Updated: Feb 3, 2020
“If you don’t know how to swim and someone chucks you in the lake – you have to learn pretty quickly!”
Dulcie is aged 14 and studying at QualiEd college, in Tseung Kwan O. She’s been studying in CMI schools since kindergarten and is the only non-Chinese in the local stream of her current school. Dulcie spoke to us about her experiences.
Hi Dulcie, Can you tell us about your family background and when you started learning Chinese?
My mum is American and my dad is Canadian so we speak English at home. I went to a Chinese language kindergarten, but I don’t remember it too well. I think my first memories are of Primary 1 and Primary 2. In primary school I didn’t feel ‘different’ because there were some other non-Chinese children at the school, but they were in the English stream. I just remember playing with the Chinese kids at recess.
How did you cope with the dictations and homework?
There was a lot of homework! At primary school, the last period was for doing homework, so usually I would try get the difficult stuff - the Chinese and maths - finished before I went home.
Dictations were hard. I had to ask the teacher how to pronounce the characters and I would use my own way of writing down the sound, to help me remember the character.
In primary school, the teachers always read out the words during the dictation and then we would write them down. That wasn’t too bad. But in secondary school, we have to memorize whole pieces of text and that’s much harder.
What kind of support have you found helpful?
I never had a tutor and my parents can’t speak Chinese so they couldn’t help, so I think the most important thing I did was to reach out ask the teacher for help. Getting the teacher to read out the new words, so I could hear how they were pronounced was the best support.
What is one thing you wish you could have told your teachers?
I would ask them to not expect me to be able to understand the texts so easily – especially when learning new words and reading new articles. It takes me some time to get on top of the meaning. In early secondary, the teachers would say memorize this and that – it was just too fast . I can’t memorize things so quickly if I don’t fully understand what they mean. That’s mostly a problem in the Chinese class.
All lessons, apart from English, are taught in Chinese – what’s that like?
So long as you understand the language, it will be fine. The funny thing is, I’ve learnt maths for so long in Chinese, that if you were to give me a maths textbook in English, I probably wouldn’t understand it! For maths, some of the vocabulary is actually easier in Chinese. For example, the Chinese words for the different shapes just describe the shape – ‘shape with 3 corners’ is a triangle, ‘shape with 8 sides’ is an octagon. That’s easier than learning all the different English words.
What aspects of this learning journey have been the most difficult?
I’ve always been in the Chinese stream – so by default I’m under the same pressure as local kids, but you can imagine that the work content is sometimes more challenging for me. Exams are particularly difficult because obviously the teacher cannot come over and explain things to me during an exam.
Reading books is still quite hard. I can read everything I need at school but reading chapter books is still difficult. The Chinese dictionary is quite tricky to navigate so it makes reading books a slow process.
What would you say to students thinking of studying in a CMI secondary school?
I would say go for it – so long as you are already fluent in Chinese. The beginning of Secondary 1 is a huge leap, for sure. But if you are in an entirely local school, with not too many other non-Chinese students, then you have to speak Chinese the whole time so you get used to it. The other subjects are not too bad.
The thing is, if you don’t know how to swim or tread water and someone chucks you in the lake – you have to learn pretty quickly!
The other thing to know is that English lessons in a CMI school are really easy. You don’t do advanced literature and some people might not like that. I read a lot of English books outside of school anyways, so that doesn’t bother me too much.
Is being in a CMI school enough language immersion for full fluency or did you do extra classes outside of school?
It is enough for full immersion as long as you converse with the right people. If you only hang out with the NCS kids, then maybe not. But I was hanging out with local kids and all the playground chit chat was in Chinese, so I was fully immersed in the spoken language. I did soccer outside of school which was in Chinese and when I’m out and about with my family I do all the translating, so I guess that’s a kind of immersion too.
Looking back – how do you feel about this journey?
I’m glad that I’ve been through it, because now I know how speak read and write Chinese. I’m multi-lingual and I think it will be good for me in my future. This has definitely boosted my confidence and it makes me want to learn other languages –I’m trying to learn German now.
You sound very positive! Do you have any personal qualities that you believe have helped make this experience work for you?
I think probably it helps that I’m quite an outgoing sort of person. I’m happy to speak to people and if I can’t immediately find exactly the right word to express myself, I just try to find something similar. You have to find a way to get around it and not worry too much if it’s sounds bad or is not the right word.
Would you put your children in the CMI system?