On raising a bilingual child

I think that while I’ve wanted to write about this subject, I have had a difficult time getting started because it seems like a constantly but imperceptibly evolving subject. I fear that I need some kind of conclusion to a blog post and this is just ongoing. So I’ll just talk about how it has been so far.

Simply put, for as long as I could remember, I knew I would speak exclusively Chinese to my child. There’s no “ifs ands or buts” given the way I was raised and the pride I have in being able to speak what I can speak. I observed and eavesdropped as friends who started having kids five years ago spoke to their children. I listened for their accents, admired their determination and wished that my own child would respond as obediently as their children do. If they could do it – and some have thicker accents than I imagine myself to have – then I can do it, too.

But as D Day drew near last year, I wondered if I would execute it. Despite living in Vancouver and feeling in many aspects in my life surrounded by Chinese people, I don’t actually use it often: I don’t exclusively or often shop at the Chinese grocers, I don’t often talk to my mother or see the MIL, and NPY and I speak perfect and exclusively English to each other. Would I shy away from my intentions in self-consciousness?

It turns out that I spend a lot of time alone with the child and since what I say is a narrow set of words (to start), it’s not hard to speak exclusively Chinese to him. We often take videos of E and sometimes in them, I am speaking to him. I’m so picky whenever I hear my mistakes, but I am speaking to him in Chinese.

I attended a couple of Infant Communication sessions at the parent-infant classes and they made me wonder if I had made the right choice. In the first session I attended, the counsellor who lead the discussion advised us to use the language “closest to your heart”. I’d like to think that is Chinese but I might be forcing it and it ought to be English given my proficiency and love of writing. In any case Chinese does qualify as being “close to my heart” so I felt justified. In the second session I attended, a different counsellor advised that we use our “best language” with baby and unfortunately that would be English for me. I was reminded of what I fear, that my limited Chinese will limit E’s language development. For example, am I limiting E’s language ability because I only know one or two words that express “happiness” in Chinese but know about 10 in English? Would I be so fancy when talking to him to say such words as “joy” and “content” anyhow?

I give him all that I can give.

I started from the moment I met him, partly because I was afraid that if I started in English, I wouldn’t be able to switch. NPY is of the opposing belief that it didn’t matter when E was a newborn or infant. Now that he is a toddler, NPY is trying harder, but it is not exclusively Chinese because he’s not comfortable with it and that disappoints me.

I wanted NPY to bring the Mandarin component since I can’t. The way things are going right now, Cantonese will be even more marginalized but it is still vital to link the speakers to others of the population who know it. It connects a community that is proud, the one that paved the way for the rest of the Chinese population in Canada. But, practically and educationally, Cantonese is kind of useless. It twigs on me that I can’t give E Mandarin, the language that will pave the way to opportunities, that people learned to assimilate. It bugs me that E won’t get it from either of his parents and it is my MIL who can take credit for it.

Which is exactly why I am not explicitly requesting that MIL – who can speak English, Cantonese and Mandarin – conducts an exclusively Mandarin programme. That would acknowledge her knowledge and I won’t do it. E will attend Chinese school that all children despise and learn from the ground up and I will be enthusiastic and tutor him.

And now we come to this point when he is 13 months old and no longer in my care 100% of the time. For two days a week, he spends business hours with his grandparents and he learns whatever they speak. For two days a week, he is at daycare and that is exclusively English exposure. And for three days a week – greater than the 33% guidelines – he is with us and I speak to him in Chinese. There is a hope it sticks but now that we are approaching the time when he will say his first words, I do wonder if it will be Chinese.

I observed that my friends were doubling up their Chinese words, like it is more difficult for children to use the proper name and it is more appealing to a child to give it a “nickname” that is the word repeated. “E, would you like some 奶-奶 or 水-水? And then read a 書-書?” You don’t hear in English parent’s saying to a child, “Would you like some milk-milk? And then read a book-book?” And certainly not, “Would you like some water-water?” Why is that? I swore I wouldn’t do that but there I go.

My final opinion is this statement: My mother is first-generation Canadian and while she knows English well enough that I could speak English to her and she understands, she continued to speak only Chinese to me and my sister and I benefited from that. I am second-generation Chinese so there is that natural loss of the language ability and E is third-generation Chinese. And a boy. He’s going to rebel either from the very beginning or at some point. And that is natural and I accept it.

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