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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Betwixt Two Worlds: Languages

I grew up as a child of immigrants. Though I was born in Canada, what this meant was I didn’t know what Halloween was until the first time we went trick or treating with family friends (what, we go door-to-door for candy? And pretty sure I didn’t dress up, whoops), learning to ice skate wasn’t really a priority, and I started kindergarten not speaking English.

Growing up, I sometimes felt caught between the two worlds of what my Chinese parents wanted versus what other kids my age were doing, but by junior high and high school, I had some friends in the same world of in between, and we’ve moved along together, now raising second generation CBCs (Canadian born Chinese, not the Canadian tv network, ha). I would like to note that my kids know full well what Halloween entails, are learning to ice skate at an early age (we’d like to do skiing soon!) and started school perfectly fluent in English.

I speak enough Cantonese to get by with my family. I did the Saturday morning Chinese school for a year or two, which I hated, mostly because my parents started me too late and I was taking class with younger kids. I have two terms of intro university Mandarin under my belt (though I have to admit, I don’t remember much), which is the official dialect of China. My husband S is also Chinese, he was born in Vietnam and came to Canada when he was around four years old, and is fluent in Cantonese. With each other, we speak predominantly English, with the odd word or phrase in Cantonese thrown in.

When I had my babies, I tried to speak as much Cantonese with them as I could. To me, speaking Cantonese is what parent-children do, so comforting the girls and disciplining them is sometimes when most of my Cantonese comes out. I also wanted to instil as much of Cantonese sounds them as I could, this is probably not scientific, but my thought is maybe their little brains will retain this knowledge and help them pick it back up when the time comes. It helped that my mom took care of my kids once my mat leaves were over, her English isn't very good so she would converse all in Cantonese with them. When my oldest daughter C was two, she spoke mostly Cantonese; my youngest daughter A too, though I think she spoke more English than C, since she is the second child. And as the girls got older, I tended to speak more and more English with them, partly because my own vocabulary is limited and both speak pretty much all English now. Our house speaks Chinglish at its best.

I want my kids to be able to speak Cantonese--but I've realized that this is kind of an unfair expectation. We hardly speak at home, so how can I expect them both to speak? Sure, they can speak with the grandparents, but we don't see them every day. So I've decided to take this with a grain of salt and hope for the best. Say what you will about C, her comprehension of Cantonese is still really good, she is always listening to adult conversation with one ear, and will often add her two cents, even if it is in English. If my girls can still understand Cantonese and can say a few words here and there, then that will be better than nothing.

Bilingualism is great, and it was so neat to watch my two girls start learning words in both Cantonese and English; if I didn’t understand their baby talk in one language, they would switch to the other. I’ve read great articles about benefits of bilingualism, but realistically, for myself, I’ve found it is hard to have a bilingual household. Having said that, C is now in grade 2 and in a bilingual Mandarin program at school, she has learned so many characters since last September, and is now correcting my (bad) Mandarin pronunciation. Maybe she will be bilingual after all, even if it isn’t our home dialect, and hopefully we can learn this new dialect together as a family. And there’s still always Chinglish.

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