Ten-year-old Kaia Herbst, who goes by the Chinese name of Xu Kaili, shrugs it off lightly when asked if she finds learning Putonghua difficult. 'It's easier to write it than speak it,'' says the International Montessori School (IMS) student.
Having studied the language since kindergarten, she is not put off by learning what is seen by many as a difficult language. But being of German descent, she has more chance to practise reading and writing Putonghua than speaking it.
Her friend, Ceilidh Tesluk, can read and communicate in Putonghua, having started learning it at the age of three, in the school's kindergarten. Both are in the native Putonghua stream of the school's upper primary section, learning from the same textbooks used by local children. Research has shown that the best time to learn a language like a native speaker is before the age of 10.
At IMS kindergartens, children as young as two learn the basic strokes of complex Chinese characters, and touch sandpaper versions to help to reinforce their memory.
In line with the Montessori philosophy of letting students learn on their own through activity, the children have ample time to match picture cards with characters they have learned. 'Once we have shown the children how to use the materials, they can work with them and work out the answer themselves. The teacher is there for guidance,' said Karin Ann, a founder of IMS.
Each kindergarten and primary section class has about 20 students and two teachers - one native English speaker and one native Putonghua speaker. IMS has produced its own, integrated Chinese curriculum to help students lay a foundation in the language.
But the reinforcement of learning at home is crucial to achieving a high level of bilingualism, Ann adds. 'Support is more important for learning Chinese because it is a hard language; it requires a lot of attention and dedication from all parties without a Chinese background, but it's achievable.'
At IMS, students in either the native or second language stream have small-group lessons tailored to their level every afternoon. Even non-Chinese students who are new to the school can learn from scratch in a small group setting, Ann says. All students are required to complete one piece of Chinese writing each week and finish 20 Chinese books in a year. It is a challenge getting students to read as there is a lack of appealing material.
Challenges aside, demand is growing for quality bilingual education from families of diverse backgrounds.
With campuses in Silicon Valley in the United States, mainland China and Hong Kong, Yew Chung is dedicated to promoting bilingualism, but more for the purpose of personal development than mere acquisition of language. English is the main medium of instruction at its secondary schools, where students are put in different Putonghua classes on the basis of their language standard. Besides in-class learning, they are exposed to the language in after-school activities led by Putonghua-speaking teachers.
The school's early childhood education section also follows the co-teaching, bi-cultural approach, underlined by its educational philosophy.
'Some of our students have been with us since early childhood, and you can see their temperaments and character, their inner strength and harmony,' Yew Chung Education Foundation's assistant director Winnie Cheng Wai-yee said. 'Merging the best of East and West means they are humble, modest and yet they know what they want. Each has their own character, and independent thinking skills.'
Yew Chung secondary school's Western co-principal Iyad Matuk is used to a diverse mix of students whose parents spent time away from Hong Kong for work or other reasons, but have returned to help their children acquire Chinese culture and language. 'Sometimes they force themselves to come back and they find Yew Chung a perfect place because we are very strong in bilingualism and Chinese culture in the overall environment.'
Another school with a strong emphasis on Chinese culture, the Chinese International School, is opening a study centre in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, in August next year for its Year 10 students. In a year-long residential programme, the students will continue to pursue the rigorous IB middle years programme in English.
The Independent Schools Foundation (ISF) Academy on Hong Kong Island has adopted a research-based immersion model. From foundation year to Grade 2, ISF students spend 70 per cent of their class time learning Putonghua, leaving 30 per cent for the learning of English; the ratio drops to 60-40 in Grade 3 and 50-50 in Grade 4 and 5. English is used extensively for most subjects in secondary school. Both languages are used in school assemblies, documents and in playgrounds.
'By Grade 5, we hope students have developed a very good foundation in both languages and then maintain the Chinese all the way through because at that point we are getting into higher level of Putonghua; we want them to maintain their literacy skills all the way to Grade 12,' ISF's immersion programme director Mary Jew said.
'We choose the 70-30 percentage because for most of our students, their environment outside of school is not Putonghua, and exposure is limited in the family. You have to put in a lot more time on the language to which they are least exposed to develop a good foundation.'
Teachers are native speakers of either language and trained to be both subject and language teachers. 'What makes immersion powerful, as shown by research, is that it really is an integrated approach where we are teaching language through content. For the 70-30 model, for example, students are learning Chinese through such mediums as guided discovery and maps, so it is not teaching language in isolation or as a foreign language,' Jew said.