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?
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.