Valuable lessons in Putonghua

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 May, 2011, 12:00am


They are known as third-culture children, equally at home in different environments, thanks to an upbringing in different parts of the world.

Expatriate children living on the mainland are, arguably, in the right place at the right time in third-culture terms, able to understand the Western and Chinese mindsets, and speak the world's two most important languages, English and Putonghua.

But not all parents avail themselves of the fabulous linguistic and cultural opportunities on offer.

French parents, for example, may be keener that their children keep in touch with their Gallic roots, which is understandable if their China posting is only for a few years.

In any event, international schools usually offer Putonghua as just another lesson, treated with the same time allocation as history or geography.

It was part of the reason Canadian consultant Justin Downes decided to move his 13-year-old daughter Hayley from the Beijing City International School to a local school, the prosaically named Beijing Number 55 Middle School.

'We felt the international schools were not offering full bilingual programmes,' Downes says. 'Like other expatriate parents in China, we had become increasingly concerned that our daughter could well leave China after several years of schooling and still not be fluent in the language, or have a deep understanding of the culture, and we decided to move Hayley across to a Chinese school.

'All Hayley's classes - including reading and writing, science and history - are in [Putonghua]. She also takes an English class.

'While the school offers an English stream through its international programme, Hayley has proven she is up to the task of studying in the Chinese stream.

'Her language skills have skyrocketed and she is now leaps and bounds ahead of where she was, and is well ahead of her peers in the international school system.

Certainly being forced to speak the language eight hours per day helps the learning process.

'She is loving the experience. Obviously, the first few months were a real struggle but she stuck it out and never complained. Hayley is better exposed to the real life in Beijing and not just the cushy life of an expat.'

Downes concedes that the teaching system is rather more rote-oriented than he would prefer, but his sporty daughter balances the academic rigidity by having plenty of extra-curricular activities and a wide circle of pals from different countries.

And his bank balance has also benefited: Chinese government schools charge a fraction of the HK$200,000 annual fees demanded by the top international facilities to educate teenagers.