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Ken:"Knowing three languages is highly useful by any metric. I certainly have a unique experience."

Updated: May 19, 2023

Ken is 16 years old and studying in Secondary 5 at HKUGA college. He went to CMI kindergarten and primary school and is one of only a handful of NCS students in his current school. Ken is an extremely articulate individual, who deals with the challenges of his school experience thoughtfully and with good humor.

Hi Ken, can you tell us about your family background and when you started learning Chinese?

My parents are both American and at home we speak English. My mom can speak functional Cantonese and can read and write a few characters; my Dad doesn’t really know any Chinese.

I started learning Chinese in kindergarten. There was one kid, who I was good friends with at the time, who was the kind of girl who wouldn’t stop talking! So I learned a lot of Chinese from her.

How was primary school?

I went to a CMI primary school, so I had difficulty with everything. Often, I wouldn’t understand a teacher's question - I’m not too bad at math, but I sometimes just couldn’t understand what I was being asked to do. So for most of primary school, we had a tutor that would come almost every day and help me get through my homework.

Even so, in primary school I would often fail the Chinese exams in their entirety. It didn’t bother me too much, as I tend to accept things as they are; I felt those are the cards I’ve been dealt, and my goal was just to try and pass the exam. I did eventually pass the final exam in P6. I was very happy with myself at that point!

How did you deal with the homework?

At primary school, there was always too much homework, but that is a universal problem across Hong Kong. I do remember, with some amusement, that in Primary 1, I hardly managed to hand in a single piece of homework! I didn’t get in big trouble over it, just lots of small trouble.

I understand homework can be necessary, but as my own little protest I do it all while I am at school, either just after school or just before the lesson. I pay attention in class and I find classes fun, but homework impinges on the boundary that I draw between school and home.

Do you have any tips on how to deal with dictations?

My particular technique (that I learned from my dad) is to memorise from the end of the text, not the beginning – repeat the last line to yourself until you can say it without reading it, then do the same for the second-to-last line plus the last, to cement the last in your memory while learning the next.

If you’re wondering what the point is of memorising these texts: the HKDSE has 12 Classical Chinese texts that everybody has to memorise, so primary school dictations build up your memorisation skills while secondary school dictations actually get you to memorise the texts themselves.

How was the transition to secondary school?

I started looking forward to secondary school from the moment I learned it was EMI, because by P6 (in a CMI school) I had had my share of frustration with trying to get through stuff that I could do rather well if it weren’t for the language.

Some subjects are still taught in Chinese though. For the first three years of secondary school, Chinese is taught in Mandarin, like primary school, but Chinese history is taught in Cantonese. In the last three years of secondary school, Chinese changes to being taught in Cantonese, since by then we’re mostly going through Classical Chinese texts, whose pronunciation is much closer to Cantonese than Mandarin. During some classes, the teacher will sometimes revert to Cantonese to elaborate on more difficult concepts, so there is quite a bit of code switching.

I learnt a lot of basic concepts in Chinese, so there’s an odd mix of languages in certain areas (e.g. I learned trigonometry in English, but memorized my times tables in Cantonese).

Have you felt ‘different’ at school? How do you cope with that?

In primary school I had a vague idea that I wasn’t entirely the same as everyone else (e.g. it’s hard to ignore skin color differences), but it didn’t affect anything – we were kids, we didn’t care about anyone’s appearances.

In secondary school the difference is more obvious. For example, I’ve physically changed in ways that others haven’t, and vice versa. But it still hasn’t really changed how I interact with people – I would be no less weird if I looked like everyone else.

Basically, it’s noted but not really noticed.

In S5 I have been feeling somewhat more isolated - sitting in an empty row at assembly, for example. I think they might just be reacting to the stress leading up to the HKDSE, which brings out the worst in people.

I continue to be very close to my best friends.

What kind of support have you found helpful?

At primary school, the teachers didn’t make any special provision for me; perhaps that was because my Mom specifically stated that I shouldn’t be treated any differently. Some teachers did offer to give me extra help after school, but I would turn them down because I wanted more time to myself.

In secondary school, the single most helpful thing is that I’m counted as an NCS student. This means I don’t have to take the HKDSE Chinese exam and can instead take the IGCSE Chinese paper, which will give me a passing grade in the HKDSE Chinese. The Chinese HKDSE exam has a ridiculously low curve, the passing mark is something like 30%, and yet still many people don’t pass it. So thankfully I am spared that horror.

I guess the English teaching is not native level – have you worked at English yourself?

There are a few components that form my English ability. Most of my vocabulary comes from interaction with my parents. I also do a lot of reading for leisure; both fiction and non- fiction. The English at school has been nowhere near native level, so in primary school I would get 100% in tests without even trying. That might be a bad thing because I don’t have any experience with native level English teaching. This year though, I have an opportunity to take the English IGCSE paper. I’m in the same English class as other students, but sometimes we are assigned a different topic to write about in class.

What has been the most rewarding aspect?

Knowing three languages is highly useful by any metric. Also, I certainly have a unique experience, which I can use to my advantage when I apply to college. I don’t think there will be many college applicants that have gone through this kind of schooling.

Also thanks to this experience, I have also developed an interest in Classical Chinese, and in historical linguistics in general, as well as philology and phonology. I hope to minor in linguistics when I go to college.

Is there anything you wish you could have told your teachers to do?

My teachers have always been very professional and there is nothing I would tell my teachers. Any problems I’ve encountered relate more to the education system. Basically, I think any help or strategies that are implemented as genuine support measures rather than as a difference marker are good news.

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