The quest for English comes at a price
Problems when Cantonese speakers talk to their children in English
Aug 02, 2010
Cheryl is one of many middle-class Hong Kong parents who have high hopes for her children. Even before her son was born, she was determined he would speak English like a native speaker.
So ever since Daniel came along, she and her husband have been speaking to him in their less-than-perfect English, even though they realise their ability is limited. A native Cantonese speaker, she speaks passable English but is far from fluent because she hardly ever uses the language in her daily life.
Like many Hong Kong parents, they have little faith in the local education system and want their son to get into an international school and study abroad when he is older. So why not give him an early start in English?
"If Daniel's English isn't good, he will be disadvantaged in life," the mother of one said. "Kindergarten and school interviews - everything is so competitive these days. So we want him to get used to the language as early as possible."
But her husband admits that talking to their two-year-old toddler in a foreign language can sometimes be frustrating. "The other day I wanted to tell him off and I couldn't find the right words to express myself," the father sighed, shaking his head. "So I just lapsed into Cantonese."
Emily's mother is equally adamant. She and her husband speak Cantonese to each other and to their relatives, but switch into English when they speak to their two young children, aged two and four.
The children utter only English words and are unable to communicate with their grandparents, who speak only Cantonese. But their parents think it is the inevitable price to pay for getting the children into an international school.
"I heard that at some kindergarten interviews, if they hear you speak in Chinese, you will be rejected right away," Emily's mother said.
Daniel and Emily's parents are among a growing number of local Hong Kong parents who have decided to give their children a head start in life by trying to make English their native tongue.
And who can blame them? The standard of English in Hong Kong has been seen as declining since the change of sovereignty more than a decade ago but fluency in the language is still a ticket to good schools and jobs, as well as a status symbol.
But linguists and educational professionals are warning that parents' language choice can have a far wider impact than just their children's language ability - it affects their sense of identity, cultural values and the family relationships.
For a start, if the standard of the parents' English is just moderate, they should not expect that by speaking to the children in flawed English, the youngsters will end up speaking perfect English.
"For the first few years [of their lives], the children take on features of the parents' non-native English because they use it as a model," said Professor Virginia Yip, director of Chinese University's Childhood Bilingualism Research Centre.
With flawed English as a model, the child may end up being functionally bilingual but unlikely to achieve a native standard in the language without regular contact with native speakers.
More importantly, educators say, parents should be aware that their communication with their children and their ability to express their feelings will be severely curtailed, unless they are near-native English speakers themselves. Daniel's father is a case in point.
Dr Angel Chan of Polytechnic University's Department of Chinese and Bilingual Studies said: "If parents use a language they're not very proficient in to communicate with their children, they risk sacrificing their chances of having a close relationship with them.
"We often use our own language to communicate our intimate and subtle feelings, so why not take advantage of our mother tongue to build an intimate relationship with our children?" she said. "Life is not just about language ability."
Linguists say parents should also consider how their language strategy will fit into their family and social lives. They should think about whether the children would be able to form close relationships with grandparents and the rest of the family. Will they also be happy for their children not to be able to read Chinese street signs, order food in restaurants and not understand what people are saying around them?
All of the factors inevitably affect a child's sense of cultural identity and belonging.
Linguists say language shapes our outlook in life, influences our thinking and is the carrier of our cultural values and sense of identity, so Chinese parents who try to provide only English should therefore consider whether they would be happy to sacrifice their Chinese values.
"If you want to cultivate a sense of identity, the role of language is indispensable," said Dr David Li Chor-shing, professor of English at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.
"A child's development of a sense of identity is very much dependent on his language, and who he socialises with."
Nursery rhymes, ancient poems and folklore passed down many generations are full of encoded cultural elements and children who learn them are subconsciously absorbing the values behind them, Li said. For example, classical tales such as the 14th century Twenty-four Pious Sons, which aims to teach the Confucian virtue of filial piety, lose much of their cultural meaning when translated into English.
Rejecting Chinese inevitably deprived children of opportunities to learn about their cultural roots, and could leave them confused about their self-identity, Li said.
Academics say that even from a purely linguistic point of view, there is no advantage in withdrawing Chinese altogether from children because the plasticity of infants' and toddlers' brains allows them to process two or even more languages simultaneously. So by all means, educators and academics say, take your children to English-speaking playgroups, but consider it an advantage that in speaking to them in Chinese and exposing them to English at the same time, you are giving them the chance of becoming bilingual. "Using Cantonese as well is not going to disadvantage the child, ultimately you would expect it to be an advantage, to give the child the gift of being bilingual," said Stephen Matthews, linguistics professor and bilingualism expert at the University of Hong Kong.
"If [parents] no longer speak Chinese to their children, we tend to think they're doing them a disfavour by unnecessarily depriving them of their ancestral language."
From a development point of view, parents could even be disadvantaging their children's language progress by artificially imposing English in an environment where the language was not naturally spoken, Cecilia Kam Oi-ping, principal of the Yew Chung International Kindergarten, said.
Kam said many Hong Kong couples spoke Cantonese to each other yet made every effort to ensure their children spoke English only. Many depended on language-teaching products such as videos and flashcards instead of real conversations as a language model.
She said parents who discouraged children from speaking the native language they could have easily picked up at home and in their natural environment were actually not helping them, as languages have to be acquired through linguistic interaction in real-life situations.
"You would actually be depriving them - they would have 50 per cent less learning opportunities," she said. "You need an environment and situations to learn a language.
"Using flashcards and video, children will only copy in parrot fashion but will not learn to communicate."
Some parents say that once their children have been accepted by an international school, they will switch back to Cantonese. But linguists say that by then, they would have missed out on the "golden period" of acquiring it as their mother tongue, while the child's brain is at the peak of its learning capability. A child who starts developing Chinese later than that would process the language in his or her brain like a second language and the grammar and pronunciation were unlikely to reach native-level.
"I would worry if a child has not been exposed to and used [a language] up to age four," Matthews said. "We would worry that they would be disadvantaged in that their Chinese will never be quite native-like."
Linguists worry that many Hong Kong parents have simply not been adequately informed on language issues and although well-meaning, they are often unaware of the possible consequences of their choice.
Matthews says he's come across more cases of children who were discouraged from learning Cantonese but who later wished they'd had the chance. Li agrees: "Many Hong Kong parents do not realise that their quest for English fluency comes at a heavy cost - in this process, are we also losing something?"
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