Education & Enrichment Health & Wellness Kids Living In Hong Kong Schools

How expat teens are learning Chinese

By: Rebecca Simpson

Is it possible for a teenager with no Chinese language exposure to gain fluency by the end of an English-language high school program in Hong Kong? It’s a common question asked by expat parents. The answer is … yes! Teenagers can be successful learning Chinese and be fluent by the end of high school. It takes hard work but it’s definitely possible.

The realities of successfully learning to read, write and speak Chinese for those of us with no prior exposure to the language are somewhat brutal. So, imagine our delight when we caught up with VALERIA RIQUELME, a former Hong Kong Academy student with an intriguing Chinese language story to share. Valeria landed in Hong Kong at the tender age of 13 with no Chinese language background whatsoever. In fact, Valeria was still working on her written English language skills when she started at Hong Kong Academy, an IB high school where teaching is done in English. Today, she is planning her move to Taiwan, to attend university in Mandarin.

Valeria is true success story – a zero-to-hero student when it comes to learning Chinese. She has some very practical advice to share with students and their parents. Here, she shares her story.

Starting high school in Hong Kong…

“I was 13 when we moved to Hong Kong from Mexico City where I grew up. I started at Hong Kong Academy halfway through Grade 8. I didn’t have any Chinese language experience before moving here – I thought Hong Kong was in Japan!

I spoke Spanish, so English wasn’t even my first language. I remember writing my essays in Spanish and using Google translate to turn them into English when we first moved here. I started in Phase 1 of the MYP Chinese program. Quite quickly, I made a decision to study Chinese for the IB Diploma. I set that as a personal learning goal.”

Learning Chinese
Valeria believes travelling to China has propelled her success in learning Chinese

When travel is learning

“I don’t think my Chinese would be where it is right now without my dad’s passion for the country. We spent a lot of time on holiday in China.”

Complementing her family travels, Hong Kong Academy also organised student travel for learning Chinese. “In Grade 9, we went on a school trip to China.  We had to give a short biology lesson to grade fives, teaching the kids about their bodies. At that point my Chinese was very, very limited. At that moment, I knew I wanted to be able to talk to those kids and communicate with them. With language, you really have to feel a need to communicate and have a desire to learn.”

Valeria also participated in a home-stay program recommended by the school. “I did a four-week program in Beijing, spending a month with a Chinese family. I think that was a real turning point. I lived the language.”

Hong Kong Academy
Valeria made lifelong language friends on her trips to China

Additional learning support

The reality of learning a language as complex as Chinese is that it most often requires additional support beyond the classroom. For Valeria, this meant seeking some additional support for the oral element. She explains, “The teachers at Hong Kong Academy are really good, especially for the IB. We focused on reading and writing so I worked with a tutor once a week to help me speak Chinese.”

Remembering her experience with her tutor, Valeria says, “She only spoke Chinese, so for the first two years all we did was speak Chinese. It took four months of her speaking before I could understand her. Then it just clicked. She helped me achieve a speaking foundation. It was instrumental; this support was key because it was one-to-one. I felt like it made a big difference.”

What is Valeria’s advice to current students learning Chinese? “You need to ask for help and extra work, and push yourself. Then, you can really get a good foundation.”

Chinese for university and beyond!

So where to now for Valeria? “There are two things that I love at this point in time: Chinese culture and performing arts. So, I’m going to do exactly those things! And I thought, where can I do that? Taiwan! Taking a university course in Chinese is a whole new level. So now I’m currently at CUHK in Shatin increasing my Chinese to prepare for that next year.”

That’s not all. With the support of Hong Kong Academy, Valeria is performing a one-woman show! Titled So I Went, the show is on 26 November. See the details on our events calendar here.

Inspired to start learning Chinese?

Hong Kong Academy is hosting an open evening on 28 November from 6.30-8pm. At this event you will be able to find out more about the Chinese language program and the school’s ethos. See all the details here or contact If you aren’t in Hong Kong at present but you’d like to learn more about Hong Kong Academy’s program, view the school’s website:

See more in our
 Teens section:

Social media and your child’s mental health
International schools guide and a link to our Schools in Hong Kong podcast series
9 cool things to do with teenagers