In the very early videos of my son’s life you can hear me in the background speaking English to him. Gasp! It’s so strange to hear that now as, when he was around two months old, I made the decision to switch and speak only Cantonese; from then on you can’t hear me in videos at all. My Cantonese was awful—most of my Chinese family would say it still is awful (Hong Kong Chinese people are quite blunt and not generous with compliments).
Both my parents are from Hong Kong but I was brought up in England; I spoke only Cantonese until the age of four and then went to school and haven’t really spoken Cantonese since. Like many failed bilinguals, I could understand a lot of my mother tongue, could string together the odd stuttery sentence but as soon as the conversation grew more challenging than that of a four year old, I got stuck. For all these reasons it didn’t occur to me to try and pass on Cantonese to my son. It wasn’t until I saw this video that I realised I didn’t have to be fluent to give my son the gift of a new language. I could just teach him what I knew and give his brain a head start; he could learn properly in the future.
I started off by speaking dodgy Cantonese. Each time I got stuck for a bit of vocabulary I circumvented it. No word for truck? No problem! ‘Big car.’ No word for eggplant? No problem! ‘Purple food.’ No word for remote control? No problem! ‘Pressy thingy.’ It didn’t matter as he couldn’t understand me and at least I was helping to fuse a tonal language into his synaptic pathways.
One day as I was looking up a couple of words, I came across a Cantonese tutor. I decided to take a couple of lessons and with lesson one I was hooked. With that first lesson my childhood just came rushing back to me and I realised, my son didn’t have to learn Cantonese on his own, we could learn it together. Since that moment that I really committed to Chinese, I’ve been on a roller coaster ride and loving every minute of it.
My almost three-year-old is now fluent (as fluent as you can be at the age of three) in Cantonese. It is his strongest language and, if a Cantonese speaker is around, he will speak to them without attempting his other languages (Italian and English). My Cantonese has advanced in leaps and bounds too. My vocabulary has grown massively and I am starting to develop nuanced sentences that make me sound like an adult instead of a four-year-old. Now I’m on a second maternity leave and I wanted to encourage other parents in my situation to give their half-remembered language a go and share some practical tips to make it happen. If I can do it, anyone can!
Here’s how I made Cantonese my three-year-old’s strongest language:
1. Speak to your child only in that language. This was so hard at first as I didn’t know the word for anything. Cantonese is a particular pain as there are no dictionary apps, no standard method of romanisation (and I can’t read or write Cantonese) and all the support is focused on the main dialect of China, Mandarin. If you are in the same situation with French, Spanish, Mandarin, almost any national language rather than a dialect, you are almost certainly going to find more resources that you can hide on your phone to help fill in the gaps in the language. To deal with this, I simply circumvented my language gaps. And if I didn’t have enough vocabulary to do that, I would say the word in English but with a Chinese accent (yes, it was rather hilarious). The point was to get me and my son into the swing of sentence stress, the nine tones of Cantonese and the grammar structure. What I found was that what I did know of the language tripped out of my mouth much more easily once I had established habitual Cantonese.
2. If you don’t have great language skills, find someone who does. Realising that at best I was going to get a kid who calls a fence an outside wall and a giraffe a long necked horse (I was actually close with that one, in Cantonese it translates as long necked deer), I decided I had better find some people who actually spoke Cantonese. Unfortunately, in London there were no Cantonese playgroups, classes for babies or any sort of support before Chinese school starts around age eight, and everything was focused on Mandarin.
So I got online and started posting around sites like Gumtree (the U.K. version of Craigslist) and Mumsnet to find like-minded parents. I had nothing in mind, I just knew I couldn’t do this on my own and was hoping someone might like to club together with me to hire a tutor for our kids. The first meet up was in my garden and five families turned up. The second was in a restaurant for dim sum and over 20 families turned up. We filled the room to standing space only, we badgered someone into volunteering to read a story in Cantonese, another person had brought along some Cantonese nursery rhyme CDs and another parent led a sing song of some common songs. I turned to one mum and said that we should do this every month…. and PlayCantonese was born.
