Parent Spotlight - Patricia
The Parent Spotlight Series is a set of blog posts featuring different parents in their journeys to raise bilingual children.
We took a brief break from Parent Spotlight, as we were running a lot of Lunar New Year activities, alongside organizing two massive pre-orders last month. But now that those are mostly out of the way, it's time to start posting our backlog of Parent Spotlights 🤪
Previously, we've heard from families who had only one parent who spoke Chinese at home, which has its obvious challenges. This time, we thought it'd be interesting to take a look at a family where both parents can speak Chinese fluently.
Do things become really different if both parents speak the minority language at home?
Turns out, the challenges don't change all that much. Here we welcome Patricia to tell her story :)
Patricia, tell us about your family and kids
We have three boys: O is 6 years old, E is 3 years old and A is 8 months old.
We will be speaking mainly about our experiences with O, our 6-year-old son.
My husband and I both speak Cantonese fluently. My husband’s family immigrated from Hong Kong when he was 1.5 year old, while I finished grade 3 in Hong Kong before moving to Toronto.
A little background: I am not a fast language learner. I struggled in Hong Kong when I went to an English elementary school, and I struggled learning English and French when I first started grade 4 here.
Ironically, I spent many years to become confident and proficient in English, at the expense of my Cantonese/Chinese, which remained stagnant at grade 3 level.
Fast forward all these years, as I start my journey into speaking Cantonese to my children, I now find myself struggling to balance the two languages.
For the last 5 years, being on and off mat leave, I feel like my communication skills in both languages are neither here nor there. When I was on mat leave, I spoke more Cantonese as I was with my kids all day, so I naturally became more fluent in it. When I returned to work however, I found myself struggling to express myself in English. Adding in parenting fatigue, juggling both languages was not easy.
On the other hand, despite immigrating to Canada as a baby, my husband can speak Cantonese fluently, and across a wide range of topics, such as politics, finance, and health/medicine.
He is a natural self learner, and would watch Hong Kong news just so he could learn new vocabulary. He is also highly disciplined and only speaks Cantonese to his parents and our children. He cannot read or write though, other than restaurant menu basics.
E (2 years old) playing with the CNY Lego Reunion dinner set from 2020
How did you start teaching Chinese?
It was somewhat natural for us to speak Cantonese when our first son was born. We didn’t have a formal discussion, but there was a mutual understanding that we would want our children to learn how to speak Cantonese, so they can communicate with their grandparents.
At the beginning, especially being home alone with my baby on mat leave, it took me awhile to get used to speaking Cantonese to myself and to him.
It was unnatural to me at first because I work with young children in my day job, and I am used to talking in English. I had to dig deep to translate what I would say to English-speaking babies into Cantonese.
There were moments when I thought “OMG I sound like my own mother.”
Luckily, I had my husband to give me reminders and encouragement when I got tired of speaking in Cantonese.
Once I overcame that initial hurdle, it became much easier to speak 100% Cantonese to my kids (obviously, with a side of Chinglish still).
DIY toy for A (8 months) to recognize our family members. O helping tape the Chinese names
What are your language goals?
We knew conversational Cantonese was one special language skill we can “confidently” give to our kids. As mentioned already, it was important for us that our kids can communicate effectively with their grandparents.
Over the last year with the pandemic and discovering the Kozzi community, I was inspired to teach O how to read and write with the limited knowledge I had. Before the pandemic, we never had time to formally teach O. Having this time at home, we were able to explore and incorporate more Chinese characters.
I wish I could’ve done more in O and E’s early years. Our goal is to have them confidently be able to order at a Chinese restaurant off the menu.
Adding Chinese characters to our KiwiCo Box for E (3 years old)
What is your approach to teaching Chinese?
Our approach is closest to inquiry-based learning. Most of what we teach the boys comes very organically. We observe what they are interested in and start conversations with them about that topic, or buy books on those topics.
With inquiry-based learning, there needs to be a provocation of learning—something that provokes thought and motivates thinking and investigation. We do that through books.
Our family loves books. We decided to read all our English books in Cantonese too. It was pretty cringe worthy the first time we read a new book together, as we often translate “live” in our head. My husband and I support each other though, whenever we have a hard time recalling a word during story time.
Now that O is older and his interest is in non-fiction science books, we rely heavily on Google Translate to know what terms like atoms, electrons, and protons are in Chinese.
Unfortunately, once he was old enough to know that mommy can read in English, I can only read in English now. I still do all my explaining in Cantonese though. My husband held his ground and is still reading with him only in Cantonese.
As O is getting older, he is also more picky with what he wants to learn. We taught him to write numbers and a few other characters in Chinese, but when we moved onto more complicated characters, he quickly got bored and saw it as “work”. So we stopped pushing, as writing was not our priority in the early years.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I asked again if he would like to revisit learning how to write Chinese. This time we picked his favourite topic: space. We practised one space related word a day, and he loved it.
O (5 years old) writing the words rocket and plane. Gears towards his interest.
After writing all the names of the planets, we moved onto elements, helium and calcium. As per O’s request and interest.
E just turned 3 and his interest lies in electronic educational toys, e.g. vTech Explore and Learn Table, Leap Frog 2-in-1, Leap Frog Go-With-Me ABC backpack. Those toys taught him how to count to 20. He can now recognize all his uppercase and lowercase letters, and recently he started printing letters and numbers.
We don’t know whether it was because he had to self-entertain at an early age as the second child, or if the pandemic robbed him of a more formal learning experience from Montessori. He has very little interest in sitting with an adult to play/draw/paint/glue. He can spend all day however on electronic toys and listening to audio books. We still invite and encourage him to do other hands-on activities, but most of the time, he runs away
During this pandemic, we found a few really good podcast channels and Spotify playlist of storytelling in Cantonese. I have also recorded myself reading his favourite books in Cantonese so he can listen to them all day long.
