Cost, educational philosophy, language: challenges facing multilingual families when choosing schools in Hong Kong

My son’s local (Hong Kong) kindergarten held an international event this past Saturday. A number of parents who are not from Hong Kong were invited to bring in food, clothes, and other cultural artifacts which were then set up at the kindergarten in some nice displays.

The event was quite fun. We got to taste a variety of snacks that parents had provided, and the kids got to pose wearing clothes from some of the representative countries. Our own modest contribution came in the form of a basketball and baseball jersey and some maple syrup.

My son’s kindergarten does one or two events each term where families can get together, usually to visit a park for a picnic. It’s a good opportunity to get to know other parents. While most of the parents are from Hong Kong or are ethnically Chinese, there is a sizable minority of kids from mixed ethnic or linguistic backgrounds. In the next year or two these parents have to make some tough decisions about where to place their kids for the start of Primary 1, which is the equivalent of Grade 1 in North America or Year 2 in the British system.

One family’s father is from the Netherlands, and the mother is originally from Hong Kong but emigrated to the Netherlands as a child. They both speak Dutch with each other and with their two kids, but they are fluent in English, which they use for work. The mother speaks Cantonese. They have a desire for their daughter to develop Cantonese, but have concerns about placing her in the local system for primary school where the educational values might not align with their own. Instead, they had their daughter interview for a local independently operated but government subsidized school. This process is extremely competitive, and they are competing with hundreds of other students for a 2019-2020 school year start. These schools tend to attract driven middle-class Hong Kong families who are unable to afford the tuition fees and debentures of non-subsidized independent and international schools.

Another family I spoke with are English speaking Malaysians, who only speak English with each other and with their son. They too had interviewed at the local Direct Subsidy School, but they had also enrolled their son in a new French International School which will open in September of 2018 where there will be an English and a French stream. However this family was reluctant to give up on trying to get their son to learn Chinese. As the mother remarked, As the mother remarked, “Everyone thinks I can speak Cantonese when they look at me.” The father, too, was also more open to placing him in the local public system in spite of the additional challenges they will face in supporting his learning at home with their limited Chinese. If they decide to go the local public school route, they will need to employ a private tutor or enroll in an after-school tutoring center.

A third family has two children in the kindergarten. The father is from Italy, the mother from Taiwan, and the language used at home is English. Their kids have picked up Cantonese from kindergarten, and they anticipate placing their kids in a local school for primary school. One advantage is the mother can read Chinese characters. Developing the kids’ Italian is particularly challenging because the kids get little exposure to it. The father plans to start sending his kids back to Italy during the summers where they can spend time with his Italian-only speaking family.

Other families at the kindergarten include Japanese and Chinese parents, Thai and Chinese, Pakistanis, and Indians. Where both parents speak the same language, such as Punjabi or Hindi, the kids will use that language at home, and pick up Cantonese, Putonghua, and English if they attend Chinese medium local public schools. Indeed, it’s not uncommon to see Pakistani and Indian families who have been in Hong Kong for several generations fluent and literate in Cantonese, English, as well as fluent in their home languages.

Each family has to make their own language plan. This doesn’t have to be a formal process, but it should involve both parents and a careful weighing of their values and the long-term consequences of their decisions. As the three families I profiled above show, the process is not an easy one, and no decision comes without any drawbacks.

Most international schools have some kind of three “F” celebration of diversity – flags, food, and festivals. But very often these celebrations neglect the important linguistic diversity that should (in my view at least) be embedded within conceptions of international education and diversity. I will be writing more about the dominance of English and it’s deep affiliation with perceptions of authentic international education later. For now, I, and all of us, should be grateful for opportunities to celebrate and develop the linguistic aspects of our identity.


    • Enjoyed reading about the linguistic complexities and decisions international families might have. Thanks, Gini Rojas

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