As the oldest of my two boys nears his 4th birthday, I couldn’t be more proud of their progress in becoming mini bilingual speakers. While Yono is simultaneously teaching his son to speak 3 languages, my approach was simply to only teach my kids Cantonese until they were ready for daycare/preschool. I didn’t have to really think about how I would approach bilingualism, it’s just how I was raised. Talk to any Chinese immigrant about their children and the common phrase is “I never worry that my children won’t learn English, I worry that they won’t know how to speak Chinese”.
This year my sons entered preschool and daycare and they’ve been picking up English so quickly. What has shocked me the most is how they seamlessly move from one language to another. My almost-4-year-old will switch between languages depending on the situation and translate to the other language if he detects a pause or blank stare from the person he’s talking to. Admittedly, he’ll even correct my Cantonese when he thinks I am wrong. That rascal! But really, it makes me so proud and amazed that his mind works so quickly in two completely different languages.
However, I am fully aware that the hardest part is yet to come. Someday they will realize that speaking in English is a whole lot easier and Chinese simply isn’t “cool”. This will make it so much harder for them to stay interested, especially if all of their peers only speak English. If my husband and I force them to speak in Chinese at home (despite the fact that my husband and I speak in English to each other), it will become a chore to them. I know this because that is exactly my story and why I sadly and regrettably only have the Cantonese speaking fluency of a 3 year old. And yes, that means my kids are speaking better than I do right now. But I am more than ok with that.
At the moment, I’m combating the inevitable by watching Disney & Studio Ghibli movies and listening to songs in Cantonese. We’re lucky to live in a world where almost anything is accessible. We found a great website (yesasia.com) where you can order movies with Hong Kong Cantonese dubbing. My husband and I sit down to watch these with our kids and try to insert comments, explanations and ask questions so my sons can make connection to vocabulary and phrases they don’t understand yet. The key is to experience language and new vocabulary with them and talk about it afterwards. If you were to ask my kids who Kevin, Russell and Carl are (from the movie Up), they wouldn’t have a clue. But if you use their Cantonese names and they will get really excited! 🙂
So far it seems to be working. When I play a movie, my son requests to switch the audio language setting to Cantonese when he hears English. YES! Time will only tell if we can keep this up, but I’m sure as heck going to keep trying.