Parent Spotlight - Agnes

The Parent Spotlight Series is a set of blog posts featuring different parents in their journeys to raise bilingual children.

One of the benefits of being the person organizing these parent spotlights, is that I get to read many of these well before you do :P

When I first read Agnes' story, it resonated so much with me because I found that it mirrored a lot of my own. We both have a little Chinese literacy, and are the only parent who spoke it in our household. With her son older than mine, I loved that I can look up to her to see what kinds of things I can look forward to.

I love her non-conventional ideas for learning and teaching Chinese together. I actually tried some of them before this blog post was even published, and they really do work!

It's beautiful reading about the relationship she developed with her son because of the Cantonese language, and hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I did.

Agnes, tell us about your family and kids

I was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to Canada at age 7. My husband is Polish and does not speak any Cantonese. Our son, T, just turned 5. He is fluent in Cantonese and it’s his strongest language.

I can speak it fairly well, but I express myself a lot better in English.

We live in Ottawa.


T is writing his Chinese name here and other characters

How did you start teaching Chinese?

Before T was born, I gave no thought to teaching Chinese at all.

When he was 3 months old, I started thinking about teaching him Chinese. When I mentioned this idea to my husband, he was fully supportive but he was doubtful that T would become fluent, since he had witnessed many other situations where the parents spoke a minority language but the kids didn’t end up learning it.

I completely understood why my husband felt this way, since there are very few Cantonese speaking people in Ottawa, and we don’t visit my parents frequently (they live 4 hours away). In other words, the cards are stacked against us.

However, I wanted to challenge myself, so I decided to speak to T 100% in Cantonese from that point on. My main reason for wanting to teach, is to instill pride in him for being half Chinese and to help him appreciate the great things about our culture: mythology, history, values, idiomatic expressions, food, etc.

I’m happy that T can now express himself with ease in Cantonese!


T likes to copy ancient versions of Chinese characters

What are your language goals?

Through mastering the language, I hope that T will grow a deeper connection to our culture.

My most important goal for him is to understand and speak Cantonese. His speaking and comprehension levels are great right now, and I hope to maintain this as he grows up, which will likely be quite challenging.

Initially though, my only goal was to teach speaking and listening, but ever since I realized that he could recognize some characters, I began teaching him to read as well. He has learned approximately 550 characters so far.

I don’t have a specific goal for him otherwise since I know it's extremely hard to achieve an advanced reading level. I’ll keep teaching him and hopefully he will continue to stay interested.


Sometimes I make matching worksheets for my son to help him review words

What is your approach to teaching Chinese?

We’ve been doing OPOL (one parent one language) since T was 3 months old, where I speak 100% Cantonese, and my husband speaks 100% English.

When my husband is with us, I still speak Cantonese to T (sometimes I translate for my husband). Since I am his only source of Cantonese, I make sure to give him as much exposure as I can.

If I had to give my teaching approach a name, I’d call it ‘talkathon’. T and I spend so much time chatting, whether it’s during walks or while cuddling. Our countless hours of talking have improved his vocabulary significantly and he expresses himself with ease, even for complex ideas. 

I make sure to cover many different words and topics in Cantonese so that he has a good foundation for expressing himself, which results in him not needing to switch to English.

We read a lot of Chinese books together, both fiction and nonfiction. To learn Chinese characters in a systematic way, we started reading Sagebooks when he turned 4 (thanks to Kozzi for recommending them!) He has almost finished all the Sagebooks, and I don’t have any concrete plans for what will come next.

We used to write some words repeatedly (in the traditional way that is taught in Chinese school), but a few months ago we started writing sentences everyday.

At first, the format was like a journal (e.g. what we did that day), but T started showing an interest in writing about food so we switched to writing out recipes and menus from storybooks. He even wrote out a menu from a Toronto restaurant, and his writing was featured on the restaurant’s social media!


T wrote out this breakfast from a Toronto restaurant (we copied it from its website)


He copied out details of a recipe from one of his favourite story books.

I play Cantonese YouTube videos that apply to his interests, even if they aren’t meant for kids. For example, he was really into fishing so we watched many videos about the fishing industry in Hong Kong. There are so many videos available online to cater to every child’s interests beyond cartoons.

