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Monday, May 13th, 2013

Do I teach my child my native language even though I am not fluent?

Do I teach child my native language even though I am not fluent?/ © shutterstock

Dear Dr. Gupta,


Is it “worthwhile” to speak to my young baby (nine months) in my native Cantonese with the hope that he will acquire some of the language even though I have rudimentary fluency (grade school level)?


Although Cantonese is my native language and was what I spoke at home with my parents, English quickly became my dominant language once I started school and is currently my dominant language as an adult. Still, I would like my son to have some understanding or better yet, some fluency in Cantonese.


I have been speaking to him almost exclusively in Cantonese since he was born. However, I am afraid he will learn incorrect Cantonese from me (bad accent, grammar). Unfortunately, I do not know anyone else in my area who speaks Cantonese and I am the only one who speaks it at home, so I feel this is an uphill battle.


Will my son’s command of Cantonese only be as good as my own? Would it better for him to just focus on one language (English) than to be somewhat bilingual and learn bad Cantonese?


Thank you,

Not Fluent



Dear Not Fluent,


Many children acquire languages from ‘imperfect’ speakers of languages—the details of correctness don’t matter. So don’t worry about this. ‘Bad’ Cantonese can be a basis for learning better Cantonese later and would also be a starting point for learning Mandarin if that is available in classes later on. There are two concerns though.


1) If your Cantonese is really so weak, are you able to speak to your child in a way that satisfies you? You may need to use some English too, so that you can give him a richer cultural experience. If you search for words in Cantonese, use the English words— code-mixing is absolutely fine. Feel free to mix English and Cantonese.


2) When he gets older, you will have to search out some other Cantonese speakers. You don’t say where you are, but there are Cantonese speakers in most parts of the world, I think. Seek out other speakers, especially ones with children.


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.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsAnnabelle   |  Monday, 13 May 2013 at 10:46 am

    Great to see someone say, it is ok to switch.

  2. CommentsFiona   |  Monday, 13 May 2013 at 2:49 pm

    I was in the same situation! I ended getting a Cantonese tutor and setting up a Cantonese playgroup so my son could get better Cantonese exposure. Feel free to contact me on if you’d like some moral support!

  3. CommentsManuel Aicart   |  Friday, 11 April 2014 at 11:23 am

    Dear Not Fluent,

    I think it’s positive that you speak to your child both in Cantonese and English. Between 0-5 years, language learning is emotional, as opposed to adult learning, when you turn to your intelligence to learn the rules. Since learning at that age is more emotional, children need to be exposed to native speakers, who not only transmit the language but also emotions. While speaking in a foreign accent does no harm, it does not help much either, since you’re giving the emotions of “someone else”. What surprises me is that you mention that Cantonese is your native language. I assume that you acquired it between 0-6 years? If that is the case, then your Cantonese must be perfect (one never forgets one’s mother tongue). So I wouldn’t worry about it. Maybe you forgot some grammar, but from what you say I think your Cantonese must be good enough for your child.

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