Updated: May 15, 2020
Axi is a trilingual trailblazer! She speaks fluent Cantonese and Mandarin and is now in her final year at Wilfred Laurier University in Canada, where she studies Business Administration. For many years, Axi was the only Caucasian in her year group and she is the only non-Chinese student we know of to take the IB Chinese paper at Higher Level. Axi is very positive about her experience growing up trilingual.
Hi Axi! You speak great Chinese... but what languages do you speak at home?
We speak English at home. My parents don’t speak Chinese at all.
Where did you study in Hong Kong?
I went to Precious Blood Kindergarten in the morning and Lingnan Kindergarten in the afternoon. Both kindergartens were Cantonese speaking. Then I went to the Mandarin stream at Kiangsu-Chekiang Primary School. At grade 6, I moved to ISF.
What do you remember about the early days of learning Chinese?
At kindergarten everything was really rushed. My brother and sister also went to two kindergartens, so we had to get home and eat super quick, change our uniforms while still eating and go off to afternoon classes. And of course we got double homework! I didn’t really mind. From what I remember, it seemed normal, not crazy hard.
I do remember the first day of Primary 1 at Kiangsu-Chekiang Primary school, because everyone was talking Mandarin! I thought this was a weird version of the Chinese I knew. I couldn’t understand anything. But after a few months, I was much more confident and by the end of P1 I was fluent.
The Chinese at kindergarten was easy and I had no problems. But at Kiangsu-Chekiang the Mandarin was pitched a very high level – it was really intense and we had many hours of homework. So I had 3 or 4 hours of tutoring every day. My classmates all spoke Chinese at home – so the tutor gave us that extra practice.
Primary school was in Mandarin, so how did you manage to keep up your Cantonese?
At the weekend my dad signed us up for Cantonese speaking activities like Scouts, piano classes and church group on a Saturday evening. These were all completely in Cantonese. So Monday to Friday was Mandarin and at the weekends we spoke Cantonese.
How did you manage the schoolwork at Primary school?
Dictations were hard, I needed a lot of repetition. Every week we had to memorise a classical type Chinese poem and at the beginning I thought this was just impossible. I found the way to deal with these poems was to say it out loud and repeat it over and again to make sure I understood the words, before trying to write it down.
It sounds tough?
Yes, it was. The reality was that all my classmates spoke Chinese at home, so they would do better at their classwork. I didn’t get a single ‘A’ for Chinese; it was hard to thrive in that environment. I didn’t do amazingly well; I think I got a few ‘B’s for my work.
But obviously now I’m very thankful our Dad made us take the hard way and made us suffer!
How did you get exposure to Chinese outside of school?
Once or twice a year our Dad took me and my brother and sister to stay at a village in mainland China, where his colleague’s family lived. That was really cool. The village was in a rural part of Guangxi province, the sort of place where the villagers killed their own pigs before dinner. We would attend the local village school for a week or so. The villagers had never seen a white person before, let alone a white person who speaks their language! I had to translate for my Dad and we got lots of chance to speak Mandarin.
How was secondary school?
I was the only non-Chinese child in my entire year group. Sometimes, I felt a little inferior to my friends, because they were doing so much better than me. I couldn’t get close to them, despite putting in so much effort. But I had a great teacher and I still looked forward to going to Chinese class. My teacher didn’t make me feel inferior, she was very encouraging and she didn’t give up on me. She would chat to me after class and recommend movies for me to watch. I miss her.
What advice do you have for students from non-Chinese speaking families who are in Chinese school and finding it tough?
Don’t get overwhelmed and try to look long term. I know that’s hard when you are in Grade 3, but do remember to think of the long-term benefits.
As a young adult – how does the fact you can speak Chinese help you?
Being able to speak Chinese is a huge advantage and it has set me apart so much from everyone else. I have friends who have better grades than me, but employers are blown away by the fact that I speak Mandarin. I’ve not yet graduated, but I already have a job lined up at a bank, which deals a lot with international clients, including many from China. I think for an employer, grades are one thing, but they are most interested to hire people with a greater skill set. Having Mandarin is a huge asset, for sure.
Learning Chinese to such a high level is definitely one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. I’m sure it will benefit me my whole life. When I have kids, I want to make sure they grow up speaking more than one language.
(music from Bensound.com)