By Hally Gao
“I don’t even understand what he is saying.”
While eight-year-old Mei Zhantao was reciting one Chinese poem after another in fluent Mandarin, his Cantonese-speaking mother could not at all follow her son. Nevertheless, like many Hong Kong parents, she believes that it is essential for her two sons to speak Mandarin, the official language of Mainland China.
English and Chinese are both the official languages of Hong Kong. Although it is not specifically pointed out whether “Chinese” means Cantonese or Mandarin, Cantonese remains the de facto official language.
In recent years, with Hong Kong and Mainland growing closer and closer, the use of Mandarin spreads rapidly, creating a lucrative market for Mandarin education.
Shirley Yuan from Flow Mandarin, a Mandarin tutoring school in Hong Kong, said that many adults who are native Hong Kong residents wish to improve their Mandarin due to professional considerations. Some need to conduct business meetings with Mainland partners. Others may be required to make public speeches or presentations in Mandarin.
“The biggest difficulty for adult is pronunciation.” Ms. Yuan said that even though some adult students already have basic understandings of Mandarin, they struggle with pronunciations problems.
At the same time, there is an increasing number of school that offer Mandarin programs. But it seems that these programs cannot meet parents’ expectations.
“To be honest, the Mandarin teachers in schools can’t speak Mandarin well enough,” said Ms. Yuan. She also pointed out that many schools pay too much attention on exam results, but not enough on students’ communication skills. “Therefore, our market is quite considerable,” said Ms. Yuan.
But as many other small and middle-size businesses in Hong Kong, Ms. Yuan’s school faces several inevitable challenges. For one thing, it does not have fixed classrooms. Its teachers often go to students’ houses for Mandarin sections.
“The cost is too high,” said Ms. Yuan, “We cannot gather such a large amount of capital.”
The lack of classrooms has its merits as well. Since there is technically no limitation on the capacity of the school, it accepts as many students as possible, provided that the school could hire enough teachers.
Challenges are also faced by teachers. For Ms. Yuan, the biggest challenge is communication with parents. She believes that it is better for parents to not intervene with teaching but leave more space for different teaching styles in order to maximize the teaching results.
“The most important factor is parents,” said Ms. Yuan regarding Mandarin learning for children.
She encourages parents’ involvement in the learning process, because children do not get enough opportunities to use Mandarin in their daily life. Many of them do not possess the ability to speak fluent Mandarin after they leave schools, which pushes their parents to seek additional tutoring.
“I think there are a lot of school that don’t put enough emphasis on Mandarin,” said Will Huetinck, Executive Director of Dragonfly, a provider of outdoor education and experiential learning in China as well as other Asian countries.
“Kids here are growing up in a very international climate. They have the opportunity to leave school with really fluent Mandarin. And if they don’t reinforce that, they will not leave school with a high level of Mandarin.”
Mr. Huetinck and his team offer a very unique alternative for schools who aim to bring students’ Mandarin skills to another notch. Their programs bring students from all over the world on trips to China, immersing them in native Mandarin-speaking environments. Various outdoor activities are conducted during their trips, while all of which spotlight the use of Mandarin.
“School have their own language programs. And what we offer is to complement that,” he said.
Experiential education is the education philosophy that goes through all those programs. With that in mind, Mr. Huetinck and his team put emphasize on the experience side of language education.
“Students can study in classrooms before they come to China. And when they are in China it’s more: let’s be out in the community. Let’s use our Mandarin. Let’s become more confident speakers.” He believes that students can only become confident speakers if they practice more in really life settings.
The opportunity to speak in a native environment encourages students to actually use Mandarin as a communication tool. Therefore, the effect of their programs on students’ Mandarin skills are quite encouraging.
“I don’t think there are that many similar companies. I think we are quite unique,” said Mr. Huetinck. He noted that there should be more people doing such Mandarin programs in Hong Kong.
“Because Mandarin is so important for the future,” he said.