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From the day Rae & Tommy were born, I would passively speak Cantonese with them - mostly while nursing. However, despite Tom's efforts to occasionally pick up some common Cantonese phrases and speak Mandarin whenever he was up for it, the dominant language at home remained English.
Once Lunar New Year came around for my babbling two-year-old and I struggled to figure out how we should celebrate it, I realized that I needed to take a more proactive approach to teach her (and my newborn baby) Chinese. My kids are only half-Chinese and I am competing with Christmas!
So, I started experimenting with different ways to naturally cultivate their interest and willingness to speak Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin). Here's what I've tried so far:
Friday Chinese-only Days: In theory, it sounds like a great way to immerse our children in both dialects, but in practice, it's difficult for Tom and I to both speak Mandarin and Cantonese, respectively, all day and still be able to communicate - or parent - effectively with each other. What seems to be working, however, is consistently making a conscious effort to speak Cantonese with my children until it becomes natural for me to react in Cantonese to them. But what about Mandarin??
Relying on Tom and my parents to speak Mandarin: Nope. Frequency too low.
Trying to recruit an Au Pair from China to force a Chinese-language environment upon us. She was supposed to fly out of Wuhan on March 11, 2020, but Covid. We waited a year and a half to finally get even our Thai au pair - who we love - but that meant I had no choice but to build the Chinese language environment myself.
Then, I started a "YuTube" Channel to collect Cantonese and Mandarin videos to play for our children: This has worked effortlessly, but limiting screen time is a tricky one.
I'd mark up some popular children's books in both Jyutping & Pinyin: The main benefit of doing this is so Tom is able to be even more intentional about incorporating Chinese during reading time, which our 3-year-old loves to do. The hope is that our 1-year-old will follow her lead...
Record myself reading the children's books using both dialects interchangeably: Suddenly, even the mundane vocabulary books became interesting because they got to "read" along while getting screen time. It worked (!) and continues to be educational for us adults too, but it's pretty time-consuming to do. That said, having a collection of videos to supplement the repetition necessary for simultaneous Cantonese and Mandarin language acquisition does come in handy.
Organizing Chinese-speaking playground meetups: Again, not too many Chinese-speaking families here, and even fewer with kids our age. Also really difficult to enforce while trying to get to know the one or two families who can relate/commiserate (predominantly in English), and have fun in the process.
Supplementing with button books that sing or speak: Often, the recordings are too high-pitched. Many of them sound like cutesy baby talk—annoying, but occasionally captivating depending on the mood of the day.
Creating trilingual single-sheet illustrations for coloring: Somewhat labor-intensive, but allows them to learn phrases at a time, rather than single words that have no context. Super fun and memorable. Hope to make a coloring book out of them one day!
At the age of 3 years and 3 months, our toddler's natural inclination was still to predominantly speak English. What’s changed is I've developed a habit of translating for her back into Cantonese. As a result, she has started to respond to me in Cantonese...and even informed me of Tommy's poopy diaper in Cantonese the other day! “妈妈！弟弟屙臭臭!"（māamāa! daidai ō câucâu!) She also shouted 唔好掂! (m hôu dīm!) and konked him over the head for interrupting her precious screen time, which forced me to admonish her bout of violence...even though I was secretly proud of her instinctive choice of language used.
There were times when I'd have to pretend not to understand what she wanted until it was communicated in Cantonese. And sometimes she'd choose not to respond at all, forcing me to be all kinds of redundant. Fortunately, I've had plenty of one-way conversations with them already, so persistence has become easier....however uncomfortable and awkward it has been to get into the habit of creating Chinese-speaking opportunities for my hapas.
When things finally opened up in 2023, we started trying to live in immersive Chinese-language-speaking environments beyond just the typical quick vacations…starting with kindergarten in Taipei from June - December. This email thread is where we plan to KIT on a more personal level. Hope to check in with you soon!
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