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Bilingualism and Trilingualism in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is commonly known for its bilingualism and trilingualism traditions. English was the only language used extensively in Hong Kong during the British colonial rule. However, other primary languages, such as Cantonese, emerged as the number of Canton Province inhabitants increased in Hong Kong (Song, 2021). Cantonese is mainly taught in local schools, while Mandarin is mainly used in government official communications due to interaction with the people from the mainland who speak Mandarin. Despite the brief history background check for languages used in Hong Kong and identifying the three major languages used, parents in Hong Kong have some concerns about childhood bilingualism and multilingualism. According to research done by Wang & Kirkpatrick on parents’ and students’ perceptions about Hong Kong’s trilingualism in primary schools, the findings gave different views discussed in this essay.

In a survey conducted in two schools in Hong Kong, ten parents from different nationalities were interviewed in school A; three from the mainland, five locals, one from Australia’ and one from the Philippines. The mainland and local parents appreciated that the commonly used language at school was English, and thus their children would improve their English proficiency. According to three local parents, the model of trilingualism was inviting while choosing a school for their children; the other two chose the school for other reasons (Wang & Kirkpatrick, 2018). Three mainland parents chose the school because the subject of Chinese was taught using Mandarin, but the overseas parents selected the school for using English as the primary teaching language. The mainland and local parents also noted that the school gave their children an environment rich in English. The children wanted to communicate with the non-ethnic Chinese students in school, which would improve their skills in listening and speaking English.

The parents from the mainland and the locals also agreed that using Mandarin to teach Chinese would enhance the students’ Chinese writing skills (Wang & Kirkpatrick, 2018). The overseas parents found this policy-neutral. Mainland parents identified that their children found it easy to learn Cantonese and English, while the overseas parents found it hard for their young ones to learn and write Mandarin and Cantonese. One parent pointed out that many non-ethnic Chinese students have the main agenda of understanding Mandarin. Also, they found it easy for young children to understand other languages compared to when they were older.

In school B, researchers held a meeting with ten parents. One parent stated that the model of trilingualism at school was untypical because Mandarin is used in Mandarin subject only, while Cantonese is used for the subject of Chinese. She also added that Cantonese is used to teach most of the other subjects while English is used to teach Mathematics. The other two parents agreed that the school’s model of trilingual education was an attraction when choosing their children’s primary school. However, one claimed to have been indecisive because the only language used to teach Mathematics was English. Three parents disagreed with using Mandarin to teach Chinese; one parent was afraid that the teachers teaching Mandarin could be insufficiently qualified. Another parent opposed using Mandarin to teach Chinese because their mother tongue is Cantonese, and they all speak Cantonese at home. One parent stated that Mandarin is of more benefit to the able students, while the use of Cantonese to teach Chinese could be advantageous to the less able students. One other parent suggested that the senior graders should be taught Chinese subjects in Mandarin.

Most of the parents were okay with using English to teach science topics and Mathematics. However, they were against using English to teach General Studies to small children as they might find it hard to express themselves in English and understand specific terminologies. ‘The school should also consider using English to teach computer studies,’ the parents suggested. Also, the parents felt that if there were more non-ethnic Chinese students at school, it would greatly help other students enhance their spoken English and their confidence (Wang & Kirkpatrick, 2018). Generally, five parents felt that schools should use their mother tongue to teach small children and learn other languages later. In contrast, other parents agreed that small children could quickly learn several different languages with the right motivation when given a chance.

Even though raising bilingual children brings cognitive advantages to them over other monolingual children, some multilingual parents have some fears about talking to their children in more than one language. There exists a strong connection between culture and a particular language. Multilingual parents in a foreign country like the United States often find it challenging to use their mother tongue while talking to their children, as this might prevent them from assimilating into their current country’s society (Barnaud, 2019). Also, it may be hard for parents to use their original language outside the house in their foreign country as this may attract negative comments from other citizens. As children approach school age, they may be less enthusiastic about learning their parent’s original language. They would want to fit in at school by speaking the majority language, discouraging the parents from speaking the language. Another reason preventing bilingual parents from speaking more than one language to their children is that it could lead to confusion and delays in their development.

Some additional reasons why some multilingual parents are reluctant to talk to their children in more than one language include; it may lead to language fluency delays. Multilingual children are introduced to many vocabularies in different languages, which may take a longer time to take them all in (Chontelle, 2016). Introducing children to different languages may lead to mixing languages when they are speaking as they cannot tell the difference. Also, children can prefer one language over the others, especially if they are mainly exposed to one language. Therefore, parents need to increase their children’s exposure to all languages.

Conclusively, the practical way I would consider to nurture trilingualism in Hong Kong would be introducing children to these languages while they are still young. In Patricia Kuhl’s research on the linguistic genius of babies, it is easy to introduce a new language to babies as young as six months old. She termed these babies as geniuses because they listen intently and take statistics which changes their brains, this cannot happen to adults governed by the memory of languages. Also, from the research of parents’ perceptions of trilingualism in schools in Hong Kong, it has been identified that parents prefer a particular language in trilingual schools for different reasons depending on where they stay or their country of origin. However, since all the three languages are essential, if the schools adopted an even distribution of the three languages in teaching all subjects, it would give all students an equal chance to learn all languages. The schools should also employ highly qualified teachers to ensure the students receive the best trilingual education. Lastly, the schools should insist that children use all three languages to communicate amongst themselves and encourage parents to communicate with them in these languages to improve their speaking and listening skills.


Barnaud, A. (2019, August 21). Why some parents avoid raising bilingual kids, and why they should. Parentology parenting in the digital age.

Song, C. (2021, December 31). Hong Kong Languages Background and Helpful Travel Tips. CHINA HIGHLIGHTS.

Wang, L, & Kirkpatrick, A. (2018). Students’ and Parents’ perceptions of trilingual education in Hong Kong primary schools. Griffith University Queensland, Australia, PP 15-19.


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