On a Hong Kong parenting forum, there was an interesting discussion going on putting one’s native English-speaking kid in a Chinese-language school. The idea fascinates me for a number of reasons.

In Hong Kong, one can get by perfectly well speaking only English. However, one will always remain an expat. A huge number of things happen only in Cantonese and a huge number of people feel comfortable speaking only in that language. I have attempted to learn Cantonese in a class twice and made some progress but time does not permit me to pursue it. The foreigners who can read and speak Cantonese fluently, and a huge number of these are Indians and Pakistanis (or as they called here, South Asians), studied in Chinese-medium schools. They speak like natives and the idea of my son babbling away like them warms the cockles of my heart.

The other advantage of a Chinese-medium school is that the kids that the fees are cheaper. This would not only be easier on my pocket, but would give my child the opportunity to mix with children from a range of backgrounds, rather than just children whose parents can afford the high English-medium school fees.

However, a child in a school where the medium of instruction is not their first one is harder on the child and the parent. Unlike the other kids, my child would not immediately understand what the teacher or his classmates are saying. He would find it harder to make friends because of the language barrier. As he picks up the language, these hurdles would disappear but many children have a hard time adjusting to going to school itself. As a parent, I would not be able to help with his homework, join PTA meetings or understand school circulars. I would have to rely on tutors to help my child after school – this would continue even in the later years when kids might ordinarily be able to manage their homework themselves and also schedule homework time at their convenience.

The rewards are fluency in a language that is really hard to otherwise pick up. But is it worth the extra effort both by my child and me?

In India, there are many children whose first language is not English who are sent to English schools. I’m sure they would face some of the same hurdles that my child and I would face were I to enroll him in a Cantonese school. Granted, they would not face a racial divide and there would be many more children that would converse in their native language during the break (though I can’t recall that many kids speaking even in Hindi during the break at my school). The benefit of fluency in English is so great that this would seem worthwhile, especially for children like my helper’s son in India where speaking English might be his (and the family’s) only ticket out of blue collar jobs and poverty.

Many Chinese-speaking parents here in HK are also keen to send their kids to English-medium schools. Some of them have started speaking to their children in English at home when they are not that fluent themselves. Not sure how I feel about this. Definitely fluency in English opens doors to career advancement. But there are more jobs around in Hong Kong that require fluency in Chinese than in English, though of course fluency in English will take you to a higher level. So a person could build on English skills in later life, though one might argue they would rarely reach native fluency.

Anyway, why do I find it easier to deal with the idea of children in English-medium schools when English is not their native language but not the same for Chinese-medium schools? Is it because, Chinese, while a great bonus to know, can still be got by without?

In which case, the extra language becomes like any other extra skill. Like piano, swimming, art or any of those extras that parents these days seem determined to expose their children to. I am not against them but I don’t think need them essential.

One parent argued that sure, learning in a language different from your own is not easy, but we underestimate what kids are capable of and that we should be pushing them unless we can see that we are making them unhappy. I’m not sure where I stand. I am intrigued by the idea of fluency in another language – but school is not an extra class than can be easily dropped or substituted. It’s a whole day thing, apart from the fact that if a child is not getting along in the system finding another school place is hard. If fluency in Cantonese is not essential, then why not build on it as an extra class?

On the other hand, there’s the idea of my son babbling away in Cantonese that I just can’t get over. Hmmm.