Multi-language dilemma

  1. #1

    Join Date
    May 2003
    Discovery Bay

    Multi-language dilemma

    I already know the benefits of children being exposed to multiple languages at a young age. But can too many cause problems?

    We are long-term expats in Hong Kong - I have been here 14yrs and my husband (although British) was born here. We have always been very keen for our children, now 2 and nearly 5, to learn Cantonese, particularly as my husband missed out on learning it as a child so doesn't want to repeat the mistakes of history.

    Our eldest daughter Becky spent 2 years in Cantonese kindergarten before starting at the French International School (English stream) last month. We decided against continuing with the local education system because we feel it is too serious at too young an age, and not enough learning through play - we don't want our children to be on a rigorous academic treadmill, and they would have to work even harder without parents to help them with homework. We chose FIS because my husband teaches there and they pay 75% of our fees.

    We are trying to keep up her Cantonese by having a tutor for an hour on Saturday mornings, plus insist on TV being in Cantonese where possible.

    However, FIS do not teach Cantonese, but Mandarin and French - and French is twice a week. I am wondering how she will fare learning four languages!

    Our youngest daughter Rianna is also participating in the Cantonese tutor's visits, and she also went to a partially Cantonese playgroup for a year (we discontinued that because she had got bored because it was the same every week), plus we are planning to send her to Cantonese kindergarten in a year's time. But because of her month of birth, she will only have time for one year's Cantonese kindergarten before hopefully starting at FIS.

    I am also concerned that her facility for multiple languages is not as good as our eldest daughter, because she seems to have a less flexible mindset. But her English skills are very good - she was using simple sentences at the age of 18 months the same as our eldest daughter - so I am sure she has some talent for language, but may struggle with four!

    To be honest, if I had realised 4 years ago that FIS would be teaching two languages (plus English as language of instruction) from age 4, I would have been in favour of concentrating on Mandarin for kindergarten instead of Cantonese. But now Becky has spent 2yrs in Cantonese kindergarten, it seems worth trying to keep that up, but I don't want to flog a dead horse if there is little chance of keeping it going in the long run. We don't have any non-English speaking Chinese friends and not sure if any non-English speaking Chinese exist in Discovery Bay apart from the gardeners and cleaners working here! On the other hand, we do still believe it would be great if they could grow up speaking the local language, which we don't believe will be supplanted by Mandarin any time soon.

    As I see it, our options include:

    1. Sticking with the current plan of cultivating four languages, putting Rianna into Cantonese kindergarten, and only drop Cantonese if problems are encountered later.

    2. Try to keep Becky's Cantonese going, because she has already got up to a reasonable level, but go with Mandarin kindie for Rianna. Drawback: expense of Mandarin kindie when local kindie is almost free.

    3. Abandon Cantonese and accept it has done Becky good to be exposed to it at a young age, as it will help her acquisition of other languages, but there is no point investing any more effort into it.

    All opinions appreciated! Thanks.

  2. #2

    Join Date
    Oct 2008
    mid levels

    Dear JennyB,

    You have exactly the reverse problem I have. I am local and my son said his first words in Cantonese, but the family speaks 3 languages as my hb's side of family came from N. China and the 2 nannies speak Eng. The whole family is trying to foster a trilingual environ for my 2 boys. The elder is now 3 y.o. and doing Eng/Mandarin class in wdld and uses the 'right' language with the 'right' person. The younger one is talking better than the elder at the same age but I think this is the case with all younger siblings - they have the older siblings to learn from.

    There are so many parents out there that are keen on exposing children to multiple languages at very young age and you can look up the website of le beaumont language institute (in admiralty) where they have many links of 'research papers'. Not sure if it's true or not, but they claim at early age, you should gear children towards more languages rather than good at just one or two. It's much easier for children below 6 to acquire new lang skills than later. I myself am very keen on learning languages and I do find it a struggle as an adult. Not much longer after I stopped going to classes, most of the skills are gone. I hope you will not let Becky's 2years in Canto go down the drain. Option 1 seems the most desirable to me, esp. now that she's been accepted by FIS there is no pressure of language fluency in interviews. But if she shows signs of confusion, drop canto later.

    This is not a very knowledgeable reply but I hope it helps. Do share with us any tricks/problems you have encountered along the way as I am (and many others I'm sure are) going through the same path.