Researchers have urged Hong Kong children be given more opportunities for “natural” English-learning interaction after finding that those looked after by English-speaking domestic helpers had a better grasp of the language than those who were not.
The paper by Chinese University’s department of psychology on the role that helpers play in the language development of children looked at 194 native Cantonese-speaking children, when they were aged five to nine, and their parents, from 2005 to 2009.
Researchers held a vocabulary test for three different categories of children: those with an English-speaking helper, those with a Cantonese-speaking helper, and those with no helper at all.
At five, those with an English-speaking helper correctly answered 24 per cent of the vocabulary questions, compared with a 15 per cent success rate for those with a Cantonese-speaking helper and 12 per cent for those with no helpers. At age nine, those with an English-speaking helper correctly answered 45 per cent of the questions, those with a Cantonese-speaking helper answered 33 per cent correctly and those with no helper at all got were right 28 per cent of the time.
Study co-author Catherine McBride said it’s possible that children with English-speaking helpers benefit from having more opportunities to hear and speak the language in everyday situations. Co-author Katrina Dulay added that domestic helpers spend a lot of time with children in their care, and that they “exchange a lot of casual comments during their interactions”, which may help increase their English vocabulary.
On the other hand, children with English-speaking helpers were found to have relatively worse Chinese character recognition. The researchers said the helpers in the study were unlikely to know how to read Chinese as most were from Indonesia or the Philippines.
There was no significant difference between the three categories when it came to recognising written English.
Kiangsu Chekiang College’s English teacher Ansley Lee Kwan-ting told Young Post that employing an English-speaking domestic helper can boost the confidence of a student. “However,” she added, “it’s uncertain if these helpers correct children’s pronunciation and grammatical mistakes.”