Hong Kong twins may unlock riddles of Chinese language

Wanted: 600 pairs of twins, aged five to seven who could give researchers answers to how our brains cope with learning Chinese

An intriguing phenomenon about bilingual learning in Hong Kong has prompted an international study, with researchers looking to recruit 600 pairs of young twins in the city.

The aim is to explore if the ability to learn languages applies equally to Chinese and English after suggestions that mastering Cantonese and learning to write characters was harder for some Hong Kong children than getting to grips with English.

The researchers want to crack the mystery of whether genetic and environmental factors are involved, and whether this applies to mathematics and cognitive skills as well as languages.

The University of Hong Kong and Chinese University are among four local institutions involved, as well as universities from the United States, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

“[Some parents] say they want to switch their children from a local school to an international school because the Chinese language is too hard,” said Professor Catherine McBride, a developmental psychologist at Chinese University. “It’s very strange to me because … people say you should learn your mother tongue.”

Parents of children already at international schools have also asked McBride whether it was fine for their dyslexic children to learn Chinese.

Researchers hope to recruit both identical and fraternal twins, ideally 300 pairs of each, aged about five to seven, covering Kindergarten Three to Primary Two. Cantonese should be their mother tongue.

The genes of identical twins are exactly the same, while only about 50 per cent of the genes of fraternal twins will be identical. With the genetic factors held constant, it means researchers can better examine how the environment and genes interact to influence children’s ability to learn language and maths.

Finding enough twins should not be a problem. In 2010, 1,237 pairs of twins were born in the city, according to the Census and Statistics Department.

In a study on twins conducted by Hong Kong and British universities between 2007 and 2010, Chinese reading comprehension was found to be more strongly related to genetic factors than speaking and vocabulary, which was found to be more affected by the environment. The new study will try to identify which genes are involved in learning Chinese.

“We hope to look at individual genes and find out which components of reading and writing are associated more with which genes,” said Professor Mary Waye Miu-yee from CUHK School of Biomedical Sciences.

“Because of genetic differences, it may well be that someone might have difficulty learning Chinese but not English,” added Professor Connie Ho Suk-han from HKU department of psychology.

The research team also hopes that the study will uncover the best way to teach children languages. “These sorts of findings will give us some insight: what should be the teaching priorities … and are we going to teach Chinese and English in the same way?” said Ho. “Perhaps we should teach the two languages differently.”

Participants will be tracked for three years by researchers. Interested parties should contact the HKU department of psychology.

Source from SCMP