Updated: Oct 30
As we advise parents on choosing a school for their children, and we discuss the issue of bilingual school or not, it's easy to quickly detect signs of unreadiness.
Committing to a Chinese language education – whether or not Chinese is a home language – is not just a school choice; it’s a lifestyle choice. It’s not for everyone.
We often hear parents express doubt with variations of the following phrases. Here’s our take on each (with a lot of personal experience):
#1: We’ll let him/her try and see if s/he likes learning Chinese. We won’t push it.
If you’re serious about your child learning Chinese, some (to a lot of!) pushing is necessary. In preschool, gentle encouragement is all that’s needed, with a little ‘top up’ in the form of an additional class or two if Chinese isn’t a home language. By K2 or K3, a tutor or extra class may be needed once or twice a week. At primary, a little more “pushing” in terms of keeping on top of homework and, very probably, tuition in the evenings (up to 5 or 6 times a week). “I love doing hours of extra dictation and masses of homework!”, said no child. Ever. Your child isn't seeing the bigger picture and ‘pushing through’ is almost always worth it.
#2: We should concentrate on English first and maybe s/he can learn Chinese later.
Many people, including speech therapists, believe that introducing more than one language early on confuses children and may lead to ‘language delay’. The HK government advocates this approach, where ‘mother tongue teaching’ most often means teaching in Cantonese. They say: “Educational research worldwide and in Hong Kong have (sic) shown that students learn better through their mother tongue.”
However, Barbara Zurer Pearson, author of Raising a Bilingual Child says, “From just days after birth, all infants can tell the difference between many languages”. She says this is especially true when the languages are quite different from each other – as different, for example, as Chinese and English. “At that young age, infants generally still have trouble telling two very similar languages apart, like English from Dutch. But by about 6 months of age, they can do that too,” she says. The confusion myth is probably the result of older research that looked at poorly designed studies and drew the conclusion that early exposure to two languages put children at a disadvantage. This research prompted educators to push immigrant parents to drop their heritage language and emphasize proficiency in English (most studies are done in the US/UK).
In Hong Kong, we have a complex situation. We have local schools that cater mostly to Cantonese speaking families. These schools support Chinese language learning well but not so much on English. Conversely, international schools support English language learning well but not so much on Chinese. We have a few schools that do both equally well, but not too many. No doubt that, early, frequent, consistent exposure to Chinese is the foundation on which to build fluency and literacy in Chinese. How and where English fits into that scenario depends very much on the family’s situation.
#3: We don’t speak Chinese at home so it will be impossible.
It IS possible for non-Chinese speaking children to perfectly master both the spoken and written form of Chinese. It is not easy. The good news is that it’s becoming more common, especially in ‘local’ schools. Certainly, non–Chinese speaking (NCS) (and especially non-Chinese looking) parents have an additional level of challenge and need to be clear with the teachers about expectations. A very common tendency is for teachers to categorise children as NCS and give them lots of concessions which send them down the slippery slope. lt is not acceptable for Chinese teachers to allow children to slack off “because they are not Chinese/don’t have Chinese language support at home”. To reiterate: early, frequent, consistent exposure to Chinese plus an attitude of ‘Failure is not an option’ on the part of the parents, and all that entails, makes it entirely possible.
#4: I want him/her to be bilingual but I don’t want lots of homework!
It is a lifestyle choice as well as an educational choice. Inevitably, your child(ren) will be doing homework every school night, at weekends and even holidays. You may need a tutor/parent or other helper some, or all, of these nights. You may take your child(ren) to mainland China/Taiwan for Summer/Winter Camps, and you’ll likely be constantly looking for ways for them to “keep up”. You’ll hopefully balance with this in what you do as a family when you’re not involved in school work. This will hopefully ease off as the child(ren) get older and they are more organised and responsible.
#5: We’ve been trying this for two years, and s/he doesn’t speak any Chinese so we’re giving up.
It depends when you started, of course, but productive skills (speaking and writing) take longer than receptive skills (speaking and listening). Children from English speaking homes will usually prefer speaking English in response to Chinese for some time. Some children will take years and years to speak Chinese fluently, despite understanding. So, if your child started Mandarin playgroup at 4/5/6 months (at least by 8 months) and still hasn’t uttered more than a few words of Chinese at 3 years old, don’t fret – it’s not unusual.
Also remember that, if English is widely spoken at home, and your child prefers English, s/he sees no need to be using Chinese.
Many parents experience the ‘switch’. One day – and no-one knows when that day will come – it’s as if a switch is flipped in your child’s brain and they are ‘suddenly’ fluent. Of course, this isn’t sudden at all; they’ve been learning all along. Did you ever doubt them?!
Updated October 2020 | If you are interested in discussing how your child can enter a bilingual/immersion school, please get in touch.