but NOT an English class.

Conversely, a helper may not help - and may hinder - your child’s English language skills. The key to improvement is consistent, authentic, native language exposure.

Looking ahead, another benefit of children learning their native language first is that they're more likely to become bi or even trilingual in the future. This is a big draw for potential employers as it demonstrates the ability to think in a different way than monolingual speakers.

Karin Ann, co-founder of the International Montessori School is a strong advocate of multilingualism. “The benefits of giving your children two or more languages are well documented in terms of brain development, linguistic flexibility and the ability to make connections,” she explains.

“English is very prevalent in Hong Kong; it's in the media; it's all around us. If families have a different native language, we strongly encourage them to speak it. Living in this city, we’re in a very privileged position. People all over the world want to learn Chinese so if you're able to provide your children with the opportunity, do it! It will serve them very well.”

Just remember though, be sure to lay the foundations. First, speak to your children in their mother tongue ie their mother's first language; usually, the language she was hearing in the womb. At home, teach them how to communicate naturally and then give them the additional building blocks they need to flourish.


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