Written by Ada Mau.

Going to ‘Chinese school’ at the weekend is an experience shared by many young people of Chinese heritage growing up in the US, UK, Australia and other Western countries. Many children start attending these community-based schools from a young age in order to learn Chinese language(s) and sometimes cultural activities such as dance, martial arts, and musical instruments. Experiences of Chinese school vary – while some young people develop an interest in their heritage language and culture, learn how to read and write Chinese, and enjoy socialising with other Chinese children, some students find learning Chinese difficult or regard the routine of going to Saturday / Sunday school as a chore.

The major development of Chinese schools in the UK began after post-World War II migration as the demand for Chinese education for British-raised children steadily grew. Cantonese was the chosen language to teach in most early Chinese schools established by post-war migrants. In recent years, newer Mandarin schools were established, and some of the Cantonese-based schools have also added Mandarin classes to accommodate the changing population and growing interest in Mandarin. These schools are generally organised and run by voluntary, community-based Chinese associations or religious groups.

Although a significant portion of British Chinese young people attend Chinese schools, and a number of studies have documented the benefits of such schooling, there are some British Chinese young people who do not go to these schools at all, or only attend for a short time. In my research, I spoke to British Chinese young people (aged 12 – 18) in Southern England from a diverse range of Chinese backgrounds and found their experiences of Chinese language learning varied. I found that the majority of the youths interviewed received some exposure to Chinese at home or from their extended network; many of them also attended weekend Chinese schools, and a few had private tutors or were taught by their parents at home. Some of the students went to Chinese schools for many years and a few had obtained their Chinese GCSEs. A small minority never learned Chinese at all.

Among the students who went to Chinese school, there were some students who were positive about their experience, but more students reported not enjoying it. A number of the young people found learning Chinese difficult or boring, and some felt that the limited contact time they had at Chinese school, 2 – 3 hours a week, was insufficient. Arthur explained that, “When we learn stuff we don’t properly memorise it in our heads and normally I forget it the next week.” Emma and Matthew, siblings who grew up in a predominantly English-speaking family, both described being “bad” at Chinese and not learning much at Chinese school. They reported not being able to speak much Chinese despite being at Chinese school for years. Matthew said, “I never really learn[ed] any grammar so I can’t really talk.” Nevertheless, they both expressed positive attitudes towards learning the language. Callum, who quit Chinese school, explained his frustrations: “I did try and like Chinese school but I did not, I didn’t like it, the way they were teaching was completely different to the English way, so I found that quite hard, because they expect too much… because I don’t speak Chinese at home, so it was harder and I didn’t get very much time to practise.” Callum’s UK-raised Chinese mother only had limited Chinese knowledge herself, and thus he felt that his home environment put him at a disadvantage.

Although Chinese schools are set up to teach UK-educated children, the schooling is often taught as ‘mother tongue’, and teachers usually expect children to possess some knowledge of Chinese. Certain knowledge such as grammar, which Matthew felt ignorant of, might not therefore be explicitly taught at these schools due to time constraints, lack of teaching resources and presumed prior knowledge. Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost all of the students who expressed having a positive experience at Chinese school regularly used Chinese with their families, and many also accessed other Chinese media at home (such as Chinese television and pop music).

Additionally, some of the young people I spoke to described their spoken Chinese as “not very good” and some explained that they “have an accent”. Although a number of the young people spoke Chinese regularly, they perceived their English-accented Chinese as a sign of having limited competence. Some also reported their Chinese being made fun of or ridiculed by fluent speakers. Research in Chinese heritage language learning in the US points out that even learners with robust Chinese language may still acquire a so-called ‘overseas Chinese’ accent, which was referred as having a “bad” or “English” accent by these young people. The ability to speak Chinese, as well as having a ‘good’ accent, is often seen as a requirement to be an ‘authentic’ Chinese person by many within Chinese communities. A couple of the young people I spoke to admitted they simply chose to avoid speaking Chinese altogether to avoid such ridicule or embarrassment. When I visited Dac at a Chinese school, one of his teachers described his Chinese as “quite good” while he self-assessed as “not good”. Dac explained: “When I had a supply teacher last time for my class… she told us that we have a accent when we read… when she read it, you could clearly hear the difference, so yeah I do think I’m Chinese but not fully Chinese I guess, or not proper Chinese.”

The sense of deficiency and the resultant shame and guilt, perpetuated by other Chinese speakers, is potentially very powerful emotions that may affect young people’s attitudes towards their learner identities as a heritage language learner.

Learning Chinese as a British Chinese learner is undoubtedly closely bound to notions of Chinese heritage, and the experiences of these learners can vastly vary depending upon connections to family / friend networks and Chinese language resources; their identities as Chinese heritage language learners may also impact their social and cultural identities. Language development is an ongoing process, influenced by the learner’s individual circumstances but also by social and political changes. Therefore a more holistic and non-essentialised view of bi / multilingualism should be incorporated into Chinese learning spaces to support these young people from a diverse range of linguistic and home backgrounds both within the British Chinese community and wider British society.

Note: All participants have been assigned pseudonyms.

Ada Mau is Research Associate in Department of Education & Professional Studies, King’s College London. Image Credit: CC by Steve Webel/Flickr.