As the kids get older, I realize that our family language diagrams have not necessarily changed as much, but the matter in which we go about it has changed. With both of my boys in preschool, the struggle continues in maintaining their interest in their home language. I was recently inspired by Marianna du Bosq (Bilingual Avenue) and Maria Babin (Trilingual Mama) to sit down and set a few family language goals this year to help me map out where I want to go and not feel as lost in this bilingual journey.
When my kids were first born, I thought my goal was to simply get them to a conversational level, just enough to communicate with their grandparents and possibly order meals at Chinese restaurants. To some that may be setting the bar at a decent height, however through this Chinese parenting facebook group I felt encouraged that I could simply do better.
Many times I find myself using the excuse that my Chinese fluency or literacy skills are extremely low and therefore cannot be able to take my kids further. But I realize now that it is just that- an excuse. I am even more encouraged by Nick (Where are we going, Dad?) a native English speaker, who is teaching his daughter to speak Mandarin and Spanish and English. It simply boggles my mind the resolve he has to accomplish this, but it also gives me NO excuse to not be able to at least impart my first language to my children.
So this year, armed with encouragement and support, I aim to raise the bar just a bit for myself and my family with these following goals.
1. Continue speaking in Cantonese
It’s really hard for my children to revert to Cantonese when their English speaking skills have far surpassed their Cantonese vocabulary. I try to set a tone once I pick them up from school that in the car ride home we try to speak Cantonese. It doesn’t always work as there are so many things they want to tell me about their exciting school day and they simply don’t know or remember the vocabulary. Instead of forcing them to only speak in Cantonese, I allow them to tell me parts of the story in English and before they go on I will repeat most of it in Cantonese and use “and then?” in Cantonese to prompt them to switch.
2. Celebrate their bilingualism and heritage.
I am SO thankful that my son’s preschool teacher is such a proponent of celebrating all of the cultures represented in her classroom. Growing in the suburbs, I was usually one of the very few non-white classmates. Nobody knew anything about Chinese culture let alone Chinese New Year. This year, my son’s teacher devoted an entire week to reading 1 book every day about Chinese New Year so that by the time I went in to volunteer to read The Great Race to the class, the kids knew more about Chinese New Year than I did! My son was SO proud of his Chinese heritage and SO excited about Chinese New Year. As a Chinese mom, I couldn’t be more grateful to this wonderful teacher for such a special gift.
We’re also lucky to live just a stone’s throw away from Chinatown. We started a weekly trip there after their swimming lessons. And now we let the kids politely order food and ask for the check. We even let them make a stop at the candy store to pick out one piece of candy and pay for it themselves. We especially love this experience because all the employees love talking to the boys in Cantonese and remind them to brush their teeth after they eat candy. 🙂 Without many peers who speak Cantonese, this is one of the few times they get to utilize their Cantonese outside of the family and see how useful it can be.
3. Introduce Chinese Literacy
I didn’t think literacy could even be possible given all the excuses I kept telling myself. I have introduced them to characters through flashcards and a few books, but I have never read a book to them as I would in English (because I can’t- wait, that’s another excuse!). In the last few months, as I been reading all of Virginia’s (MandarinMama.com) blog post series on Sagebooks, which are the Chinese equivalent to BOB Books in terms of sentence building and literacy, I couldn’t help but think I could just as well learn alongside the boys and even raise my own literacy level. So when my cousin-in-law went on a trip to Hong Kong, I had her hunt down the beginner’s set for me. I’m really excited to start on this soon and see where it takes us. I plan to just enjoy this with my kids and not worry about the number of characters they learn. It’s not as if I don’t remember how boring Chinese school was for me when I was a 5 year old!
4. Continue looking for Cantonese media.
We have shown the kids many different Studio Ghibli and Disney movies in Cantonese in the last couple of years, but it was hard to figure out how much they were comprehending. When in fact, they could watch the same movie in Japanese and still laugh at the same scenes!
A few months ago, we began watching Peppa Pig in Cantonese through Mandonese. We were SO surprised at how much we love it, more so for the language acquisition and less so for the story lines. Each of the episodes is short (5 minutes) and they tend to repeat the same words over and over again. Anything that encourages my younger son (who has a slight speech delay) to speak more Cantonese is a huge winner in my book! He loves saying blurting out “dinosaur”, “pasta” and “chocolate cake” whenever he can- all critical vocabulary to survive in a Cantonese world 🙂
All in all I think what I’ve set for my family is highly attainable yet pushes us a little further than I had originally planned many years back. So, here’s to a language-filled 2016!
-Alice, Team Gus