“We [parents] speak English at home [to our kids] to create the appropriate environment for a second language,” says Wong, who is a former kindergarten teacher. Her daughters are now studying in Primary Five and Form Two respectively at Sha Tin College, an English Schools Foundation school. Wong says she had planned to enroll them in the school even before they were born.
Wong says her husband went to university in Canada but she has never studied abroad or used English on a daily basis. However, she says she has no difficulty in using English to communicate with her children.
“You can treat my daughters as if they are foreigners,” Wong says proudly. So confident is she of their English level.
Alice Hui has two primary school-aged children. Like Wong she also spoke to them exclusively in English from birth. However, this stopped when they entered kindergarten. Although Hui also grew up speaking Cantonese, she says she spoke English when she worked at a hotel.
Hui is also critical of the English skills of children nowadays. “The pronunciation of students is terrible,” she says contemptuously. “They mix all the L and N sounds when speaking English.”
Apart from communicating with her children solely in English before they went to kindergarten, she also made a huge effort to create an all-round English environment. She rented English DVDs and subscribed to English TV channels to provide a native-speaking English environment for her children.
She introduced them to foreign teen pop, such as offerings from Justin Bieber and Hanna Montana to get them interested in English and intentionally employed an English-speaking Filipina helper.
“Growing up in an English environment definitely builds up their confidence in speaking English,” Hui says.
Although Varsity did not have direct contact with the children, Hui spoke for them, saying that unlike other kids, they are willing to talk to foreigners. She says they regard using English, watching English TV and reading English books as a habit. “They do not feel forced by us [parents] in using English,” she adds.
Wong and Hui are proud of the efforts they have made for their children and they say what they have done is not unusual. As more parents opt to communicate with their children in their own second language, some have questioned whether the less-than-perfect English standards of some of these parents and helpers may negatively affect the English levels of their children.
Linguistic sociologist, Katherine Chen, an assistant professor in the School of English at Hong Kong University says this is not the case. Chen says human beings have the natural instinct and innate capacity to acquire a second language when they are given the language environment
“Research has shown that as long as the children are given the language environment of using that particular language, for example, English, they do not actually take over the non-native language errors of their parents,” Chen says.