By continually posting online, more parents joined our list (there are around 300 now) and we all share our knowledge and resources to teach our kids. Some parents are real fluent speakers from Hong Kong or China, many are like me but we all know different things and together we are doing a good impression of a Cantonese speaker. Our kids get a chance a few times a month to hang out together and we bathe them in as much Cantonese as possible.
You don’t have to go to this extreme, just finding a few families with similar aged kids would do it. A dinner once a week, a playdate every now and then, these things will enhance your language and your kid will soak up the new vocabulary surprisingly quickly.
3. Try and get a regular fluent speaker as a caregiver. When my son was nearly a year old, I went back to work and we hired a Cantonese-speaking nanny. We threw caution to the wind as the nanny we hired wasn’t certified, didn’t speak English and had no references. She came to us as a friend of a friend and while I don’t advocate leaving your child in the full time care of an uncertified stranger, we grew to trust Jenny during her trial week and it really worked for us. Jenny turned out to be an amazing, caring and fun addition to our family. She took my son to the local Chinese community centres, teaching him how to use chopsticks and sing karaoke but she also introduced me to her Chinese habits like never drinking cold water, wearing pajamas as house clothes and eating sour hawthorn flakes as sweets—all things I vaguely remembered from my childhood. My son loved her and when he spoke his first sentences, they were in Cantonese.
4. Create a need for the language. My son needs to speak Cantonese with me but he knows that I speak the other household languages as well. When he started nursery three days a week, I was worried that English would soon take over and that this was the end of our Cantonese journey. Complaining about this at a PlayCantonese session, I saw that other mums were in the same situation and even the stay-at-home mums were concerned. So, four of us clubbed together and hired a Cantonese speaker who liked kids and we created a structured playdate every Monday and Tuesday at my place. This structure is what has made language really come alive for my son and it arrived at just the right time, just when he was naturally wanting to articulate himself more at age two and a half.
Each week the kids play with the tutor narrating their play in Cantonese (“It looks like you’ve got a train there! And what’s that? Train tracks and a bridge!”). After some free play the tutor introduces the theme of the month. For example, in our “body” month they sang a body song (if we can’t find a song online we make one up), drew their hands and feet and coloured them in, pointed to body parts, stuck stickers on body parts and so on. Then they sing a common nursery rhyme and finally the tutor and a mum take the kids to a local playground for a run around. When the kids come back, we all have lunch together (the mums take turns cooking a simple Chinese meal), with the kids chattering away and having chopstick battles at their kiddy table. This format has been brilliant for everyone. My son stands on his toes every morning looking out the window waiting for his friends to arrive. One of the kids was in the early stages of being a classic failed bilingual where he understood Cantonese but was replying in English; now his Cantonese is voluntary again and he is all smiles arriving for his playdate.
The Unexpected Results
I am also learning alongside my son. I have a 30-minute Skype session with the kids’ tutor every week to catch up on new bits of vocab my son has learnt (I didn’t want my son to run to me proud of his new words only to be met by a blank expression). But, excitingly, I am also learning a lot from the other mums. I had never attempted to cook Chinese food before and had no one to turn to about childrearing Cantonese style; I have never had Chinese friends before. I feel I have found a band of like-minded women who are becoming, unexpectedly, my tutors in ‘being Chinese’. Half in Chinese, half in English, we talk about our kids, food, fashion, our parents—all the things you would talk about with your regular friends. But there is a distinctly Eastern bent to our opinions that we are enjoying exploring. It’s probably too late for me but I am starting to feel a little more, well, a little more Chinese.
My son is nearly three now and we merrily chat to each other about our days, poke fun at my husband and shock my mum with our level of vocabulary. I know the battle isn’t won yet. I had another baby boy a few months ago and I am anxious to see what language my two boys will use together. It feels flippant to put it all this down into four bullet points as it has been a significant strain on my time and funds to keep all of this up. When I was also working full time, there were several two a.m. emails to organise all these activities. Finally, I know my heart speaks in English and one day I want to say the words ‘I love you’ to my son. My actions speak for me at the moment, the gift of a language is one of the best gifts a parent can give, but I’ve always recognised that I will have to stop one day, when I really need to express myself and can’t. This day hasn’t arrived yet. And, I’m surprised to find my heart is slowly remembering those very early days, when we didn’t say ‘I love you’ but 我真係好錫你.