Parent Spotlight - Ming

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

We had a very positive response to our kickoff post — Terri's background and her penchant for C-Dramas apparently struck a chord with many of you 🤪

We still have many parents lined up, and we can't wait for you to meet them all.

Today, we introduce our next parent: Ming!

Ming, tell us about your family and kids

T is 7 years old, and C is almost three.

We are a mixed-race, mixed-culture family — my kids are Chinese-Canadian and Welsh.

I'm a fairly fluent Cantonese speaker, and can read enough to decipher kids books. My spouse doesn’t speak Chinese, so most of our family time is in English. He’s also not teaching our kids Welsh (claiming it’s more of a dead language than Cantonese — haha!).

T is also in a French immersion school. Her French is already surpassing her Chinese….

Reading together - awww ❤️

How did you start teaching Chinese?

I’ve always known that I wanted my kids to learn Chinese. So I’ve spoken to them in Cantonese since they were born. I grew up in a bilingual household, and so did my spouse, so it was natural for us.

At the very beginning it seemed a little silly, as they were so little and I was mostly talking to myself (this is probably true for any language — haha). And I had to get back into the habit of speaking Cantonese again, as I hadn’t used it much as an adult.

But we were committed to it, and invested in it (books, toys, and had a Chinese-speaking caregiver). My spouse learned with my oldest, and uses a handful of daily words in Cantonese.

When my oldest was in preschool, it got a lot harder, as she figured out using English was a lot easier — everyone could understand! English became her dominant language, and still is.

Teaching Cantonese was easier with my second, as I already had some experience, and a routine. There’s also so many more resources available now than 7 years ago — Cantonese music circles, websites and blogs, and Little Kozzi :)

What are your language goals?

I see language as a connection to culture and identity. So I’d love for my kids to be able to understand and speak — enough to hold a simple daily conversation, order at a restaurant, ask for directions, that type of thing.

A secondary goal is to introduce them to reading and writing — enough that if they wanted to learn more when they are older, it’ll be easier to pick up.

Both of these things are important so they feel connected to their Chinese heritage. It also helps to build understanding of Chinese culture, like food, traditions, TV and films, etc.

It’s important to me that we set realistic and reasonable goals. Learning a heritage language is always going to be challenging in an English-dominant environment. So my focus is to provide opportunities that support them to learn Chinese as best they can — rather than a specific milestone that I want them to achieve.

Playing with Chinese blocks

What is your approach to teaching Chinese?

I guess if I had to describe it, it’s partly OPOL (one person, one language) and partly winging it — hahaha.

Overall, I try to take my kids’ lead and make it fun and enjoyable. There is no reason to make it overly challenging or stressful because I don’t want to turn them off.

I try to integrate it into our day in small ways, so they always get a consistent dribble of Chinese exposure :).

Most of the time, I focus on just talking to them in Cantonese, no matter what we are doing — putting away dishes, shopping, shovelling snow, whatever. I try to get them to respond to me in Cantonese too (but I’m not too strict about this). Time with Grandma has also been great to reinforce what they already know.

We also have a routine where we read books, sing songs, and play games in Cantonese. And sometimes do worksheets, or flashcards, or simple exercises on the whiteboard. We have found the Sage Books Basic 500 series and the Greenfield Leveled Readers useful. T also loves Welly Chinese. We also use Luka and a couple reading pens. Most screen time is also in Cantonese.

We’ve also done different classes — from toddler circle time to formal Chinese school. It was hard to find a Chinese school program that was a good fit for us, but right now Rhythm 'N' Rhyme and Locy Lee Learning have both been great, especially during the COVID pandemic.

"I try to integrate it into our day in small ways, so they always get a consistent dribble of Chinese exposure :)" — Ming

What is the most difficult thing about raising bilingual kids?

I’m not sure that I’m raising bilingual kids. That assumes that we’re aiming for a certain level of fluency. At the same time, I never thought about giving up — and this is probably because we have these same low expectations :)

That doesn’t mean I don’t get discouraged sometimes. Especially as the challenges continually change! Or when the kids don’t seem motivated or engaged, or whine “Mommy, why can’t you just speak English?”.

