Parent Spotlight - Pauline

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

Many parents think they need the "ideal" circumstances to raise multilingual children, whether it is needing two native-speaking parents, having access to full immersion environments, or that you had to start teaching when your babies were still in utero.

Don't get me wrong: Those things certainly help! But it turns out they're not necessary.

Meet Pauline :)

Pauline primarily speaks English, but she's raising two bilingual girls to speak and read Cantonese! I am always SO impressed by her and her girls every time I see them in action. As someone who doesn't speak Cantonese, Pauline is tackling this language learning journey with such grace!

We are so thrilled she agreed to share her journey with us here.

Pauline, tell us about your family and kids

Rachel is 4, and Arissa is 3.

I (mom) am a monolingual English speaker while dad is fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin (born and raised in Guangzhou).

I would say my Cantonese speaking is now at a toddler level, and I can read at a preschool/kindergarten level.

How did you start teaching Chinese?

The desire for my children to learn Chinese was very strong since before they were born. As a monolingual English speaker, I struggled with my cultural identity growing up. I was never Chinese nor Canadian enough.

I decided on Cantonese over Mandarin because of my husband’s family roots. We did not start from birth. I married a native Chinese speaker, so I did not think I would be the one to teach the children Chinese.

Before Rachel turned 2, we were learning together very loosely. We learned colours, numbers and very easy words. I searched long and hard on the internet for Cantonese resources geared towards English speakers.

There were unfortunately very few resources. Fortune Cookie Mom, Canton Sponge and Play Cantonese were my go-to for vocabulary and songs.

During this time, I will honestly say I don’t think we learned much besides basic vocabulary for colours, numbers and some fruits.

Rachel started a Cantonese play-based class when she was a little over 2. Arissa started when she was 20 months. Their Chinese started to improve from that point, and I started learning more with them. They came back singing songs, and they started tracing traditional Chinese characters. Since resources were hard to come by, I also started creating small things to help us learn (menus, labels, signs).

When Cantonese Mommy YouTube channel came out, it was like gold! I would play them all of her videos. It was great to actually hear a native speaker speak Cantonese. Before this, I was just reading jyutping, and I didn’t even know if I was saying anything correctly.

Now I can say we are at a much better place. We have made most of our progress this year alone. The COVID lockdown was a blessing in disguise. Grandma was temporarily laid off for a couple of months so she was able to speak to the kids more in Cantonese. Schools were closed so the kids were home with me all the time, and we were able to put more effort into our language learning journey.

There are many more resources available for Cantonese now—free and paid—beyond just our local community. We were able to meet teachers or find resources from other parts of Canada, USA, UK and HK.

I don’t think it was one approach or one person that helped the kids learn, but a combination of everything. Besides our family, we are thankful to Rhythm 'N' Rhyme Musical Adventures, Little Kozzi, Janice, Daudingism, Locy Lee Learning, Little Bean Cantonese, Cantonese Mommy, Michigan Cantonese Storytime and 嘉芙姐姐, who have all helped us tremendously.

“We have made most of our progress this year alone. The COVID lockdown was a blessing in disguise.” — Pauline

What are your language goals?

My goals have changed within the last year. This time last year, I would have been content if my kids could just understand (without speaking) and recognize the basic characters.

Now that our Chinese has progressed, I would love for my kids to be able to hold an everyday conversation in Cantonese with relatives and friends.

For reading, my goal is for my children to read a bridging book independently (~1000 characters).

Also, if we were in China or at a Chinese restaurant, I would love for them to read a menu and order food for me.

What is your approach to teaching Chinese?

I don’t think I really have a set approach to Chinese learning. I know a lot of parents say "one parent one language" has been their go-to method.

Unfortunately, my husband and I discussed that it would not be the best approach with our family due to my husband's work and kids’ sleep schedule. It was unfair for him to spend the little time he had with them trying to teach them Chinese.

We chose to let him spend his time bonding and connecting with the kids instead. And that’s how I ended up being the one to teach and guide the kids’ Cantonese language learning journey despite not knowing the language.

“That's how I ended up being the one to teach and guide the kids’ Cantonese language learning journey despite not knowing the language.” — Pauline

At one point my approach was “more is more", but now I am definitely choosing quality resources.

