Parent Spotlight - Fiona
The Parent Spotlight Series is a set of blog posts featuring different parents in their journeys to raise bilingual children.
This one was a fun read! It's refreshing hearing from a parent who has older kids (8- and 10-year-olds).
In our Parent Spotlights thus far, we've heard from parents who are just starting out, or have kids <5 years old.
Fiona, however, has been through the rungs — her kids are attending English-speaking school and have solidly been hanging out with English-speaking peers for several years now.
But with her can-do attitude and positive outlook, she feels her multilingual parenting journey is far from over. And what I find truly amazing, is that she was doing this multilingual parenting thing before all these amazing—and oh so appreciated!— Cantonese resources (e.g.online classes, Facebook groups, bilingual books) came online in the past 2 years!
She powered through, in an environment with few Cantonese speakers, where she herself isn't fluent or literate, and did not have a partner who spoke it... but she came out the other side with children who are multilingual!
How inspiring, right?? Let's hear how she made it happen...
Fiona, tell us about your family and kids
Hello! I’m Fiona.
I live in London, and I have 2 boys who are 10- and 8-years-old who are still speaking Cantonese at home.
I know many parents who are hoping to do something similar, and I hear many doubts, so I'd like to introduce myself doubt-by-doubt:
1. My Cantonese is rubbish! How could I possibly teach someone else?
I stopped speaking Cantonese at 4 years old, when I started school. I failed French at school. Languages aren’t my thing. I don't have a great affinity for Hong Kong or China, but I do see the benefits of understanding that tonal languages exist from a young age.
I decided to teach my now-10yo what little I knew: some badly pronounced tones; a bit of vocab; and "san nin faai lok" so he could get lai see at Chinese New Year.
I started speaking to him in Cantonese, and filled in the gaps in English with a Chinese accent. He was a baby; he didn't care what I was saying so wasn't annoyed at sentences like, "Ngo dei gam yat sik mat ye ah? Po-tay-toe?". I looked up a few words and started to incorporate them into my vocabulary.
After a few months, I found a Canto teacher, just to ask about vocabulary (nappy, bottle, nap...). And, I found, after a decade of doing that, learning perhaps a word a week and using these new words all the time... now we’re all actually pretty fluent!
2. My partner doesn't speak Cantonese — how can we manage this at home?
My husband is Italian, and he speaks Italian with the kids.
He doesn't speak or understand Cantonese. He's cool with bringing up the kids in a language he doesn't speak; it’s not like we are plotting against him in a secret language; we are generally just nagging each other to do homework or complaining that we don't like what I’ve produced for dinner.
Even with this little exposure, my kids speak Canto and Italian. It's not perfect, but it's enough to get by.
3. I don't have Cantonese speakers around me to speak to the kids
The pandemic is terrible but it has pushed everything online.
10 years ago, there were no online playgroups, only a few online tutors, only a few resources on YouTube, etc, in Cantonese. Now there are tons of videos, many groups, and multiple chances of connecting with other Cantonese speakers for you and your kids.
I found an inexpensive Cantonese tutor from Guangdong via Preply. A quick Google yields many others.
We keep in touch with friends from New Zealand via Zoom — allowing the kids to watch a short video and then they discuss it, mock their mums in Cantonese, and talk about poop.
It would be great to have local Cantonese speakers, but we are doing ok without them too.
4. I don't know how to read or write
I bought a few books and annotated them, looking up every word in the dictionary. Perhaps doing 1 book a month, each of them children’s books, there were probably only about 20 different words in the first book I did.
It's amazing how much you can learn by doing very, very little every week consistently over a long period of time.
I've hired a tutor for the kids (online, straight from Guangdong) to teach reading, writing and to correct my terrible pronunciation.
But my expectations are low. I’ll be happy if they can just differentiate Chinese from Japanese and Korean when they’re older (which I didn’t learn to do until my 20s!!).
Which is to say: I totally get that Chinese is SO HARD, but if you and your kids do a little every day, after 10 years perhaps you’ll be able to speak and write a little, and that's better than nothing, right?
