Fast track to 'ni hao' know-how
When Australian lawyer Mathew Alderson's two young children want to share a secret, they instinctively switch to rapid-fire Putonghua, confident that neither of their parents will be able to fully follow the conversation.
After the family moved to Beijing two years ago, Alderson and his wife, Sasha, decided that enrolling their children in local schools - where little or no English is spoken - would be the best way for them to learn Chinese. The youngsters were bewildered at first but quickly adapted. Nik, seven, recently scored top marks on a language test, and Natalia, four, speaks better Putonghua than English, her parents say.
The Aldersons - and many other expatriate families - realise that a posting in China offers their children the chance to achieve fluency in a language that is becoming increasingly important, as its economy could well overtake that of the United States as the world's largest in the next decade.
Choosing a mainland school generally means spartan classrooms, rote learning methods and rigid discipline. But Alderson and his wife reckon these are more than compensated for by their offspring achieving a linguistic skill that will be a major professional asset in their lifetime.
There is also the matter of money. Fees at state-run schools can be as low as HK$25,000 a year, significantly less than those at an international school. For expatriates without generous packages from their employers, enrolling in an international school in the capital is simply not an affordable option.
Teenage student Hayley Downes, who has Canadian and Australian citizenship, has been educated in both systems. After arriving from Australia, she attended the Beijing City International School before switching more than a year ago to the state-run Middle School No 55, a move intended to improve her Chinese-language skills.
As might be expected, Hayley got off to a shaky start and struggled to fully follow the Chinese-language lessons. However, the 14-year-old persevered and is now doing so well, she even names Chinese as her favourite subject.
'It was really hard to adapt,' says Hayley, whose father, Justin Downes, runs a ski-resort consultancy. 'The hardest bit is the writing, going from an alphabet to writing characters with strokes. It was really difficult.
'With Chinese, they teach you differently at a higher level. The higher the level, the more the teachers push you. When I started, I spoke enough Chinese to understand the basics of what they were talking about, and slowly I learned more words and my Chinese got better.
'They teach you very fast and expect you to go home and study yourself. I would say I am about 75 per cent fluent; my grammar is the big problem. Overall, I think that it is a good experience and, in the long term, it will be useful.'
The international section of Middle School No55 has about 700 pupils from all over the world who do not necessarily have English as their second languages. At break time, Brazilians can be heard conversing with Koreans in Chinese. Two of Hayley's best friends at school are from Belarus and Italy.
Her mother, Kirsten, says she was happy with the international school her daughter had attended and doesn't miss the touchy-feely approach adopted in many Western-style educational systems.
'The local school is back to basics - old-fashioned desks and chalk on blackboards. It's a throwback in a way,' she says. 'But I think the local system gives them independence, and they gain more confidence, as they are not quite as coddled at the end of the day.
'I am so proud of the way Hayley has adapted and been so tenacious, especially with her Chinese language. Recently, we were stuck in a taxi for a long time and had a chatty driver; the two of them talked for 20 minutes. When Hayley asked him what his name was, he said, 'Why don't you read it?' She read it perfectly the first time. The taxi driver was beside himself. For me, it was just a magical moment.'
Children such as Hayley will undoubtedly benefit longer-term from total immersion in the local system, particularly if their future careers involve China. But there are drawbacks, including possible stagnation of the mother-tongue vocabulary range.
That is a short-term price that Mathew Alderson and his Ukraine-born wife, Sasha, were prepared to pay to ensure that their children learned Chinese from an early age. When they arrived from Australia two years ago, both children were signed up for local schools, a sink-or-swim approach that has proved effective.
'On balance, we prefer the Chinese system at this stage of our children's education,' Alderson says. 'Attainment of true fluency and literacy is our primary objective, and any negatives of the system can be counterbalanced at home.
'It was hard for our son and easy for our daughter. Both went straight into a Chinese kindergarten within a week of arrival in Beijing. Nik was five and Natalia was two.
'Nik struggled with it for a while, but they were assisted by the fact that they each already had two languages, English and Russian. Chinese was to become their third language.
'The Chinese system tends not to give emphasis to critical thinking, innovation or creativity. It tends to emphasise rote learning, respect for authority and proficiency in practical tasks. In my experience, the Australian system is, in many respects, the opposite.
'But the pluses of the Chinese system are the work ethic, mathematics and Chinese-language skills. In mathematics, I would say that the Chinese system is way ahead. There is no doubt that the Chinese-language skills of foreign children attending Chinese schools are superior to those of foreign children attending international schools in China. This because the international schools use dual-language teaching, whereas the Chinese schools obviously teach in Chinese.'
The local school fees also make a difference. Alderson pays HK$50,000 a year for daughter Natalia to attend the Sweet Angel International Kindergarten, while fees for Nik's school, Fang Cao Di Primary School, are HK$25,000 a year, plus a one-off administration fee of HK$24,000.
Although being able to speak Putonghua is a major advantage, putting children in local schools really works only for expatriates who are on the mainland for the long haul. Taking children out of the school systems of their native country - whether it is French, British, Singaporean, Indian or Canadian - to attend a Chinese school for a couple of years can be disruptive and cause problems when adapting back to the home-country system.
But for people such as William Lindesay, who has spent almost half his life in the country, the local system is a boon, an affordable option to the HK$300,000 plus it would cost to send his two sons to international schools.
Not that Lindesay and his wife, Wu Qi, who is a Beijing native, would want their boys to attend institutions where Chinese is taught as just another subject, much like maths or history.
He says: 'Chinese is a foreign language at international schools and is often treated as an unimportant subject, as the family will be in Beijing for only two or five years maximum. We want our boys to be fully bilingual and have a rich international experience; for some families, living overseas is not necessarily an international experience because they live in a little cocoon, send their kids to international schools and live in a [gated] compound with familiar coffee shops around.'
Lindesay's youngest son, Tommy, 11, attends the Fang Cao Di Primary School, and Jimmy, 18, is studying for the International Baccalaureate in the foreign-student section of Middle School No 55.
Says Lindesay: 'For the first three three years, he was following the Chinese curriculum, and he was very uninspired. He always hated having to learn things by heart, especially studying Chinese and learning Chinese poems by heart. By the time he was 15, his reports were not so good.
'Then he switched to the International Baccalaureate course, and things changed. It's a really good course. It encourages debate and questioning and teaches and encourages them to research and to cite their sources rather than copy and plagiarise. He's had a few teachers who were inspirational.
'Discipline is strict, but I think kids need discipline from their parents, close relatives and, most of all, their teachers. I am a Brit who has been in China for 25 years, and I have noticed that when I go back to Britain, there is a discipline problem in schools - a major problem.'
To counter the relentless study during exam time, Lindesay takes his family on extended overseas trips every year. The boys are also used to meeting people from across the world on the Wild Wall exploration weekends that he runs from their farmhouse in suburban Beijing.
'I believe that travel is a great classroom,' Lindesay says. 'On average, we travel nine or 10 weeks a year, and this is an important part of their education.'
With their knowledge of the world's two most widely spoken languages, they can then be true citizens of the world.