My kids are able to spend time with their native-speaking grandma (who doesn’t speak English) once a week. I don’t have a set plan for the day otherwise, besides the classes. I follow the kids' lead, but make sure there are Chinese resources available for the kids when they choose to use them.

In our home, there are Chinese labels everywhere as a reminder to call things by their Chinese name. Chinese books are in our main living area while the bulk of our English books are in a different location. Music, iPad games and shows are only in Cantonese.

I used to always write the kids’ Chinese name alongside their English name on everything (clothing and bottle labels, their artwork, etc). That has definitely helped them learn their Chinese name as they both could recognize it by 2 years old.

In terms of conversing, we wing it and do whatever feels natural. Most of our day we speak in English, but we do add Cantonese when we can. I speak "Chinglish" (English and Chinese), but if I can speak a full sentence, I usually say it in English first and then try to translate it to Cantonese after. Sometimes the kids understand. Sometimes they correct me.

Now that the kids are older and have a better grasp of Chinese, my husband will speak to them more in Cantonese. Sometimes the kids answer back in Cantonese. Sometimes it’s English. Sometimes the kids will repeat after my husband. But it’s whatever comes natural to the conversation. We don’t force the kids to speak Cantonese.

I would also say that the kids get at least an hour of Cantonese exposure on a daily basis. This includes classes, YouTube story time, music on in the background, or reading and other small activities with mommy.

At one point, the kids had classes (circle time, story time or structured Chinese lesson) everyday, sometimes twice a day. Especially if it was free, we were there! (I’m that kind of Asian haha).

I’ve since cut it down to 4 to 5 times a week. Totally plugging Rhythm 'N' Rhyme here HAHA, but my kids really enjoy learning with Eveline. She has taught them many new songs, new vocabulary and helped build their confidence with reading. They see her many times throughout the week. Locy Lee has also been great for teaching them through songs.

Sagebook 500 has helped our family kick start our reading journey. Since it introduces one character at a time, I am also able to learn how to read alongside my children. Rachel is currently at 200+ characters while Arissa is at 20 characters.

Little Kozzi Reading Club has also helped us a lot too. The kids are assigned one page so there is less pressure for them to be able to read a whole book. But the end results are magical! My kids love seeing all the different children reading their pages, and are so excited when they see and hear their page. It challenges them without them feeling overwhelmed.

The Pleco app has helped us a lot with reading. I will search for characters and words we don’t know. It has the lovely feature of saying the word too which helps us learn the proper pronunciation and tones.

I am a firm believer of learning through books, stories and songs. We learn a lot in our English books but since I am not fluent in Cantonese, Chinese books are much harder.

The Chameleon Reader has been a game changer for reading exposure. I use audio that comes with books, YouTube video audio, my husband, and also the kids voices. The kids love to hear themselves read. It’s great that we can read a book with a native speaker as many times as we want, at whatever pace we want, while still being screen free.

We listen to a lot of Cantonese children songs. Sometimes we actively listen and try to sing together. Sometimes it’s just on in the background while the kids are playing with their toys. I also love that all their Chinese classes includes songs as I find it engages them more and they learn more this way.

“The kids are assigned one page so there is less pressure for them to be able to read a whole book. But the end results are magical! My kids love seeing all the different children reading their pages, and are so excited when they see and hear their page. It challenges them without them feeling overwhelmed.” — Pauline

What is the most difficult thing about raising bilingual kids?

One of the most difficult things about raising bilingual Cantonese kids was resources. When we began this journey, Cantonese resources for English speakers were hard to come by.

When Rachel was one, we attended a monthly Cantonese circle time. We had zero knowledge of the language and it was full immersion. I did not understand a word and my daughter was not speaking yet, so I had no idea if she was absorbing anything.

Since it was once a month, it was definitely not enough time for either of us to learn anything. We stopped after the second session as I didn’t think it was the right fit or strategy for our family, and I was also pregnant with my second child. I didn’t give up but I did start to look on the internet for more resources.