In addition to YouTube videos, I also use other online resources related to T’s passions. Since he has shown a deep interest in typhoons, we’ve spent countless hours reading the Macau government’s site on typhoon safety and how to prepare for other natural disasters.


T loves to learn about typhoon preparation, and he watched videos where he learned to tape characters on the windows to protect the glass.

Sometimes, T and I like to speak Cantonese in its written form for fun. For example, instead of saying 「快D嚟」, we say 「快來」 etc. He loves speaking in this way, and it has the added benefit of laying the foundation for Mandarin (if he wants to learn one day).

I think the key to making Cantonese fun is that I use a lot of expressions that make him laugh. For example, 「撞鬼」、「落湯雞,」、「冇雷公」 etc. Cantonese is full of such humourous slang!

We listen to a lot of Cantonese pop songs together, and he has learned a lot of vocabulary from the lyrics.

What is the most difficult thing about raising bilingual kids?

A challenging aspect of raising bilingual kids is overcoming any self consciousness from speaking a minority language in public.

I am lucky that I have not received any negative feedback from strangers about speaking to T in Cantonese.

It felt so strange and awkward when I spoke to him nonstop in Cantonese at first, mainly because a) he was too young to respond; and b) I never spoke so many hours of Cantonese on a daily basis before. (Before T was born, the only time I spoke Cantonese was to my parents during phone calls and visits).

It took some time for me to adjust, but gradually my Cantonese improved a lot and now it feels so natural to speak to T in Cantonese! It was extremely challenging to make myself stop switching to English (e.g. inserting random English words), but with time, I was able to get rid of this habit.

What has also made teaching Cantonese difficult is not knowing many kids who speak Cantonese. We do know a few but we don’t see them on a very regular basis (i.e. not daily/weekly), so socializing in Cantonese takes place sporadically.

The lack of Chinese library books at the local library also makes things more difficult. I bought a lot of books for T from online shops such as kozzi.ca, but the number of books he is reading is a lot less than what it would be if the library had more high quality Chinese books.

Teaching character recognition feels (and felt) overwhelming for me at times. Sometimes I tend to be overly ambitious and want to teach him many characters all at once, which of course is not practical or reasonable.

I’ve learned to slow down and to focus on a bit at a time. It is challenging to help the child remember so many characters and to distinguish between similar looking ones. This is why I really like Sagebooks, since they give guidelines for what to teach and the order to teach them.

Something that I found challenging during this pandemic was teaching T English and French while he was learning from home. I managed to teach reading and phonics in both languages while using Cantonese to explain everything, and it has been working well so far. It’s definitely not straightforward for me to explain all these concepts using Cantonese, so I’m proud of my efforts!

“A challenging aspect of raising bilingual kids is overcoming any self consciousness from speaking a minority language in public.” — Agnes

What is the most rewarding thing about raising bilingual kids?

Seeing T improve significantly over the years is extremely rewarding for me. Nowadays, he can formulate more complex sentences (e.g.「 我D腦細胞冇心理準備」“My brain cells were not psychologically prepared for this.”)

He makes me laugh so much and I love that he uses idiomatic expressions in conversations.

I had no idea that our relationship would deepen so much through our connection over our shared language. There are so many inside jokes, thoughts, and concepts that cannot be translated, and only we understand each other in this special way.

“I had no idea that our relationship would deepen so much through our connection over our shared language. There are so many inside jokes, thoughts, and concepts that cannot be translated, and only we understand each other in this special way.” — Agnes

My heart melts whenever I see T interacting with my parents in Cantonese. They are so proud of his Cantonese and they can have more meaningful conversations because of his fluency.

Also, I get so excited whenever I can watch Cantonese videos with T. I used to watch them by myself, and now I have someone to share all these interests with. I love that we can sing Cantonese pop songs together and that he uses tons of Hong Kong slang everyday (e.g. 「嘩,正呀!」).


A letter T wrote to grandparents

Any advice for parents who are waffling about whether to start?

First of all, remember that there are countless parents around the world who are with you on this journey. There are tons of great support groups (e.g. I love the Cantonese Parents Facebook group!)

My advice would be for parents to let go of perfection or thinking that their Cantonese isn’t good enough. I use Google Translate very frequently while reading stories. You can think of this journey as a learning experience for both you and your child. Quality time spent interacting with the child is the best way to learn.

