Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

English-speaking helpers boost children’s ability in language, Hong Kong researchers find

More ‘natural’ opportunities to learn English in city urged after four-year study

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 January, 2017, 9:57pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 January, 2017, 11:00pm

Local researchers have urged Hong Kong children be given more opportunities for “natural” English-learning interactions after finding those who were looked after by English-speaking domestic helpers had a better grasp of the language’s vocabulary than those who were not.

The paper by Chinese University’s department of psychology on the role these helpers play in children’s language development, recently published in the journal Language Learning, studied 194 native Cantonese-speaking children, when they were aged five to nine, and their parents, from 2005 to 2009.

Researchers administered a vocabulary test for three categories of children: those with an English-speaking helper, those with a Cantonese-speaking helper, and those with no helper.

At age five, those with an English-speaking helper got 24 per cent of the vocabulary questions correct, compared with just 15 per cent for those with a Cantonese-speaking helper and 12 per cent for those with no helpers.

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Similarly, at age nine, those with an English-speaking helper got 45 per cent of the questions correct, compared with just 33 per cent for those with a Cantonese-speaking helper and 28 per cent for those with no helpers.

Study co-author Catherine McBride suggested children with English-speaking helpers benefited from having more opportunities to hear and speak the language in everyday situations.

Co-author Katrina Dulay added that because domestic helpers usually spent extensive time with the child, it was likely they would “exchange a lot of casual comments during their interactions” and could thus help enhance the child’s English vocabulary development.

But children with an English-speaking helper had relatively worse Chinese character recognition. The researchers said such helpers were unlikely to know how to read Chinese as most in the study were from Indonesia or the Philippines.

For recognising written English words, however, there was no significant difference between the three categories.

Dulay said the relationship between helpers and children was largely informal and that maids did not typically help them directly in this area.

McBride suggested written word recognition was more of a “school-related ability” and that written homework was the same for those with or without an English-speaking helper.

“[Helpers] can help with some homework, but parents do just as much drilling with the words that are on a page,” she said.

The researchers urged parents without an English-speaking helper to provide more English language exposure for their child, such as through joining storytelling sessions at public libraries. For those with an English-speaking helper, they urged extra support for Chinese character learning. They also called on educators to offer more opportunities for “natural” interactions in learning English.

Raymond Cheung Fu-wing, an English teacher with around 20 years of experience in local schools, said that students with an English-speaking helper had a richer English lexicon and were more outspoken compared with their counterparts.