This past Christmas, we got him the Superman Food pen in hopes that he will pick up more Cantonese vocabulary. He loves it so far and is even picking up some Mandarin. The Superman Food Pen is not something we would’ve bought if E wasn’t so receptive to electronic toys. Fingers crossed that once he starts school/daycare, he will be okay.
Other things we do to help with language learning, is find Cantonese-dubbed cartoons for our boys to watch, such as Thomas the Tank Engine. Also, we have lots of FaceTime calls with our parents for them to keep communicating in Cantonese.
E (almost 3) learning about Chinese New Year and interested in firecrackers
What is the most difficult thing about raising bilingual kids?
I think the hardest part for me is disciplining my children in Cantonese. It is so natural for me to discipline the way my parents did, or what I saw and heard as a child growing up in Hong Kong.
The style is very authoritarian and dismissive of feelings—the parent is always right, and uses language that shames the child. This approach is so different from attachment parenting, which is closest to what we practice.
For example, in the threenager years of testing boundaries, an attachment parenting approach would say, “I don’t like that behaviour you are doing”, as opposed to, “You are being annoying.”
The child’s behaviour is annoying, not the child themselves.
In Cantonese however, I would instinctively say「你好煩」, but we had to relearn our parenting language to say「我好唔鍾意你做依個行為」.
With that said, when I lose my patience, Angry Mama still takes over. I sound just like my mother yelling at me, and the shame language inevitably comes out. (e.g. 「你有冇搞錯/你係咪想死/你試吓」)
Another difficult thing for me is not knowing the outcome of this journey. We know research shows that learning multiple languages has more positives than negatives, but what if our child is the exception? What if one of them has an undiagnosed learning disability or speech impediment?
I worry because O’s English sounds like he had just moved from Hong Kong. His Cantonese accent makes it difficult for most people to understand him, and I worry that he will be made fun of.
Luckily, O also doesn’t care about what others think of him yet, and being in the diverse GTA (Greater Toronto Area) certainly helps.
Just to add more to the mix, we also have him in the French Immersion program with the public school board. I pray that with time and guidance, he is able to balance all 3 languages and effectively communicate with his peers and teachers. Only time will tell...
“...the hardest part for me is disciplining my children in Cantonese. It is so natural for me to discipline the way my parents did... The style is very authoritarian and dismissive of feelings—the parent is always right, and uses language that shames the child. This approach is so different from attachment parenting, which is closest to what we practice.” —Patricia
What is the most rewarding thing about raising bilingual kids?
The moments that make us most proud is when O can talk to our parents and all of our parents’ friends. O is like a little celebrity with the aunties and uncles. There is zero language barrier.
I also love it when my parents come up to us and be like “Who taught him that phrase? How does he know how to use that phrase?” It brings us so much joy for the boys to have such a special and close relationship with all four grandparents.
It’s even more special when he can communicate with his great grandmother during our annual Hong Kong trip. I think about the relationship between my younger sister (who speaks very little Cantonese) and my deceased grandma. There was a clear language barrier there, and it certainly didn't help that she lived so far away in Hong Kong. Every time we visit Hong Kong as a family, I would help my sister review the Chinese titles for the various aunties and uncles.
I hope to give my kids the skills to confidently communicate with our family in Hong Kong.
O (4 years old) writing his numbers
Any advice for parents who are waffling about whether to start?
For all the parents who know enough Cantonese but don’t speak it regularly, it is difficult in the beginning, but once you get through that initial hurdle, it becomes easier.
Parenting is all about consistency and repetition, this is also true with language. We pretty much repeat the same phrases every day.
The first time you read that English book in Cantonese, it will feel very cringe worthy. But with each read, you will refine your phrasing, and you will look up more appropriate words to tell the story. Then after reading it for the 100th time, you start feeling pretty good about yourself.
It is easy to feel like you have imposter syndrome—I feel like a phony, and that I am teaching improper Chinese to my boys most days. You are not alone. Stick with what you know and take this opportunity to learn and grow with your child.
Don’t be embarrassed to ask your parents or friends for help. We often use Google Translate when we are translating English books when we read to our kids.
“The first time you read that English book in Cantonese, it will feel very cringe worthy. But with each read, you will refine your phrasing, and you will look up more appropriate words to tell the story. Then after reading it for the 100th time, you start feeling pretty good about yourself.” —Patricia
What is on your wishlist?
I dream of hiring a Cantonese-speaking nanny: Someone that can pick my kids up from school and watch them until I get home. Someone to cook us yummy Cantonese food, while I help them with their English/French homework. (Am I describing my mother?)
We hope to keep Cantonese going as long as possible. O is speaking more English now, so I know I will need to step up and give up speaking English to my husband in front of my kids to give them more exposure.
I also wish that our Chinese-speaking friends had kids at the same time as us. Sometimes I wonder if O's lack of interest had to do with not having friends in his pre-school years that spoke Cantonese. We have a few friends that speak Cantonese, but none that we see regularly.
Luckily, some of our Cantonese-speaking friends recently had kids around the same age as our younger children. So my wish came true! Now if only COVID would just go away, so we can actually see them.
Any funny stories you can share?
When O was 3 or 4, we regularly read Canada 123 by the beloved Paul Covello, and O learned that there are two official languages in Canada.
He was very confused and kept saying the book was wrong, and that Canadians spoke 3 languages: English, French and Cantonese.
O and E making miniature Candy food that matches Little Penguins Rides the Train.
What are your favourite books?
E (almost 3) reading the Little Penguin series to keep him on the potty
Thank you, Patricia!
If you're interested in other multilingual parenting journeys, check out our previous parent spotlights: