Advantages of bilingual studies

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 November, 2010, 12:00am

Like any parents who love their child above anything else, the agonising question of how to provide our daughter, Ocean, with the best possible formal education is one of the toughest dilemmas we have encountered.

As a Eurasian child, but with non-Chinese speaking parents, an obvious choice could have been one of the many international schools.

However, as long-term Hong Kong residents, we strongly believed that Chinese writing and language skills could be a big plus for Ocean's future.

When Ocean, or Hui Yung (Ocean in Cantonese) as she is known to many of her Chinese friends, was three years old, we took her to visit various kindergartens. But she virtually chose her own early learning provider by giving the vice-principal at the Luk Yuk kindergarten in Sai Kung a hug.

She had made an excellent choice and took to learning Cantonese songs and nursery rhymes like the proverbial duck to water.

Even so, we were prepared that at the first sign of unhappiness or stress to let her move to a different kindergarten. Then, just as now, we are not prepared to compromise our daughter's happiness for any reason. We need not have worried. By the time it came to think about primary school education, Ocean was speaking Cantonese with confidence and almost as fluently as a local child of the same age. At the same time, her English-language skills were impressing friends who happen to be native English-speaking teachers.

This compounded our dilemma. Should we let her continue in the local education system or enrol her in an international school? With fees not an issue, we took an open-minded approach, but soon discovered the Chinese part of the curriculum offered by international schools disappointing compared with what we were looking for.

Meanwhile, the Sai Kung Central Lee Siu Yam Memorial School had just launched an English-language stream, which included lessons taught in Cantonese and Putonghua. In addition, general studies are taught in Chinese, while maths is taught in English. One full day each week is dedicated to lessons taught in Cantonese and Putonghua.

When we were invited for a school visit, we heard the words 'holistic' and a 'balanced, well-rounded education' which includes sports and arts as an important part of the curriculum. We were pleased to learn the school had taken big steps to avoid rote learning and encourage children to participate in class discussions.

The faculty is made up of Hong Kong teachers who have studied and trained in Canada, and other English-speaking countries. Small classes of less than 20 students are another attraction. A wide choice of extra-curricular activities that include swimming, art, drama, music and crafts, are equally appealing. The school even has a garden and organises a rota so that children and their parents can take turns looking after plants and vegetables.

The solution seemed ideal and ticked our criteria boxes. At the same time, we were mindful of Ocean's feelings and opinions.

After all, it was Ocean who will be spending her time at school. Still, once again, we were concerned about the 'what ifs.'

For example, what if Ocean found the learning system too tough and it was too late to find a place in an international school? Also, how would we cope with the inevitable flow of Chinese homework?

For the second time we need not have worried and were soon reassured. At the end of each day, teachers at the school volunteer to provide an extra hour of assistance to help children with their Chinese homework. Ocean's teachers are always accessible and happy to provide an update on her progress.

As hands-on parents, there is a great deal of involvement in school activities, which are welcomed by Ocean's teachers.

Now in P3, Ocean enjoys her school so much that it is difficult to persuade her to stay at home even if she has a cold or any other minor illness. Although a significant portion of her education is taught in Chinese, we can see no evidence that Ocean's English-language or written skills are compromised.

As a very outgoing child, Ocean embraces her communication skills and the fact she can talk to anyone in Hong Kong and is not limited to only conversing with those who speak English. In many ways, she has become truly bilingual in the sense that she often dreams in Chinese and often speaks Chinese in her sleep.

While not wishing to plan our daughter's future for her, my wife and I are in agreement that whatever Ocean chooses to do and wherever she goes, the benefits of being bilingual will provide her with distinct advantages.