Third-year student Cheh Qiao Yun, who is from Malaysia, may be pursuing a degree in Chinese and Bilingual Studies (CBS) at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), but she candidly admits that Chinese is not her strong suit.
“I’ve always been captivated by the nuances of language, and I enjoy writing and reading — but mostly in English! As my command of the Chinese language is comparatively weaker, CBS is like a personal challenge to push me to brush up on my Mandarin. You have to be equally good in both languages to be a good translator and interpreter.”
While her limited command of the Chinese language initially held her back from following the footsteps of her peers in pursuing overseas studies in mainland China and Taiwan, she has no regrets. At PolyU, the medium of teaching is English, which means she can fully understand her lecturers and the course materials.
In addition, degrees from PolyU are widely recognised by employers in Malaysia should she choose to return home to work. It is also a boon that PolyU ranks in the top 50 of the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2020 (Linguistics), alongside top universities in Taiwan, Beijing and Shanghai.
Settling in at the 9.46ha campus was easier than she had thought. Ms Cheh, 21, matriculated with like-minded peers from Malaysia, of whom a handful are from the same high school — Hin Hua High School — she went to. In fact, her roommate, also 21, was her schoolmate in high school.
Finding the science between languages
Ms Cheh’s four-year honours CBS programme utilises English, Mandarin and/or Cantonese in its courses, and builds proficiency in written standard English and Chinese. With the option to further develop practical knowledge and skills in bilingual corporate communication, linguistics and speech sciences, and translation and interpreting, she has chosen to focus on the last as she finds it both interesting and challenging.
Although she’s still undecided about her future career, her course will equip her with the language and writing skills, as well as knowledge, to work in a wide spectrum of industries. These include, but are not limited to, media and corporate communication, as well as fields such as science and technology, law, business and speech therapy.
“As a person coming from a very language-diverse country, it amazes me so much how our languages shape our community,” she notes, adding, “Linguistics — something very new to me — shows the science between languages. It’s like finding a science subject in art school.”
Her passionate lecturers and coursemates also made a big difference, inspiring her to do better.
“I have a Taiwanese friend who’s a linguistic Olympian and can speak around 10 languages!” she says.
Ms Cheh recalls her initial months in Hong Kong when she found it hard to mingle with locals as her Cantonese was “very poor and broken”. Yet, the locals responded warmly and tried to speak to her in Mandarin or English. Some even offered to help her translate terms.
These kind gestures motivated the Malaysian student to “pick up and speak more Cantonese”. Her Cantonese, by her own admission, has since improved by leaps and bounds.
Free to pursue other passions
Apart from taking core modules required for her course, she gets to choose from a plethora of very interesting elective modules within and outside of her faculty, or pursue a minor. Ms Cheh is currently doing the latter, a minor in business administration, which picks up from where she left off in high school and will stand her in good stead for a future career in the business sector.
In addition, as PolyU is in a prime location — Hong Kong being a gateway to mainland China and the rest of the world — it offers unique opportunities that may be rarely found elsewhere.
For her service-learning trip from May 15 to 26 last year, Ms Cheh went to Guangzhou in southern China, where she stayed with plum farmers, helped to tend their fields, visited their plum production facilities and studied their practices for sustainable farming and living — yet another pet topic of hers.
She says: “I’m very interested in sustainability and nature preservation, which is why I chose this topic as my service-learning project. In addition, communicating with locals who speak Cantonese in different tones from Hong Kongers, brought to life various linguistics concepts gleaned from my studies."
Further afield, she also joined youth leadership movement AIESEC and volunteered in Brazil as a nature and sustainability teacher from June 15 to July 20, last year. It was a powerful experience: “That experience ignited my passion to understand more about culture and changed my perspective on travelling just for leisure and photo-taking,” she says.
In the coming year, she is looking forward to going on exchange, although Covid-19 has made her temper her hopes. She is focusing on what she can accomplish in Hong Kong instead.
Rattling off her list of achievements in Hong Kong, she has served two years as a committee member in the taekwondo society while earning a green belt and participating in competitions. She completed her first hackathon, a 24-hour session with groupmates from Cambodia that covered social education and gender inequality, and hopes to start a social innovation-related project with a partner on feminine hygiene.
For her internship, PolyU is flexible and Ms Cheh is free to embark on it at any time. Though still undecided about her actual application, she is keeping an open mind for now.
“I’d love to try out different sectors such as marketing, people relations, communications and designing… logistics maybe? I’m really open to a lot of things because as they say — never try, never know!” she adds.
Even as the pandemic has upended the dreams and plans of millions around the world, Ms Cheh knows for sure that she wants to relish her time as a student in Hong Kong.
“I’ve always gone with the flow, choosing what I genuinely like. I believe this is the sole way to make your journey enjoyable,” she says.
Note: From the 21/22 intake onwards, Chinese and Bilingual Studies has been renamed to “Linguistics and Translation”.