Updated: Jul 1
Sam went to Chinese Medium of instruction kindergarten and primary school. He is now in Secondary 3 at a DSS school, where most classes are taught in English. Sam is in local stream for Chinese and also learns Chinese history in Chinese. Sam is positive about his learning journey; his understanding of the Chinese language and Chinese culture underpin his creative work. But he also has some interesting insights into how the local schools system presents specific challenges to children from non-Chinese speaking families, who need to develop proficiency in spoken Chinese as well as learning writing skills.
Watch his story here and read the full interview below:
Hi Sam, tell us about your Chinese language learning journey... where did it start?
My parents are from Korea and Australia, they don’t speak Chinese and we speak English at home. I went to a Chinese Medium of Instruction kindergarten near my home when I was small. I don’t remember much about Kindergarten except that I didn’t like it that much.
Primary school was better. I quite enjoyed it and I was in the higher band for Chinese.
You were in the higher band for Chinese, so how did you manage the homework?
I had a Chinese tutor once or twice a week to help with the workload. I’d mainly do my homework myself but she would come and help me with Chinese in general. I wasn’t that good at homework, especially Chinese homework.
Did you get any extra help from the school?
In P1, there was an after-school class where the children from non-Chinese speaking families would go to improve their Chinese. The school didn’t have many special resources, so I would just read the books in the classroom, it didn’t help me very much.
Eventually, I got kicked out of the class because I didn’t need much help and I was taking up space that other students needed.
Every Saturday I would go to an external support class which was held at a different school, this was a type of pooled resource sharing between our school and other schools with children from non-Chinese speaking families. I didn’t enjoy it much; it wasn’t very engaging and I don’t remember learning anything there. I was only interested in the material rewards… they gave us stickers!
How were dictations?
Dictations were one of the harder parts of school life and even now I'm not perfect at them. But seeing as it’s mainly blunt memorisation, then overall, I guess I wasn’t too bad. I would just write the characters around 3 or 4 times. I didn’t practice much more than that.
By P4, I started getting Bs for Chinese. In general I would get higher marks for more intellectual stuff and lower marks for dictation. The school liked the way I thought. They could see that my structural thinking and my creativity were good and these skills basically made my writing good too. But the biggest problem was the time limit; I can only remember one or two writing assessments when I managed to finish the final paragraph. Usually I didn’t have enough time.
Did getting lower marks at Chinese effect your self-esteem?
Not particularly because I was good at the other subjects like maths and English. And I’m quite self-contained, I don’t care too much about other people’s opinions - I’m pretty unbreakable.
Maths was also taught in Chinese – how was that?
I was quite good at maths. But there was no support for the language part of the maths lesson and the questions were really verbal, so that was tricky.
My mum put a lot of effort getting me well supported in maths, we did a lot of flashcards to learn the key vocabulary. Generally it wasn’t about the maths, it was about how to access the maths.
How did you maintain Chinese outside of the school?
I didn’t speak much Chinese out of school, apart from with my Chinese tutors.
I would watch a few episodes of Doraemon in Cantonese but most of my Chinese came from school.
What was the biggest challenge at primary school?
It’s all about sitting down and doing work by yourself – no talking! I wish there had been some more interaction.
The biggest challenge in primary school was that aside from the classes, I didn’t have many friends I could talk to in Cantonese. I didn’t really hang out with most of my classmates. Even though my Cantonese was semi -fluent, there was still a bit of a language barrier.
I wished there’d been more opportunities to talk to the other students during class. Instead, we always had to sit quietly and focus on the textbooks. Also, there was always a lot of homework, so I used recess and lunchtime to do my homework, I wasn’t out in the playground socialising, so I didn’t make many friends.
Did extra-curricular activities provide more exposure to Chinese?
Not really. The activities were just like an extension of regular school. I remember joining up for a beading craft workshops. They would gave us a pattern and a bunch of beads and we would sit down and do it by ourselves, without talking to anyone else. Almost every extracurricular activity was like this. Sitting down and not talking.
Boy scouts was slightly different in that we could stand up, and carry out various formations, but we still were not allowed to talk! Also, for some reason the boy scout commands were all given in English, so that didn’t help.
How did you start reading in Chinese?
Most of the reading that was in Chinese, was either too hard, or they were Chinese versions of books originally written in English. As a child, most of the time I would choose the easier option and read the English. By P5 and P6 I did read a few Chinese books, I was more likely to choose books that were not direct translations of books that I’d already read.
We had a school programme where we were given a pack of books which we had to read within a period of 6 months. There were some questionnaires to fill in and some linked activities. I quite enjoyed reading those books but they didn’t leave a lasting impression.
What would have helped?
I wish the Chinese we were given at primary school could have been more interesting. Most of the time, the materials in the textbooks were very basic story wise. I just wasn’t that interested in them.
I know a lot of my friends hated learning Chinese. I think if it had been more fun and interesting in the classroom, they would have learnt more.
How is secondary?
I go to an English medium of instruction school where around 15% of the school population are students from non-Chinese speaking families. My homeroom is made up of other students from non-Chinese speaking families and Chinese kids who speak English to a high level. We spend more time together in our group and get to socialise with each other. I’ve never been in that situation before and I am enjoying it.
And secondary Chinese?
There is not so much time spent on Chinese, of course, but I find I’m enjoying it more. We do group projects where we actually get to talk to each other and the teachers explain the symbolism behind the texts that we are reading. We are at a higher intellectual level, so we can be more invested in the essays, and I’m enjoying the content more.
With my tutor I’m reading essays about Hong Kong culture and how it’s changed over the years. These are really interesting too.
How do you feel about learning in the local system?
I’m happy I went through the local system, it worked for me and I enjoyed it.
I do think the Hong Kong education system is geared towards a certain type of people; for the people it works for, it works well, but if you can’t focus for a long period of time, you get punished. They do very little to cultivate creativity in students and punish early signs of thinking out of the box, I remember one time I found an extra word on the crossword we’d been given, it was extra to what they had imagined, so I circled it – and the teacher took marks away!
They do reward the later signs of creative thinking though – for example creative prose and essays. It's all very counter-intuitive.
Do you feel aware that speaking Chinese is a great skill?
I’m aware this is a useful skill in Hong Kong, as the vast majority of the population speak Cantonese. I live in Kam Tin so being able to speak Chinese helps me if I’m ordering at a restaurant. I still feel a bit shy, but I am getting more confident speaking Chinese.
Also, through learning Cantonese you can understand more about the culture of Hong Kong and parts of China.
I’m currently writing a fantasy novel; a lot of inspiration for the story comes from Chinese history and many of the characters and plots that I’m using are influenced by Chinese cultures.