Careful what you wish for

One of my favourite picture books is Pizza for Breakfast by Maryann Kovalski. It’s about a middle-aged couple called Frank and Zelda operating a pizzeria next to a hat factory. At the start of the book they’re busy serving the factory workers but they have no plan for the future, even though Zelda has concerns about how fashion tastes might change and people might no longer want to buy hats. But, they’re happy. They just don’t know it.

Sure enough, without a plan for the future, they are caught flat-footed when the factory closes. One day after a long period of time with no customers, a mysterious little man comes in and offers them a wish in lieu of payment for his meal. They scoff at him and sarcastically wish for a thousand paying customers “every day, and forever”. The wish is granted immediately, and business is suddenly booming again. Soon, though, the couple needs to make more wishes for extra help and space. The wishes are granted, but the chaos only expands. Finally, the little man apologetically grants the couple a final wish – to return things back to normal.  The last page sees them having sold their business and relaxing on a beach beside their new pizza truck. They were happy again “and this time they knew it.”

Much like Frank and Zelda, working in Hong Kong can sometimes leave me losing a bit of perspective. It’s a fast-paced city with an intensely competitive educational market that dominates the attention of everyone at all socio-economic levels. I think many of us from middle-class Western upbringings (the bulk of international teachers, I suspect) can feel like Luddites with our relatively lackluster ambitions. This is in contrast to a city where parents can be seen to be really under-delivering when they’ve only got their children enrolled in a handful of after school tutoring or extra-curricular activities. Granted, because of space issues, the vast majority of Hong Kongese as well as expats, are unable to get their kids to play outside in a ‘backyard’ so to speak. Apartments are tiny, and confronted with the choice of having kids spend free time mucking around on a mobile phone or getting enrolled in some sort of program, the decision to cram kids’ lives with these activities is more understandable.

Paradox of privilege

Parents, the world over, want what they believe is best for their kids as the USC admissions scandal has shown and this picture from India also shows. In Hong Kong, with the already adrenalized atmosphere of trying to attain spots in competitive schools, the quest for a language advantage comes into play. It’s not uncommon for parents to enroll kids in two half-day pre-schools, one Chinese, and one “international”, ie English, to give kids a slight advantage for the highly competitive kindergarten and primary school placement process. And most households have a live-in domestic helper who not only provides some early exposure to English, she (I’ve never met a male domestic helper) also carts kids to their various activities.

Whereas in the past, access to a good quality English language education was viewed as a means to obtaining better opportunities, the current generation of students must also contend with the growing influence of Putonghua in addition to English. The governments official policy of trilingualism and biliteracy puts an added layer of strain, particularly for local Cantonese speaking Chinese who see the dominance and future usefulness of Putonghua for dealings with mainland China in addition to the practicality of English for international connections undermining the local language of Cantonese.

As I’ve written here, many parents are neither philosophically nor ideologically motivated in their family language planning decisions. I’ve spoken with Cantonese speaking parents who fret that their children are not strong enough in either English or Putonghua. I’ve met post-graduate students who feel like they’re at a disadvantage in the local market with their lack of a native-like Cantonese. Then of course there is the ex-pat community who usually are not proficient in any language other than English or their home-language. Returning Chinese also fit into this category. They may have spent formative years in the West and are unable to speak or write Chinese effectively.

There are no easy answers. Nor is there a simple solution that can be applied to all families. Others, such as Eowyn Christfield, have written and provided much consultation to families considering their language options. My own experience here in Hong Kong raising our own bilingual family, is that the clearer and the earlier you set up your language goals for your family, the better.

Some families have few options regarding their language choices. But in some markets (yes, markets) parents have too many choices. The resulting choice paralysis can lead to poor decisions, some which may have lasting consequences.

English only approaches

It used to be a no brainer. English. The higher the level, the more native-like, the better. It’s not anymore. With many schools offering it as a second language, English speaking by itself, is less of a competitive advantage. There are of course important English speaking, privileged enclaves in many cities outside the Anglo-west, but they’re shrinking. I suspect that the future of private international education in China will move away from English only or English dominant approaches. The Harrows and Dulwich colleges will likely embrace this trend as well.

I was just running with a friend who said that in his industry, finance, the up and coming talent in Hong Kong is increasingly tri-lingual, smart, hard-working, and much cheaper than the older expat managers. I think this is becoming a global trend. If you want to read in greater detail my thoughts on this trend, I write about the changing linguistic capital of English in the spring 2019 edition of International School magazine.

Students at most English medium international schools in Hong Kong will receive a good quality education, but SO OFTEN at the expense of a first language and/or good proficiency in Chinese. The long term prospects for these students are mainly to relocate back to the Anglo west or find employment in jurisdictions where English remains widely used in professional and legal sectors, such as Hong Kong or Singapore. This is sad.

