Our Parent Spotlight this month will feature Angie!
Angie came to Canada when she was 2.5 years old. Both her children speak fluently in Cantonese and English (age 5 & 7). How did she do it? Let’s find out what worked for her and what didn’t. She also has some fun recommendations to share about books, Cantonese piano and art classes, and other resources. Let’s take a look!
Hi Angie! Can you tell us a bit about you and your family?
I was born in Hong Kong but our family immigrated here when I was 2.5 years old. Since immigration I’ve only been to Hong Kong twice, but I’ve always felt a strong connection to the culture because of my parents. At home we spoke Cantonese and I also grew up watching TVB dramas with them on weekdays, watching game shows on weekends, and renting laser discs to watch cartoons and movies in Cantonese. I can follow along most conversations, but I definitely lack a lot of vocabulary to go more in depth. As for my reading, I only knew a handful of characters, not even enough to read a menu at dim sum.
“[We] joke about how our house has become a Cantonese immersion program for my husband.”
I have two little girls: IL is 7 and HL is 4. They both speak Cantonese and English. In fact, they spoke Cantonese before they spoke English despite their dad not being able to speak it. The girls and I will speak Cantonese to each other and English to their dad. I joke about how our house has become a Cantonese immersion program for my husband. But after 7 years of exposure, he can now understand some of our conversations (especially when it’s about food).
What inspired you to teach your children Cantonese?
I decided to start teaching Cantonese when IL was about 1 years old. My husband and I had discussed how we wanted our kids to be able to speak Cantonese, especially because we wanted our kids to be able to speak to my parents. As I reflected on my own childhood, I knew I wanted to share some of the things I loved as a child with my own children, one of which was Totoro in Cantonese.
How did you decide on the home language?
We do a one parent one language approach (OPOL). My parents also only speak Cantonese to my girls. Our screen time is 90% in Cantonese. Sometimes the girls don’t want to watch a movie in Cantonese, but if I sit down and watch it with them, they’ll usually accommodate my request. I’ve also found that if they start off watching a show in Cantonese, they will find that the English version sounds “weird.”
“When I started, I didn’t do anything special.”
Was it hard when you started?
When I started, I didn’t do anything special. I just talked. I stopped speaking in English and switched to Cantonese. If I didn’t know the word in Cantonese, I would grab my phone and look it up. I would translate books from English to colloquial Cantonese. I must have looked up the word “armadillo” over 50 times because IL’s favourite book at the time was Goodnight Gorilla.
Did you have any specific goals?
My original goal was to have them speaking fluently. If they were able to converse with my parents casually, I would be happy.
“The problem was I could barely read Chinese.”
When IL turned 3, I started worrying if speaking to her was enough for her to retain the language. That’s when I decided I would start teaching her how to read, so that I could expand her vocabulary and help her retain more Cantonese. The problem was I could barely read Chinese. I never went to Chinese school and the Chinese reading I picked up was from MJ and watching dramas on TV. We’re now 4 years in and IL has finally finished the Sage series and HL is onto her third box set. My goal has gone from hoping that my girls will be able to pick up an age appropriate Chinese storybook and read independently (very unrealistic in retrospect) to hoping that they will continue enjoying Chinese stories, retaining the words they learned through Sage and hopefully picking up a few new ones as we continue to read together.
Are there any Programs that you recommend?
We also do a lot of classes that are run in Cantonese. Roundabout Cantonese Music and Locy Lee’s classes are my girls’ favourite classes. We’ve also found a local piano and art teacher who teaches in Cantonese, too! My hope was that by finding classes that were run in Cantonese, it would feel very natural to my girls to interact in Cantonese.
“I’m okay with our pace and the fact that they are interested in learning to read and enjoy listening to Chinese stories in written Chinese form.”
For reading, we’re using Sage books and I’ve found that with very little review and just being consistent with doing the lessons almost every day, the girls have retained most of the characters. With little review, my girls aren’t confident Chinese readers, but I’m okay with our pace and the fact that they are interested in learning to read and enjoy listening to Chinese stories in written Chinese form.
What are the biggest challenges?
One of the biggest obstacles was making sure my husband didn’t feel left out. Without his support and his willingness to encourage the kids to speak in Cantonese we wouldn’t have been able to keep the one parent one language approach going. We’ve had many conversations about how to make him feel more included when the girls are rambling to me in Cantonese.
“Sometimes I feel like giving up…”
Sometimes I feel like giving up learning to read in Chinese. It’s especially hard when I pick up a book and in a single page I’ve looked up 75% of the words and after looking them up, I still don’t understand the sentence. Then when I read to the kids, they’re not always paying attention or they don’t understand what I’ve just read even when it’s all words they’ve learned. That’s one of the most frustrating parts of teaching them how to read.
What motivates you to keep going?
What motivates me to continue is reminding myself how far we’ve come. I couldn’t read at the same level as my kids when I was the same age. I try to remind myself to be kinder to myself too. I’m teaching my daughters how to read even though I don’t know how to read.
“I try to remind myself to be kinder to myself, too.”
What is something you wish you could have?
One of my wishes would be to find a playgroup where the kids only speak in Cantonese. One of the reasons I probably retained my Cantonese was because I played with my neighbours who were recent immigrants from Hong Kong. My other wish is to have more Cantonese run classes for older kids. IL is getting older and aging out of a lot of the classes we used to do.
Can you share your proud moments?
Proud Moment #1:
One of the most rewarding moments is watching my two daughters play in Cantonese together. Almost all of their playing is done in Cantonese, and if they switch to English, I can often intervene and switch them back to Cantonese.
Proud Moment #2:
Sometimes the kids surprise me with new vocabulary they’ve picked up from their TV shows. I remember one day they came running up to me with a necklace and telling me it was their 護身符 and I had to look up what that meant.
(side note: 護身符 wu6 san1 fu4 = amulet/talisman - to ward off evil spirits)
What are some of the books you are reading?
Now that IL knows a lot of characters, some mornings she does the Sage reading with HL for me! It’s great. I come downstairs and they’ve already finished two lessons. IL loves the 100 floor series and we’ve read those a few times. The text isn’t too dense and there’s so much going on that we spend quite a bit of time describing what we’re seeing and we’ve learned a lot of new vocabulary that way. HL loves the wildcats series. She loves how funny they are and all the sound effects. We’ve read so many of these books and HL has a lot of the dialogue memorized. On certain pages she takes over and “reads” to me.
Final Tips for Parents
Do you have any advice for parents who are on the fence teaching Chinese to their kids?
My advice for parents is just start! Doesn’t matter what level you’re at! You can learn together. Buy books and try reading them. If it’s too hard right now, pick it up again later and you’ll be surprised at how far you’ll get through the second time (or third, fourth….) until one day, you’ve finished the book!
“My advice for parents is just start! Doesn’t matter what level you’re at! You can learn together. Buy books and try reading them.”
Also be flexible with your goals and be willing to adjust your expectations on your kid’s progress. I’ve cried over how hard it is to teach the kids to read and feeling discouraged with their progress. It’s hard not to compare your kids’ reading level to others, but I’ve gotten to the point where now as long as they’re enjoying reading in Chinese I consider that a win! I think of it as building an early foundation and inspiring a passion for Chinese so that when they’re older they will continue learning.
“…as they’re enjoying reading in Chinese I consider that a win!”
These are such great reminders and tips on how to approach teaching Chinese at home.