Make the language fun, learn some funny tongue twisters or slang so that the child associates Chinese with something silly. T loves idiomatic expressions so we use them a lot in our daily conversations.

If lack of free time is an issue, I would advise parents to focus energy on speaking/comprehension. This may make the language less overwhelming for parents to teach (and for the child to learn). If the child can speak/listen well, then at an older age, he/she can choose to learn reading/writing and will already have a good foundation.

The following advice is for those with newborns: I spoke a lot to T in Cantonese monologues when he was too young to speak. I believe that my time spent speaking in front of him helped him develop familiarity with Cantonese sounds.

There’s a study that shows newborns are able to distinguish sounds from all languages, but at around 10 months, they become culture-bound listeners, and are able to only hear the sounds from their native language. Therefore, don’t underestimate the importance of talking to yourself in front of your child during this critical period.

“My advice would be for parents to let go of perfection or thinking that their Cantonese isn’t good enough.” — Agnes

What is on your wishlist?

My biggest wish is to have more Cantonese speaking friends! This is really hard to find in my city, but I will keep searching! I know a few people in my city but the Cantonese population is way lower than some other cities in Canada, such as Toronto.

Any funny stories you can share?

There are a few:

  • T wanted to say ‘8’ to my husband, and he translated it as ‘bat’ (like the animal).
  • Another time, he commented that my friend’s house was very messy (good thing she did not understand him!)
  • For a while, when my son was very much into butt detective (屁屁偵探) books, he would comment on random strangers on the street saying that they were very suspicious looking (可疑人物). Again, we were lucky that no one understood him.

What are your favourite books?

We love all books by 工藤紀子, they helped tremendously for helping T develop an interest in Chinese books. Those are probably the most read books on our shelves.

The 屁屁偵探 books (both the illustrated books and graphic novels) were a big hit as well. The plots are so funny and the illustrations are mesmerizing!

The 包姆與凱羅系列 series is full of interesting details and the words are at the perfect level of difficulty for T. The characters are so lovable and relatable. I highly recommend this series!

The 小妖怪 series by 齊藤洋 is extremely captivating and T has read those repeatedly for months. We had so many long discussions after reading these books.


T reading Chinese books in Cantonese

Anything else you'd like to add?

It’s never too late to learn a language! I didn’t learn English properly until I came to Canada at age 7. I didn’t learn French formally until 14, and now I know enough French to use it at my work, read newspapers, listen to podcasts etc.

Think outside the box to pass on the language! You don’t have to use any ‘popular’ resources if they don’t work well for your child. I’ve taught T all sorts of non mainstream (i.e. non child-friendly) Chinese things, such the famous sad poem 長恨歌, and he loved it.

I never knew how deeply I felt connected to Cantonese until I started teaching T. This is such a beautiful language full of humour, nuances, history, and dramatic expressions. There’s so much value in passing on your culture and language onto your child. I’m so grateful that my parents gave me the gift of Cantonese, and I hope we can all do what we can to pass it onto the next generation.

Add oil!

“I never knew how deeply I felt connected to Cantonese until I started teaching T.” — Agnes

Thank you, Agnes!

If you're interested in other multilingual parenting journeys, check out our previous parent spotlights:

4 comments

  • I have an almost-19-month-old, and when I read that Agnes did OPOL with T beginning at 3 months I felt a deep sense of regret that I didn’t do that with my kid. Then when I got to the end and Agnes shared how she learned other languages later in life, it made me feel better! (And reminded me that that was my experience too) My daughter currently knows a few words here and there in Cantonese, but this really encourages me to make it a bigger part of our lives.

    Vincci
  • Wonderful post – thanks for sharing!
    Wondering if you wouldn’t mind sharing details about that book (showing the character for ‘mountain’) that’s in the photo of T writing with the brush? Looks like the exact kind of book I’m searching for for my daughter. Thanks!

    Emily
  • Thank you so much for sharing your journey . Please continue to share the resources that you use , even what kind of YouTube videos etc . Will follow your advice and hope my 2 year old will be able to write in Chinese in the future . All the best

    Sheila
  • I really enjoyed this heartwarming post! It’s so inspiring, encouraging and funny. Agnes is my sister so I know how dedicated, creative and passionate she is with teaching Cantonese. I look forward to reading more from this wonderful parent spotlight series! 🙂

    Maria

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