Sometimes it's hard to mind your tongue

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 August, 2010, 12:00am

The struggle to decide whether to expose our children to Cantonese, Putonghua or English is a debate I am all too familiar with. Many parents are opting to expose their children to only English - even if it is broken English - in the hope it will increase their children's chances of gaining admission to top international schools. Language proficiency is the first thing assessed during school interviews. And in Hong Kong, the land of competitive parents, if your child cannot get into a good school, you might as well cancel all social engagements for the next five years. No parent wants to be the subject of ridicule masked as sympathy.

In Hong Kong, the school interview process starts at the age of three. In fact, it seems that the process to gain a place in a prestigious kindergarten is more cutthroat than the one I went through to get into university. No one is exactly sure what the schools look for in a three-year-old. Among other things, they say that they are looking for development in fine and gross motor skills, language abilities, ability to get along well with others, and ability to follow directions. In the end, I think they're looking for a bilingual three-year-old who can recite Shakespeare and juggle.

So, it is not surprising that eager parents are trying to 'play' the system by teaching their children - rightfully or wrongfully - the skills they think the schools are looking for. At the top of that list - rightfully or wrongfully - is English. The ability to speak English well is by no means a small feat. It is something that takes time and effort to cultivate.

Many people assume that English is easy to learn. They often cite a friend who did not speak any English until the age of six and now speaks like a native. Indeed, English is a language which can be picked up fairly quickly. But, as with any language, it is difficult to truly master. If small children are exposed to too many languages, they risk becoming second rate at all of them and not exceptional at any. If English acquisition is the family's highest priority, then it makes sense that parents and children focus on it, at the expense of other languages.

Instead of berating the parents who limit their children's exposure to their native tongues, we should be looking more at the schools and asking questions like: how are you supposed to interview a three-year-old in the first place? As a mother of a three-year-old, the idea of sitting one down and deciding on his or her chances of having a proper education for the next 15 years in a 15-minute interview baffles me.

In some schools in Hong Kong, the battle doesn't end when a child gets in. In some schools, students can get into trouble for speaking Cantonese. Since when was the ability to speak another language a shortcoming?

Given that Cantonese is the official dialect of our city, why don't all schools - including international ones - devote some time per day to teaching it? If the schools have a change of heart towards Cantonese, I'm sure parents will follow.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.