Foreign language schools are everywhere in our city, with the next generation of Hong Kong kids sure to be a hundred times more linguistic than their parents! Tiger Moms aside, many Hong Kong kids actually need to speak at least two languages as they come from international families.
Even though not all of us obsess about getting our kids into Harvard or Oxford, most of us do hope that our children achieve native fluency in the languages that we speak. But multilingualism is no walk in the park – it takes diligence, consistency and patience – something we’re often too busy to have. How many times have you overheard a Hong Kong parent having a conversation with their toddler in English, Mandarin and Cantonese, all in one sentence?! If English and Chinese are the pre-requisite languages in Hong Kong, what about other mother (or father!) tongues? How are you going to ensure your child speaks both parents’ languages to a native standard when they grow up?
Below are five tips on how to encourage multilingualism in your household:
Don’t be shy – invite a few babies of similar age over for a play date. Who cares if you don’t really know the mother – most new mothers are more than happy to bring their babies to play with others, and after all it is the babies’ socialising that matters – not necessarily yours! I have actually never even met some of the kiddies that attend the playgroup that I started in my neighbourhood. We rotate houses each week, with most of the time only helpers and babies attending as most of us are working mothers – but it doesn’t stop the playing!
2. Sing songs
My helper sings to our son Franky every day. So why spend loads of money sending our kids to music classes when parents can sing to their babies in their own native tongue? I used to get quite self-conscious when singing; now I am that idiot who sings children’s songs alone in the street! It just takes a bit of getting used to, so sing it, mama!
Grandparents are the absolute best language teachers in the whole world, not to mention the most willing! Since many grandparents aren’t themselves bilingual (but even if they are, it doesn’t matter), it is the best opportunity to encourage a full language immersion for your baby. It is a win-win situation for everyone – the grandparents are happy with a generous dose of their grandchildren, your baby is in good hands and you and your partner get a long-deserved night out!
4. Want to improve English skills? Get them fit!
One day my husband told me he was worried that our child would not speak ‘proper English’ because neither of us are native speakers. I brushed off his concerns and told him that I have already signed our son up for the little rugby team in our neighbourhood. If English language is your concern, try signing your baby up for Anglophone-friendly activities! Rugby and soccer are the perfect ‘English’ sports – kids learn via playing, and physical activities are great for health.
5. Read, read, read!
If you want your kids to pick up Spanish or Italian, then you are in luck! Most helpers in Hong Kong are Filipinas and speak Tagalog – the official language of the Philippines – that is quite similar to Spanish. One day I passed my helper an Italian book and asked her to read it out loud – and discovered that she has got a far better accent than me! She has been reading to Franky and teaching him his father’s language even though she doesn’t speak it herself. So, take an hour out of your schedule to teach your helper how to read a book in your language so she could read to your baby.
If all else fails, there are still a number of language schools in town that you can send your babies to! Check out British Tutors, HK Kidz, Le Beaumont Language Centre and Manzoni School for French, Spanish, Italian and English.