The biggest challenge for me right now is simply time. With kids in school and daycare, and a more-than-full-time job, it’s hard to squeeze in Cantonese around homework, extra-curriculars, and other things that compete for energy and attention.

It’s hard not to feel stretched and inadequate — if I’m not there, my kids don’t get Chinese exposure. There are also trade-offs — registering for that Chinese class means we can’t do swimming this term. But that’s just the reality of our circumstances.

Another challenge is handling unhelpful comments and comparisons from family members and others. It can be discouraging to be criticized. Things like accents, code-mixing, etc get a bad rap. But I see it as a natural part of learning and growing up in a multilingual environment.

Knowing other families that are going through the same thing has helped a lot. We share resources and ideas and encourage each other to keep going. Creating opportunities for our kids to learn together (we hired a private tutor last year) has also been terrific.

"Things like accents, code-mixing, etc get a bad rap. But I see it as a natural part of learning and growing up in a multilingual environment." — Ming

What is the most rewarding thing about raising bilingual kids?

Being able to share my culture through stories and jokes is amazing.

Seeing them proudly self-identify as (part) Chinese is also incredibly rewarding.

One thing that surprised me was to hear stories from other parents about how T helped their kids normalize and accept having a home language (and going to Saturday morning Chinese/German/Hebrew/whatever school).

It shows how connection to a heritage language contributes to building inclusiveness and values of multiculturalism.

Bubble tea study date

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

Just try it! It doesn’t matter how far you go or how much they master.

The important thing is sharing what you know. Even if it just means they can say a few words, eavesdrop on conversations at the grocery store, or order dimsum (or maybe in the future they will decide to take it further in their studies or career!) It’s just another useful skill to add to what you are already teaching them.

TBH, I probably spend more than I should on teaching peripherals — books and reading pens and activity sheets — but really, all you need to start is simply speak Chinese to your kids consistently every day.

There’s also tons and tons of advice out there about how to do this “correctly”, but go with what works for you and your family. Language learning isn’t really a science, as kids will each have their own learning styles and innate ability.

If it’s not working, don’t be afraid to try something else! And if you eventually decide it’s really not for you, that’s ok too!

"There’s also tons and tons of advice out there about how to do this “correctly”, but go with what works for you and your family." — Ming

What is on your wishlist?

The major gap that I see is Chinese schools with curriculum tailored for second/third generation learners.

Many of the programs that I’ve encountered are either for very beginner learners, or expect a certain level of fluency at home with a focus on reading and writing.

My oldest is somewhere in the middle — she already knows the colours and fruits and animals, she can reliably read 200 characters, and she can understand most of what I say in Cantonese. BUT, she has difficulty stringing together a complete sentence in spoken Cantonese by herself. So immersion programs focused on speaking would be ideal for us.

I also often wish for more opportunities to use Chinese outside of our family. In the absence of the large family and community network that I grew up with, or being able to send the kids to spend a few weeks with relatives in Hong Kong, we’re going to need to think of other ways to create more immersion experiences.

Online Chinese Class

Any funny stories you can share?

Being in a multilingual household with a toddler is a constant game of charades and “What? Can you repeat that?” as we never know what language they will use to express themselves.

C, pointing across the street: Muh-muh!
Me: Yes? Mama’s here. What is it?
C: No! Muh-muh!
Me: You see a moe-moe? ("hat" in Cantonese)
C: No! Muh-muh!
Me: What? You want mut-mut? ("socks" in Cantonese)
C: No! Muh-muh!
Me, grasping at straws: Mittens?
C: No! (tears up) Muh-muh over there!
Me: Huh? I see a car, I see a tree, I see a person on a bike…
C: No! (still crying) Muh-muh! Muh-Muh! Small Muh-Muh!
Me: Ohh! Mao-Mao. You see a Mao-Mao. ("cat" in Cantonese)

(It was actually a squirrel…)

Anything else you'd like to add?

Given our English dominant environment, teaching Chinese can feel like constantly pushing a boulder up a hill.

It does take effort and commitment to gain a bit of ground. But I also keep in mind that “holding the line” (making sure the kids don’t lose what knowledge they already have) is perfectly fine and a legitimate place to be too.

Whatever Chinese the kids pick up will be a success!

Thank you, Ming!

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

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