In Hong Kong parents with less means can choose the English medium public or direct subsidy schools. The English medium public schools are widely seen to offer a poorer quality education. The government has also not done a good job in supporting Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities, where, rather than provide substantial Chinese learning assistance to non-native Chinese parents, the government has encouraged the use of the English medium schools. This is particularly difficult for non-English speaking ethnic minorities as they do not receive adequate literacy support or instruction in their first languages. In addition they may not receive a high-quality English language education. Many western ex-pat ethnic minorities (yes) are frustrated when their children are shuffled or encouraged to attend one of these schools. When I registered for my daughter to join the public system, they did not even ask me which stream I wanted. I was fortunately able to notice on the form that they had placed her in the English medium stream and then correct them.

It’s a very tough slog for non-Chinese parents to enroll kids in a local Chinese medium public school. I argue strongly, though, that if parents are able to provide the support, and the government is following through on their legal mandate to offer a public school education for all, that it can be done. It’s not uncommon to see Hong Kongese of Pakistani descent fluent in Punjabi/Urdu, Cantonese, Putonghua and English, in addition to being literate in Chinese and English. This is no where near as common as it should be, but it’s a much better track record of linguistic success than any of the fee paying international schools in the city, and it’s all been accomplished on the public dime. Go public!

Good quality language is important

When I say this, I am not taking a side in the native/non-native English speaking teacher debate, though there is research in favour of the non-native speaker! Chinese writing is an intrinsically difficult language to become literate in, especially for non-native speakers. But with due support, starting at a young enough age, the process is possible. After all, how do the Chinese figure it out?

I don’t have data on this, but my experience of learning French in Canada in high school, and my observation of the 1-2 hour average length of Chinese instruction in English medium schools each week in Hong Kong, suggests that this is far less than is necessary for the majority of students. My goodness, when I left high school in Toronto, there was no way I could hold a conversation in French. It took two semesters of French in university and a five week immersion program in Quebec before I achieved that. And that was with fairly high levels of motivation.

If Chinese is a first language, my advice is for parents not to worry about the delay in acquiring English, especially if you have access to a Chinese Medium of instruction school of decent quality. Prioritize that. In Hong Kong, it’s called the public system. Bypassing a few years in an English medium school and then attempting to re-enter a Chinese medium school, either public or private, is difficult. It’s arguably easier for an English speaker, or a child acquiring English, but even this process can take time.

If you have the option, don’t bounce around

The stereotype of the ex-pat filled international school overseas is no longer accurate. International schools are now composed of more than 80% national students. Changing opportunities for middle class parents across Asia and the Middle East mean that there is now more international mobility. But meaningful opportunities for citizens in these countries outside of elites, or, in the case of China, punishing public school education regimes are not abundant. The Anglo-West is currently grappling with the ramifications of multilingualism and multiculturalism. But there is a danger for two groups of people in overseas settings, such as Hong Kong. Those who have opted for the English advantage, but not necessarily a high quality version of it, may be left with a lower degree of literacy. This is especially the case with the more difficult to obtain Chinese. For those who have been able, either through private education or a Western English public education, to invest fully in one language, their are some advantages in terms of greater English fluency, but this often at the expense of a first language.

So what of it?

Frank and Zelda had no plan. Then they were suddenly given the opportunity to pursue what they thought was best to disastrous result. Given the chance to rethink their strategy, they finally made a decision that worked for them.

None of us has access to a wish granter, but in the case of English, that vaguely chimmery harbinger of better opportunity, that wish, has been granted to many more people than ever before. It’s not for me to determine what’s best for individual parents. But I do have the responsibility as an expat, a language teacher, a parent in a bilingual family, and a member of the international education community to remind everyone to be careful what they wish for.




  1. Choosing a language for a child because you want them to have the best career i see rarely works, but if you have a cultural/philosophical/familial connection to the language it can work.
    Some are more gifted at learning languages. I am already the ignoramus in my family. School and/or commercial interest unfortunately are not always enough of a motivator.

    • Choosing a language for you child for career purposes does work, but it doesn’t work if you keep switching. Immigrant children usually pick up their host language and if they come at an early enough age, it often comes at the expense of a first language. Many people do immigrate for the sake of their children’s futures.

      In Hong Kong, a lot of parents, if they have the means or a connection to an English speaking country, will try to place their children in an international English medium school. Again, if done early enough English is learned well and the first language is compromised. Dual language schools try to mitigate against that.

      There is a small group of expats in Hong Kong who have chosen to place their kids in the local public system, and for the most part the kids are unsuccessful in picking up Chinese to a high degree of literacy. There are many reasons for this, but a big one is the commitments that have to be made to acquire literacy are much higher than for English. In this case, desire to learn Chinese just doesn’t work on its own.

      I think there may be some variety of natural aptitude for language learning, but this mostly applies to adults. If one has already acquired English, especially natively, the motivation to learn other languages is indeed greatly decreased. I discuss that in this blog post: The higher the status of a language the more demand and motivation is created. Europe is filled with the same percentage of mediocre students as the US (I imagine), but with much higher degrees of bilingualism, something like 50% with 38% speaking English. The US is at about 20% and much of that bilingualism has been acquired outside of the classroom or through immigration. Watch how Spanish is becoming more and more important, and we all know about Ivanka Trumps kids learning Chinese.

      Michael, do I know you. =)

  2. Yes, you do, and I forgot to include my whole name and contact before. You know me from China! I occasionally stalk your blog.

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