John Larrysson Column: Why is an English boy doing so badly in my English class?

A teacher was worried. She was teaching English in a local Hong Kong primary school. In her class was one Western boy, everyone else was Hong Kong Chinese. The boy got along well with his classmates and could even speak with them in Cantonese. The trouble was that the English boy, born in England, was doing badly in English class.

He was not failing, but he was certainly not doing as well as many of the other students. The boy was not doing badly in other classes and seemed to be smart. The teacher was worried that she was mispronouncing English or making some type of mistake. So with some apprehension she called the boy's parents.

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The teacher talked to the boy's mother and his family situation was revealed. The boy was born in England where his Hong Kong mother and English father lived. Then tragedy struck and her husband was killed by a drunk driver. Her husband was walking home from work when the drunk driver drove down the pavement instead of the road. The boy's mother returned to Hong Kong with her son and got a job. The boy was raised with the help of his maternal grandparents. His grandparents were of course Hong Kong Chinese and didn't speak much English.

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So the boy grew up learning Cantonese as his first language. When he was read bedtime stories they were in Cantonese. (Reading bedtime stories to a child is very important to their future academic development.) He learned some English from his mother, but she had to work and was not able to spend enough time with him.

This story has an important lesson. Children of all races can learn any language with equal ability. A Chinese child who grows up in an English speaking environment will learn to speak English, not Chinese. A European child that grows up in China will learn to speak Chinese as a native speaker. Race has nothing to do with language ability! (Race is unimportant; even in the study of genetics race is not as useful an indicator as blood types.) The boy grew up happily with his family in Hong Kong. He graduated from secondary school with high marks in mathematics and passing grades in English.

(The details of this story have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.)

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.