Do you want to give your child an opportunity to learn a second language at an early age? Are you looking for a bilingual education that goes above and beyond the weekly language class taught at most international schools? Whether it’s a Shì, Yes, or Oui, the answer could be a fully-immersive bilingual programme offered at just a handful of international kindergartens and pre-schools in Hong Kong.
An obvious choice for a bilingual education in Chinese/English would be to attend a local government school – or a Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) school – as these teach in the local dialect of Cantonese. International schools, however, teach in Mandarin (Putonghua), which is the most popular Chinese dialect, and offer bilingual programmes that are more focused on the needs of native English speakers. Students do not need to be native speakers of Mandarin to participate in the bilingual programmes at these schools.
Students from as young as two years can learn two languages simultaneously, including English, Mandarin and French. Schools including Chinese International School (CIS), Yew Chung International School (YCIS), Victoria Shanghai Academy, Kingston International School, Singapore International School and Independent Schools Foundation Academy (ISF) all teach an IB programme, the English National Curriculum, or Singaporean curriculum in a native and secondary language, while the French International School of Hong Kong teaches the French national curriculum in two languages.
What is a bilingual education?
Bilingual schools offer an immersion programme, also known as a dual-language programme, which uses two languages in the classroom. They teach the same curriculum as monolingual classes with the only difference being the languages used for instruction.
Bilingual programmes in Hong Kong typically start in kindergarten or Grade 1/Year 1 and run until the end of primary school and the end goal is simple – to speak, read and write fluently in two languages.
Most schools take a 50/50 approach to ‘immersing’ the student in the language. Students will spend at least half of their class time learning in the foreign or secondary language; some schools will spend half a day in each language, while others teach the languages on alternate days. Alternatively, there are part-immersion models where up to 75% is taught in the target language and the proportion gradually decreases to 50% by Year 5 or 6.
While some bilingual schools have two co-teachers in the classroom (a native in each language), others will have one bilingual teacher who switches between languages. The student body can vary: some schools will only accept English-speaking students and others will have a mix, which can be an advantage as the children then learn from each other.
What are the pros and cons?
The benefits of children learning two languages simultaneously are supported by research, and it’s been found to stimulate the brain cells and sharpen the mind. It generally takes around five years to be proficient in a second language, so by putting your pre-schooler into a bilingual education you are giving them the best head start. Also, students are exposed to a new culture as well as a new language, which encourages them to embrace diversity.
In terms of cons, a bilingual programme can be more expensive as bilingual schools will hire additional teachers and this cost can be reflected in the tuition fee. In addition, the workload for learning two languages can be heavy and some students may struggle. Finally, parents need to invest their own time and effort into a bilingual programme and support their child with learning the second language at home; this can be challenging if you do not speak the language.
Questions to ask
Consider these points when making your decision:
• Are you planning to stay in Hong Kong? Bilingual education works best if you pursue it for at least two or three years.
• What language courses are offered by the school once the bilingual programme ends, typically at the start of secondary?
• Are the teachers in the bilingual programme a native speaker? For an authentic immersion experience, students need to be taught by a native speaker.
• How much of the secondary language is taught in the classroom? Some programmes use both languages equally, while others may teach 25% in English, 75% in Mandarin for example.
• How are students assessed? Students can sit external exams such as the HSK Centre’s Youth Chinese Test (YCT) and the ACTFL Assessment of Performance toward Proficiency in Languages (AAPPL).
• What teaching tactics are used to overcome language barriers, encourage understanding, and reduce frustration? For example, the teacher can physically act out what they are trying to teach.
• Does the school have dedicated bilingual classrooms? You should be looking for classrooms that represent both languages – word walls, books, student work etc – and have class items clearly labelled in both languages.
• Does the school library stock books and resources in the target language?