When my kids got “older” (2 years old), they showed more resistance to learning Cantonese. They did not like it when I tried to read them books, or worse, try to speak a whole sentence with them in Cantonese.

I don’t blame them. I was not fluent and I was very choppy, stopping to think about what I wanted to say. I would still try but I wouldn’t force anything.

They are much more accepting of me speaking Cantonese now, and are more patient if I need to look up a word. I think what helped most was modeling how I was learning. I would look up words. I would make MANY mistakes, but always looked at ways to fix it, looked online for help, or asked my husband or friends for help.

“I would make MANY mistakes, but always looked at ways to fix it, looked online for help, or asked my husband or friends for help.” — Pauline

I know the kids will — or have already — surpassed my Chinese level. So I will definitely be looking at ways to challenge them so I don’t hold them back on their learning.

I never felt like giving up but there have been times where I realized I might need to change strategies with my daughters.

When Rachel was almost 2, her main exposure to Cantonese was from me and the resources I found. Dad would speak to her occasionally in Cantonese. Once, I thought it was funny when my daughter tried to “correct” dad’s tones and pronunciation in Cantonese. That’s when I had to discuss with her that daddy’s Chinese is probably right and mommy’s Chinese is probably wrong.

What is the most rewarding thing about raising bilingual kids?

I was ecstatic when my kids started singing Cantonese nursery songs at home after a month of Chinese school. That couple of minutes of singing were the first time I’ve ever heard them say more than one word of Cantonese at a time.

Another proud moment I had was when the kids and I were watching Peppa Pig in Cantonese together. Rachel (3 years old) took the initiative to translate what the characters were saying to me.

Since there were English subtitles, I could verify she was correct. That’s when I realized that their Chinese has progressed much further than mine and there was hope that they could learn more.

“Rachel (3 years old) took the initiative to translate what the characters were saying to me. Since there were English subtitles, I could verify she was correct. That’s when I realized that their Chinese has progressed much further than mine and there was hope that they could learn more.” — Pauline

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

Little steps.

Language learning is not an overnight or even a month thing. It is definitely a lifelong skill that develops over a long period of time.

It’s also something you don’t need to do alone.

If you can find a family member, friend, or a community, to help and cheer you on, it will help make the journey easier and more enjoyable. The Cantonese Parents Facebook Group has been a wonderful resource for me.

Make learning Cantonese fun! It’ll be easier for you and your child to retain the language, and you will create some beautiful memories together.

Also, go at the pace that fits your family. If you are learning with your child, you can substitute one or more English words to Cantonese at a time. The more you use it, the better you and your child will retain it.

What is on your wishlist?

I am hoping as the kids get older, there will be more resources geared towards their age group.

I would love a phrasebook that includes everyday language for 4-10 year olds (language they need to play games/activities with peers, slang, idioms, bigger topics like bullying, asking for help, etc).

I am also on a hunt for a Cantonese immersion class or play group that is more play-focused, that make language learning fun, and allow them to speak to their peers in Cantonese more naturally.

I would also love it if Google or Alexa understood Cantonese. It would make our Cantonese conversations funnier since my kids are always trying to say random stuff to them in English.

Any funny stories you can share?

When Arissa was 20 months, she started a play-based Chinese class that is one and a half hours long.

On the first day of class, Arissa took a nap for half the class, 45 minutes!

She was sleeping when I came to pick her up. I thought she was rebelling already and I was never going to get her to learn Cantonese.

Thankfully, it was only the first class.

What are your favourite books?

Elephant and Piggie, although simplified Chinese, has been one of our favourite books because the books are silly and fun. The words are fairly simple and are a conversation between the characters.

Bayard magazines have recently been my new favourite because it comes with Cantonese audio, and it’s colloquial Cantonese. It’s beyond our reading level, but we don’t mind since there is the audio that I can put onto our Chameleon Reader. It also comes with fun activities for the kids to do.

The kids love the Chinese translated version of the Mr. Panda series and Chris Haughton’s books (i.e. Shh! We Have a Plan!) because it's fun and simple to read.

Most recently the kids love the Butt Detective series for its puzzles and games. Although I can say that we can’t actually read the stories in Chinese.

Thank you, Pauline!

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

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