26 October 2016
Most Hong Kong primary schools use English and Cantonese in admission interviews, while skipping Mandarin. Photo: HKEJ
Most Hong Kong primary schools use English and Cantonese in admission interviews, while skipping Mandarin. Photo: HKEJ

Kindergarten in Cantonese or Putonghua – which is better?

Parents often ask me whether they should enroll their children in kindergartens where English and Cantonese are used as the mediums of instruction, or in those using English and Putonghua instead.

Here’s one conversation I had with a parent who is a diehard advocate of English/Putonghua classes. 

Parent: The international kindergarten my son is going to next year offers “English/Putonghua” and “English/Cantonese” classes. If you were me, which would you opt for?

Chiu: No doubt I would choose the “English/Cantonese” classes.

Parent: Why wouldn’t it be the “English/Putonghua” classes? Almost all the parents go for that.

Chiu: Well, those who go for “English/Putonghua” classes often come up with three reasons; however, I don’t find them valid at all.

First, parents would cite the Education Bureau’s promotion of “biliteracy and trilingualism”.

It’s a beautiful misunderstanding: while it is true for the primary and secondary levels, it is irrelevant in kindergarten.

In fact, the Guide to the Pre-primary Curriculum has made only the mother tongue — that is, Cantonese — the required medium of instruction.

Teaching of English or Putonghua can also be considered as an extra.

In short, implementing biliteracy and trilingualism in kindergarten is a self-fulfilling hypothesis from parents, not the idea of the authorities.

Second, everyone dares not risk standing out from the common herd.

It must be for a good reason that everyone chooses the “English/Putonghua” classes.

Bear in mind: a herd mentality is not necessarily wrong, but sometimes parents should stop and act independently.

Third, as I said, since biliteracy and trilingualism skills are emphasized in primary and secondary education, parents naturally think it is better to give the kids a head start by choosing “English/Putonghua” classes.

However, I don’t see any advantages to doing so.

Parent: Oh, really? Why not?

Chiu: Doing preschool lessons in English and Putonghua wouldn’t be helpful to kids undergoing Primary 1 admission interviews, given that most schools under the Direct Subsidy Scheme or private schools still stick to English and Cantonese for interviews.

A friend of mine chose the “English/Putonghua” classes for his daughter. At home the family would only communicate with the little girl in English or Putonghua, with perhaps one line of two in Cantonese once in a blue moon.

The 10 DSS schools and private schools he applied for all use English and Cantonese for admission interviews.

You can imagine how they went.

In the end, he helped his daughter enter a private school thanks to help from good “personal connections”.

It clearly illustrates “English/Putonghua” has no comparative advantage over “English/Cantonese”.

Parent: I see. Simply put, “English/Cantonese” is pragmatic, while “English/Putonghua” is the hype. Right?

Chiu: Exactly!

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 3.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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