I annotate all the books we have, either by writing directly in them or by sticking post-it notes with pronunciation. I decided to do simplified because it's easier (all those "learn traditional first, simplified later" people aren’t taking into account that kids might just give up as traditional is substantially harder)
5. I don't know how to get started
This is actually the easiest thing.
Just start speaking in Cantonese. Just use what you know. If this is speaking Cantonese and inserting English — that's fine! If it’s speaking in English and inserting Cantonese — that's fine too! If it’s mixing Cantonese and Mandarin with a bit of Malay — that's also fine!
Speaking to parents, I hear a lot of parents who are horrified at some of the things I've done. For example, my family is from Hong Kong, but our tutor is from Guangdong. I've had to listen to endless lectures on accents and slang.
But, you know what?
Speaking ANY Cantonese is better than speaking none (which describes these parents' kids, as they let tutors go because their accents weren't good enough or had disagreements about curriculum).
I've taken the kids to HK once, and when there I was assailed with negativity about my accent and the impact it has on the kids.
But, you know what? They don't live in HK, anyone who compares their Canto to an HK-er's Canto is crazy.
Something is better than nothing. Something to improve on is better than something to learn from scratch.
Don't waste time navel gazing and worrying — just say something, ANYTHING, in Cantonese, even bad Cantonese, even just once. It's all better than nothing.
This is us at 萬佛寺 in Hong Kong several years ago
And this is us now.
How did you start teaching Chinese?
I wouldn't say that I’m teaching Chinese. I would say that I'm learning alongside the kids.
And imagine, your kids are going to be with you for a long time — if you have multiple kids, you've got 20+ years of them at home. That's a long time to learn a language, even the hardest language in the world.
By doing a very tiny bit every month and using what I learn every day we are all quite fluent.
We have our limitations. I don't understand the Canto TV programmes I find on Disney+ and YouTube. I get confused when multiple people speak to me at the same time in Canto. My 8yo is the same but he's 8, so that’s normal. He's working through it with his tutor. My 10yo has really taken to Cantonese and understands most things, translating for his dad into Italian. Both my kids are better than I was when I started.
I'm glad I gave my kids the opportunity to absorb such a hard language. And I've got another 10 years of improving ahead of me. Who knows what we'll achieve in this time!
I let the kids take their Chinese wherever they want… and generally it's somewhere stupid 🤦🏻♀️🤦🏻♀️
What are your language goals?
In the beginning I just wanted the kids to understand that tones exist. The concept is quite hard to obtain as an adult.
Now that that's done, I see Cantonese like other nice-to-have extra curriculars.
My kids look European — they don't look Chinese. So, in the same way they take piano lessons so they can drunkenly play Ed Sheeran in the pub one night to impress a girl / boy, I think my kids will thank me in 20 years' time when they are on a business trip and roll out 'm goi' and everyone is surprised at their hidden language knowledge.
The result of this low expectation is that they are learning to read, write, and understand with no pressure. It's all just for fun.
“...in the same way they take piano lessons so they can drunkenly play Ed Sheeran in the pub one night to impress a girl / boy, my kids will thank me in 20 years' time when they are on a business trip and roll out 'm goi' and everyone is surprised at their hidden language knowledge.” —Fiona
What is your approach to teaching Chinese?
At home we do OPOL. Me — Cantonese, husband — Italian, community — English.
However we have quite a structure. In a week we have:
- Mandarin lesson
- Italian lesson
- Cantonese lesson
- Piano lesson with a Canto-speaking teacher, so it's in Cantonese
- Kung fu lesson with a Canto-speaking teacher, so it's in Cantonese
- 10 minutes of Chinese writing every weekday, following Sage books
During the summer holidays, we add a maths and history lesson, both taught in Cantonese.
The kids spend all summer and most Christmases in Italy. We haven't been to Hong Kong for 5 years.
Most families that started with Cantonese stopped when their kids entered school, so we have very few Cantonese-speaking friends.
