Mandarin is considered one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn. Why is that? For starters, it’s a tonal language (different tones can change a word entirely) and writing is based on characters (which number in the tens of thousands). The Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State estimates it takes 2,200 class hours to achieve language proficiency in Mandarin (along with Korean, Arabic and Japanese). This estimate assumes a person has an “above average aptitude” for learning foreign languages, too; lower aptitudes take longer.
That means that if your “above average” child goes to school 40 weeks a year and has one hour of instruction per day, he or she can theoretically speak Mandarin well in 11 years. It’s doable, but definitely for those committed to the long haul.
That’s why expatriate parents who are serious about raising Mandarin speakers are enrolling their children in Hillside World Academy (HWA). The school offers an IB education alongside approximately half a day of Mandarin instruction.
Principal Clarissa Lim says, “The term bilingual is used too loosely these days. Parents need to know what it takes to raise a bilingual speaker, especially if they don’t speak Mandarin at home.”
“We are a true bilingual school,” she adds. “The children learn everything – art, sports, music, even maths – in both English and Mandarin. When they give a presentation, they give it in both languages.
It’s hard, yes, and the children make many mistakes in the beginning, but the important thing is to get them talking. They get through it, and then they aren’t afraid to speak later on.”
Clarissa says children in the primary school write book reviews in both English and Mandarin. They come dressed as their favourite character and then present the book to the class in both languages. HWA has a sister school in China that students can attend for a short term total-immersion experience.
HWA also works closely with the Chinese Embassy in Singapore to foster learning opportunities for their students from nursery (age three) to Grade 12.
Formerly named Chinese International School, HWA’s teachers come from 11 different countries around the globe. The students – many of whom are aiming for trilingual capabilities – hail from 19 different nations, including Japan, Korea, Italy, France, Spain and the US. Academics are rigorous, and upper level students take the annual GCE (General Certificate of Education), the same test local students take.
“It’s a litmus test to see how the students and the teachers are doing. Our students perform as well as local students, though the instruction methods are totally different. Local schools are curriculum-driven while we use the IB, but the outcomes can be the same.”
With the amount of Mandarin instruction the children receive, outside tutors are not necessary, says Clarissa. “I’ve told the teachers, if any of your students are doing tuition, you better come talk to me,” she laughs. “If you make the language come alive, if you teach it in a fun and interesting way, the kids won’t need tuition.”
HWA students apply to universities in China, the US and Europe. Others opt to attend Singaporean universities. “With their language abilities, they can choose anywhere they want to go. The world is changing, and we must prepare our children to adapt to it.”
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