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Monday, February 25th, 2013

Is TV in Mandarin helpful or overkill for my trilingual Cantonese-speaking child?


Dear Dr. Gupta,


I could do with some advice. We are an OPOL family, speaking Italian (father), Cantonese Chinese (mother) and English (between the parents) at home. For Christmas I bought myself a device to stream TV from China but find, of course, that it is mostly in Mandarin, not Cantonese. There are some lovely cartoons and children’s shows–should I let our 22-month-old watch them? My Mandarin is so-so–I can understand children’s shows but I’m nowhere near fluent (or even conversational), so I would get into trouble quickly if pushed. I’m also not sure our household can handle another language! What do you think?




Dear Fiona,


On the whole, I don’t think children under three should be watching much at all on screen, in any language, but I don’t see that it would be a problem if she watched occasional shows in Mandarin (if she enjoys them). Children can’t learn languages from watching TV–they learn languages in a social setting and need interaction. A television doesn’t answer back. So watching TV in Mandarin wouldn’t introduce a new language. If your child wants to study Chinese in later life, classes are likely to be in Mandarin rather than Cantonese nowadays, so Mandarin could be a part of family life later. And you might like to improve your Mandarin too!


Don’t worry too much about the ‘rules’ for being a bilingual family–there aren’t any. Just enjoy your child, chat and play in Cantonese (and English and Italian), sing songs, make rhymes, go swimming, bake together, throw balls around and have fun!


Dr. Gupta

© 2013, Anthea Fraser Gupta. All rights reserved.

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Anthea Fraser Gupta is a sociolinguist with an interest in how children learn to talk. She was born into a monolingual environment in Middlesbrough, England, but enjoyed learning about languages from an early age. She gained a B.A. in English Linguistic Studies and Archaeology at the University of Newcastle, then went on to do an M.A. in Linguistics. She left Newcastle in 1975 to work in Singapore, where she encountered a society in which multilingualism is usual and expected. In Singapore nearly all children come to nursery school already able to speak 2 or 3 languages. While lecturing in the linguistics of English at the National University of Singapore, she did a doctoral degree at the University of York, looking at the language acquisition over two years of four Singaporean children who were growing up with four languages. In Singapore, she also married a man from a multilingual family from India. She returned to England in 1996 to the School of English at the University of Leeds, where she taught courses on both English language and bilingualism until her retirement in 2010. Anthea has had experience in a range of multilingual and multicultural societies and families. She has published books and articles on English, especially the language use of children in Singapore, and has also produced a novel for children set in Singapore. She is deeply interested in child development and believes that the most important thing in raising a child is to provide love and stimulation, regardless of what language or languages are learned.

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