However, there are now many more Hong Kongers in London. We've found that they are so impressed hearing European-looking kids speak Cantonese with me that we are gathering more friends.
Recently a Hong Kong family started at my eldest's primary school and I unashamedly stalked them practically begging them to be my / my son's friend!
Fortunately we all get along and it's amazing to see Cantonese exist outside our house in the school playground.
“Recently a Hong Kong family started at my eldest's primary school and I unashamedly stalked them practically begging them to be my / my son's friend!” —Fiona
What is the most difficult thing about raising bilingual kids?
Now that we’ve got the weekly cadence of classes and the daily habit of speaking, we are very very relaxed about trilingualism. Finding tutors was really hard 10 years ago but is much easier now we’re all online.
I have to say, the toughest thing for me is when people say things like "Your kids are so smart" and "Kids are like sponges, they pick up languages so quickly".
It’s just not true. Kids only pick up things because I’ve done so. much. work. to put a whole language in front of them to pick up.
They only read and write because we study for 15 minutes a day. They only speak because I’ve struggled to overcome fear and derision to speak to them. It’s not natural, it’s work. Now it’s not hard work, but it’s work nonetheless.
When people compliment my kids, I often correct them and tell them that the compliments belong to me! I did the work!
“Kids only pick up things because I’ve done so. much. work. to put a whole language in front of them to pick up... They only speak because I’ve struggled to overcome fear and derision to speak to them... When people compliment my kids, I often correct them and tell them that the compliments belong to me! I did the work!” —Fiona
What is the most rewarding thing about raising bilingual kids?
Ah! So many advantages!
When they swear, I know it was daddy who messed up if it’s in Italian, or the school, if it’s in English (I don’t know how to swear in Cantonese so it’s never my fault!).
When we are queuing to get into a theme park and it’s cheaper if the kids totally lie about their age, I can tell them how old they are that day in Cantonese 😂😂.
When they want to say something to me without everyone understanding, we use our "secret language" (spoken by 100 million people who I hope are nowhere near us at the time).
We’re also closer as a family. Which is strange because I can’t say "I'm proud of you" or nuanced sentences like "It's fine to be envious but jealousy eats away at your heart" but my kids watch me struggle and believe I understand their struggles — not just with Cantonese but with many other things.
Recently, I was in the supermarket with my 10yo and telling him to look for the discount labels (it was just before closing time and... well we’re just classy like that). We were chatting about slightly yellowed, discounted broccoli (as I said, classy) and a family stopped and asked if we were from Hong Kong.
No one has EVER mistaken me for an actual Chinese person. The most I usually get is "stop speaking to your kid in Chinese, he’ll pick up your bad pronunciation". I was so proud I nearly cried.
On the way home I phoned my mum and told her, and of course she said, "They must’ve only heard a couple of words, because your Cantonese is terrible", which I just ignored.
My 10yo saw how happy I was, and said in Cantonese, "You can do anything if you just keep on trying".
Now, isn’t that just a great thing to teach your kids?
One of our favourite books. We like that it’s about finding cuddles, not a typical Chinese topic.
Any advice for parents who are waffling about whether to start?
Just do it.
If you hate it, stop. Don’t put pressure on yourself.
If your kid only has one word, you gave him one word. If he only has your rubbish Cantonese, that’s better than nothing.
Don’t look at it as having to teach a whole language.
Look at it like giving your kids the key to start a car. Whether they want to drive the car, keep fueling it, take it places… that’s down to them… but you shouldn’t keep the key to yourself.
“Just do it. If you hate it, stop. Don’t put pressure on yourself... Don’t look at it as having to teach a whole language.” —Fiona
What is on your wishlist?
I wish a super nice Cantonese-speaking family would move in next door and invite us to dinner every night! I wish it was easier to travel and that HK wasn’t so far away, and that it could somehow morph into the HK of my childhood.
Anything else you'd like to add?
I also wrote about my early experiences here. Feel free to give it a read!
Thank you, Fiona!
If you're interested in other multilingual parenting journeys, check out our other parent spotlights: