Every day after classes are over, a group of children can be found working quietly on their Chinese homework in a room at Chiu Sheung School in Pok Fu Lam. There would be nothing unusual about this except they're among a small but growing number of non-Chinese children whose parents have opted to send them to schools in which the medium of instruction is Cantonese, or where most students speak Cantonese as a first language. Maggie Holmes is one such parent. 'Since we live in Hong Kong, my husband and I thought it would be a shame if our children did not learn the language. But this isn't a language that you can just pick up, especially since people tend to speak to my children in English. I wanted them to learn playground Chinese,' says Holmes, whose son and daughter attend Lingnan Primary School on Stubbs Road. 'The written form of Chinese is a chore but if the kids start early, it's easier. If you try to get them to learn later, it becomes a burden.' Similarly, Amy Jardin sent her youngest daughter to Chiu Sheung to help her fit in better in Hong Kong. 'My two older children went to English-medium schools and I found that it's hard for them to integrate with Chinese children. I also worry that it will be hard for them when they begin looking for jobs,' says the Filipino, recalling how a lack of Cantonese restricted her own career choices. Although language is the first motivator for most parents, Marie Herrera says the discipline and structure afforded by Chinese-medium schools was also a factor for sending her two sons to the Catholic Mission School in Central. But having your children study in a language that you don't speak presents difficulties. In Teresa Littlewood's case, it was two languages. Her kids - Axi, Abbey and George - not only attended Cantonese-speaking kindergartens, they're now studying in Putonghua at the Kiangsu & Chekiang Primary School in North Point. Listing the challenges, she says: 'I cannot attend any PTA gatherings as they're in Chinese, I go to the school observations days but have no idea what is going on ... I need a translator at the parents' days, I cannot read the school newsletters and I do not know what to tick for their school lunch.' Juliana Cheney faced similar hurdles when her older daughter started at Lingnan's kindergarten, but teachers were welcoming and helped the children fit in. 'It's not all smooth sailing,' she says. But making an effort to interact with other parents so that you can invite their kids over to play at weekends, for example, can ease adjustment. Cheney's daughter went on to complete primary education at Lingnan and her younger son now attends the school. Then there's homework. 'It's not easy to learn a new language, even if you're two years old,' says Gretchen Day, who has three children at Mui Wo School on Lantau. 'Parents have to support the child, and maybe try to learn the language themselves.' Most have turned to Chinese friends for help in translating homework instructions and other material, and a tutor may be necessary. At a pinch, some look to a friendly security guard. 'Sometimes when I couldn't help my daughter with the homework, I'd go down to the security guard and ask for help in translation,' says Cheney. 'We figured this wasn't fair - that we put her in such an environment and not be able to help.' Chiu Sheung, which is designated by the Education Bureau as a school for non-Chinese-speaking students, solved this problem partly by instituting homework sessions after classes. The school teaches maths and general studies in English, and conducts bilingual lessons for subjects such as art, music and computer studies. Since non-Cantonese-speaking students regularly attend class with students who can speak it, they gradually pick up the language. More non-Chinese-speaking children have joined Chiu Sheung in the past three years, and the staff have learned from the experience, says teacher Steve Lau Wai-ming. 'Initially, we did not separate Chinese and non-Chinese students for Chinese-language lessons. However, we realised later that the non-Chinese children need more help,' he says. Chinese-language lessons for non-Chinese are now conducted separately with at least two teachers, special worksheets have been devised and the school offers extra lessons on Saturday. Since many of the non-Chinese are South Asian, the school also runs Urdu classes after school as an inclusive gesture. At Mui Wo School, teachers are around to help non-Chinese pupils - and parents - with homework. The principal, Michelle Yuen Wai-kwan, says non-Chinese now make up 20 per cent of the enrolment and the more diverse composition in her school helps the children learn tolerance and patience. All Chinese-language lessons are held at the same time so that children with a weaker command of the language can join a less advanced class until they catch up. The teaching materials her staff developed to help these pupils have won praise from parents. But while the children cope well in Chinese schools, many parents feel they must take special care to ensure that the youngsters' English skills are up to scratch, especially when considering future transfers to an international or English School Foundation system for secondary education. Last year, Mui Wo School had English-speaking parents come in after school to help the Chinese students with their reading and, this year, Chinese parents will also be helping the English-speaking kids with their Cantonese. For the most part, all students attend the same classes and mix well. Jardin worried initially how her daughter would fit in at Chiu Sheung but says she's seen no problem. 'With kids, I think there are no barriers,' she says. Many non-Chinese pupils at Chiu Sheung name Chinese schoolmates as best friends and say they usually communicate in Cantonese. 'It benefits both sets of children because the Chinese-speaking kids also improve their English,' says Lau. Often, the children make their parents' lives easier by acting as interpreters. Lina Wadsworth, whose seven-year-old daughter now speaks fluent Cantonese, says: 'When I go out, my daughter will ask me, 'Mummy do you know what she said?' Going to a Cantonese kindergarten before starting primary school certainly helps smooth the process. Herrera's older son, who started in an English kindergarten, had a harder time picking up the language than her younger son who was at a Cantonese kindergarten. Littlewood is delighted that, after three years in Cantonese kindergartens, her children were able to speak, read and write fluent Chinese and made an easy transition into Putonghua at the primary level. 'What amazes us is how they can change between three languages all in one sentence like turning on and off a light switch. They are Chinese children with expat faces, all their friends are Chinese, they go to Cantonese movies, they have their holidays twice a year in China, they dream in Chinese,' she enthuses. Cheney also reckons her daughter is gaining a richer education. 'Besides language, the child gets immersed in the whole culture. It goes from language to food to music. They have more friends and can relate to things and share jokes. It's the best of both worlds,' she says. 'We are very grateful for the teachers' hard work and commitment as we now have children who can easily function in both cultures.' And as the children learn, so do parents. Some find they're also able to recognise a few Chinese characters and help with homework. Day adds: 'I can begin to see the world from the Hong Kong point of view rather than the American point of view.'