Learning a second language can help develop a student’s cognitive abilities for better thinking, reasoning and problem-solving skills, and those who speak multiple languages are more likely to excel in other academic subjects. Fluency in a foreign language can also prepare students for future studies and their career in our global economy. To this end, nearly all Hong Kong’s international schools offer students options to learn a second, or even third, language in addition to English, which is typically the primary medium of instruction.
Lack of exposure to the target language has long been a major challenge for students learning a foreign language, especially in Hong Kong which has a predominantly Cantonese-speaking population. Schools have designed various programmes and activities to counter this problem and facilitate their students’ learning.
There is also often a general lack of practical support from parents which is essential for children learning a foreign language. Nonetheless, with guidance and support from the schools, even parents who cannot read and speak the foreign language being studied can support their children in a fun and enjoyable way.
For students in Hong Kong, a major obstacle to learning a foreign language is the lack of opportunities to practise the language, as nearly 90 per cent of the city’s population speak Cantonese.
“For example, a child learning Spanish in Hong Kong will struggle to ﬁnd authentic opportunities to practise, either at school or outside school,” said the FIS spokesman, adding that students can overcome this obstacle by using available resources, notably on-screen and online. These include watching films and videos in the target language and using apps which engage young learners.
Butler said that to compensate for the students’ lack of exposure to the foreign language, CDNIS’ teachers are finding ways to further bring those languages to life in the classroom, focusing on cultural studies, topics relevant to adolescents and teens, and using electronic resources such as films and social media.
According to Chang, since the local environment often does not offer authentic settings for practise in certain languages, the school’s programmes and instructors need to create these opportunities. “Students need to take every opportunity to be immersed in the target language, take risks and not be afraid of making mistakes,” he said.
“We address the problem of our students’ limited exposure to the language by exposing them daily to their second language of choice, and we also provide students with support outside the lesson, being available for them through different virtual channels,” said KIS’ Chadwick.
Parental involvement outside the classroom is essential for students learning a foreign language, but how can parents support their children, especially for those who do not know the target language well?
“We give two essential pieces of advice to parents. Make sure to maintain your child’s mother tongue at home, as a strong anchoring in one’s mother tongue is key to mastering additional languages. And while you don’t have to become bilingual yourself, it is important to make the effort to show interest in the languages being learned by your children. It can be as easy as putting vocabulary words on the fridge and trying to speak these words with your child, repeating them afterwards,” said the FIS spokesman.
According to FIS, whatever parents do, it must be fun and supportive: “It is really important that parents don’t endlessly correct [mistakes] at home, but allow their children to play with any additional languages. As strong as the urge might be to constantly correct the learner, this has the effect of making the learner lose confidence. Parents can play games, learn alongside their children and praise progress.”
Parents also should not be surprised if children sometimes mix languages or seem to take backward steps in their mother tongue, as this is the brain organising and sifting knowledge.
Chang said parents can also support their children in foreign language learning by keeping in close communication with teachers, using the resources provided to students and families, giving lots of encouragement to the child, and creating opportunities for authentic language and culture exposure to the target language. “Most of all, parents can be patient with the language learning process. Learning a second language should be fun and enjoyable, minimising the pressure of being ‘correct’,” he said.
“We provide guidance to the parents, share with them the curriculum, and offer them the resources and applications. We also support them via email anytime they need,” said Chadwick. “Parents can help and support their children even if they do not know the language themselves. Take an interest, help with homework, talk about watching a movie in the different language.”
Finally, while it can be challenging for parents who cannot speak or read the languages their children are learning, Hong Kong thankfully has many agencies providing additional tuition in Mandarin and French should that be necessary, Butler added.