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Why We (Mommy) Chose to Start with Cantonese and Not Mandarin
Our experience with these two dialects and how they compare (so Asian, we know)
"So and so knows 579480453 languages by the age of ___"...JUST KIDDING...Sorry if that brought back traumatic memories! Inevitably though, learning a second language is a comparative experience, always measuring the target language against the native language.
爸爸Baba uses Mandarin at work...it's also the more popular dialect. So how did Cantonese become the predominant Chinese dialect at home for the first 3 years of our children's lives? When our first child was born, I made the deliberate choice to start speaking in Cantonese with her first, rather than counting on the most probable dialect that can be spoken at home. Here's why:
1. Of the two dialects, Cantonese has more tones to learn (9 tones in Cantonese vs. 4 tones in Mandarin). I wanted to naturally acquaint our kids with a larger variety of tones to train their sensitivity to sounds, which should make it easier to adapt Mandarin tones in the future also.
2. Tom uses Mandarin for work. So the last thing he wants to do is continue "working" when he gets home. [Insert something snarky about parenting not being work here]. Cantonese is definitely more attractive to him by comparison, not only because of the novelty, but it actually helps with his research and understanding of Classical Chinese literature.
3. Guangdong is where most of my extended family resides. So, we end up visiting the Cantonese-speaking south more anyway...for the full-immersion experience. The assumption is that our kids will also be exposed to Cantonese cuisine more, so it'd make learning Cantonese dishes a practical survival tactic for all of us.
4. When 公公GongGong & 姥姥LaoLao visit, they will switch to Mandarin when speaking to Tom, there's still some inherent exposure to Mandarin along the way, even if it's not the predominant dialect being used at home yet.
5. The Cantonese dialect is not as easily "teachable" as Mandarin, probably because there aren’t as many teaching materials available. So, Cantonese has to be strategically embedded into their natural environment, rather than taught.
6. It's what worked for me. I spoke Cantonese with my parents at home, learned Mandarin and simplified Chinese formally, read Taiwanese newspapers written in traditional characters (because that's what was available in the Bay), and got to use them all for work.
7. Quality > Quantity: Even though Mandarin could have a higher frequency of use in the house, it doesn't necessarily mean that it will be the more naturally learned / spoken language at home. Since I grew up speaking Cantonese at home, I've memorized the multiplication tables in Cantonese, and can more naturally respond in Cantonese, it would come to me in a more casual setting...whereas Mandarin feels more formal because it's used for work.
Ultimately, when I hold my babies, my inclination is to speak Cantonese if I'm being mindful not to speak English. In many ways, Cantonese is the way my kids and I can bond, that's slightly different from everybody else. It's Mommy's language. That's special. That's quality.