Hapee, 15, is currently a Form 5 student at the Ling Liang E. Wun Secondary School in Tung Chung. Having studied in the local system since kindergarten, she is now preparing to sit for IGCSE Chinese. She arrived in Hong Kong at the age of 2 and was immediately fascinated by the ‘spider’ writing she could see everywhere around her.
Hi Hapee, tell us about your Chinese language learning journey - what languages do you speak at home?
At home, we speak English and Tagalog. My mother knows some Cantonese as she has been learning, but my dad only knows a few basics. My parents couldn’t help me with Chinese homework.
How did you start learning Chinese?
We arrived in Hong Kong when I was 2 years old. My mother says I was instantly fascinated by the Chinese characters that I saw all around me and which I called ‘spiders’. Although I couldn’t read them I found them interesting.
My mother bought simple Chinese picture books and then sent me to PLK Cheung Poon Mei Yee Kindergarten in Tung Chung. The teachers there were very good and I had no problem settling in.
What was your experience like in primary school?
I went to Ling Liang Church Sau Tak Primary School in Tung Chung. Primary school was fine. I made some good friends at school. We had homework classes after school and I also made Chinese friends at tutorial classes outside school.
The teachers were thankfully very patient. Most of them were friendly and interested in supporting Non-Chinese students. For example, although we would learn the same new vocabulary as the local students, the teachers would also give us [non-Chinese students] the English meaning. They were interested in being friendly with children from non-Chinese speaking families; they were interested in us and in our progress with Chinese.
Was there a point when you felt that you felt you ‘got it’?
A few times at Primary school I won the ‘Good Chinese Learner Award for NCS’ to celebrate students who were successful in learning Chinese. When I saw my name on the noticeboard I felt happy and motivated to learn more and get to where I could be. It lifted me up and made me keep going.
Around halfway through P6, I realised I could do the homework by myself and that’s when I stopped going for tutorials.
Is the secondary school experience different?
In Secondary School I moved to the NCS stream at Ling Liang Church E Wun Secondary School. The experience is very different from primary school. I feel more confident in my Chinese. There are times when I struggle but I’m happy to be where I am now. Sometimes, it’s so hard I feel like crying or giving up – it’s such a difficult language. But my friends encourage me and always tell me ‘You can do this, I believe in you’. My teachers also tell me that they believe in me and never doubt me. I find their support very touching. When the going gets tough, I also remember my early interest in Cantonese and I use those memories to move myself forward.
In secondary school, it’s not such a strict teacher-student dynamic. The relationship between teachers and students is more friendly, more relaxed. Our Chinese teacher is very patient. She teaches us methods for learning Chinese characters, mainly through remembering the ‘semantic component’. We need to remember the meaning of the individual components first and this helps us understand the characters. Now that I’m preparing for IGCSE Chinese I don’t have as much homework. We just learn around 8 Chinese characters per week.
Do you find dictations difficult?
I found dictations to be pretty fun in primary school. Sometimes I got discouraged if I got the words wrong, but mostly it felt like a game. Now, in secondary school, dictations are more stressful but the results are OK.
The school textbooks are written in Standard Written Chinese, so how did you manage to learn spoken Cantonese? How much Chinese do you speak in your daily life?
I picked up spoken Chinese without any formal teaching. I speak Chinese with my classmates and teachers every day. My parents have Hong Kong friends and so I get to speak Cantonese with them to practice and it really helps me. One of my best friends is Chinese, and I hang out with both Chinese and non-Chinese friends. Outside school, I do normal stuff like ordering at the restaurant or the markets.
I also follow some YouTube channels like J. Lou, who vlogs about teaching Cantonese to her dad. Sometimes, I watch Cantonese TV dramas at school or at home.
What do you recommend to other young people who are learning Chinese?
I recommend attending tutorial classes to help you finish your homework, otherwise it can be very hard.
Start small in your vocabulary learning and build up from there. Start with the basics and then you can move on to more complex words. With more practice you can move ahead.
Chinese is a very difficult language but don’t be too hard on yourself. Talk to your teachers and take your time.
I really recommend getting a tutor, they can go in depth and provide more information than the teachers have time to give at school. Also, if you ever feel like giving up, think back to the reasons why you wanted to start learning Chinese.
How do you feel when you look back on your Chinese learning journey so far?
I’m very thankful that my mother made me learn Chinese. It wasn’t expected of me, but now I am able to communicate with people in Hong Kong.
I can also support my brother and act as his personal tutor. My parents tell me how proud they are and encourage us to practice Chinese more.
In the future my plan is to study Culinary skills and become a chef. I'm sure my Chinese skills will be useful later in life when I'm working.