Alice Hui believes growing up in an English-only environment builds up her children’s confidence in speaking English.
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The Cantonese speakers who want English as their kids’  mother tongue

Reporters: Kris Lee and Yannie Mak

On a typical Saturday morning, the children’s section of Kowloon Central Library is packed with children and parents huddled around low tables and squashed into soft easy-chairs. The room is filled with the sound of parents reading aloud to their children in English, with varying degrees of fluency.

This is just one way Hong Kong’s parents are trying to make sure their children master English, which has been an official language of Hong Kong since 1842.

Since the handover, the use of Putonghua has joined English and Cantonese as an official language. Its use has become more important and more widespread. Government policy, implemented in 1998, saw the majority of Hong Kong schools switch from teaching in English to teaching in Cantonese.

Some feared English standards would fall as a result and a survey carried out by the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce in 2007 suggested that 65 per cent of employers polled said they found employees’ English levels to be below international standards.

But as the keen competition for places at schools that teach in English and the government’s 2008 U-turn to give schools more flexibility to teach in English shows, parents and educators never doubted that English remains as important in Hong Kong today as ever.

For some parents, that means providing an exclusively English-language environment for their children, even though they are native Cantonese speakers in a city where Cantonese is the mother tongue for 97 per cent of the population.

Joey Wong Mei-kuen believes thatspeaking solely English at home createsthe right environment for a secondlanguage for their children.

Joey Wong Mei-kuen, a mother of two daughters, says: “The standard of English [of the younger generation] is worse than my generation.”

She attributes this to the lack of opportunities to practice the language since it is a second language in the community. Therefore, she chooses to use English to communicate with her children and has done so since they were born.


  1. This article states a fact that is at odds with other article of this magazine. The other article about Muslims in Hong Kong says there are about 250,000 muslims in Hong Kong, mostly from Indonesia but also from South Asia and other locations. I am sure those 250,000 muslims are not native-speakers of Cantonese. If Hong Kong has about 7m people then 250k is about 3.7% of the Hong Kong people; then you have to add the expatriate population working in the financial, legal and business sectors that come mainly from Europe, Australia and North America; finally, all the Hong Kong residents coming from non-Cantonese speaking parts Mainland China and the Sinosphere in general. I think 97% native-speakers of Cantonese for an alpha-world city as Hong Kong is quite high. I wonder where you got that number from?

  2. Yes, this is increasingly true. The article states that Shatin College is an international school. Actually, it’s not; it’s an ESF school. And what’s not mentioned is that, while Chinese children at ESF and int’l schools do pick up English to native or near-native level, they do not learn any Chinese in school. Even if they have tutors for Chinese – very rarely can these children become fully literate in Chinese if they focus on English.

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