More and more non-Chinese are choosing to send their children to kindergartens which use Cantonese as the main teaching language.
While the financial benefit is significant – many kindergartens are non-profit and eligible families may apply for an 80 per cent subsidy – most parents in this category choose a local kindergarten for the language advantage.
Sharon has conversational ability in Cantonese but her husband has none. She enrolled her son, Jack, in Precious Blood Kindergarten at three. “Growing up looking Chinese but not able to speak it is awkward and embarrassing,” she explains. “They will only really be able to integrate with the locals if they can speak Chinese.”
According to Sharon, the school is not a typical local school, adopting instead a somewhat Montessori approach. For instance, children are not expected to sit and listen quietly all morning, focusing on the teacher.
In terms of language, Sharon has seen “amazing development” in Jack. “The first four months he had no clue what was happening. Then, soon after, words started pouring out,” she recalls.
Sharon has joined the central allocation scheme and is now waiting to hear which primary school Jack will be offered a place in.
Zoe and her husband are non-Chinese Scots. They have three children, aged 11, nine and two. The two youngest both attended, or are attending, Cantonese kindergarten.
Zoe’s middle daughter, Melanie, went to Lingnan Kindergarten, while her youngest son Simon is currently in the PN class at Creative Kindergarten, in Ap Lei Chau. Both kindergartens run a curriculum designed by the founding school administrator, Dr Chiu, and are known to be more caring, with less of an emphasis on traditional drills.
Simon is happy at the school, where “the staff are nurturing, the kids are happy and learning lots. Having only started six months ago, Simon is already speaking Cantonese with his elder sisters”, Zoe says.
Bridging cultural divide
Depending on whether a child looks Chinese can make a significant impact on the family’s experience.
Most families choosing this route have children who are at least partly ethnic Chinese, so they find it relatively easy to blend in. For non-Chinese children, however, it can be more of a challenge. In the beginning, when parents are starting their research, the usual advice is just to show up at the door of a kindergarten and start asking questions. It still happens that a teacher, or even a principal, will turn parents away with cries in broken English of “For Chinese …the school is Chinese school …” This is a common experience for non-Chinese parents, but they must be more resilient in order to break through the stereotyping.
All families agree that some amount of tutoring on top of school is necessary. Zoe engaged a tutor very early on – a teenager who visited four times a week. On top of that, parents enrol their children in sports, music, art and others classes conducted in Cantonese.
Parents without the means to hire a tutor find that local playgrounds provide plenty of exposure to Cantonese. Television can help too.
It is clear that more and more non-Cantonese parents are trying local kindergartens. Certainly, the financial and language benefits can be enormous if parents and children and prepared for, and can deal with, the numerous challenges.
*All names have been changed. Special thanks to members of the Facebook Group Cantonese School Parents Group for their contribution.
Originally published in Education Post, May 15, 2015