On raising a bilingual child – two year mark

The issue of raising little E bilingual – rephrase that as, getting as much Chinese into him as possible – is a constant one. It’s not always at the forefront but I am facing it every day. There are no goalposts and I feel like I must have talked this blog’s ear off about it, but it turns out I haven’t. I haven’t directly discussed how things are at home since almost a year ago when E was 13 months. He is now almost 25 months.

I’ve been keeping at it, speaking to E exclusively in Chinese. I haven’t really noticed my vocabulary increasing but I have learned a few words because they are his favourite words. Like 恐龍 (dinosaur) and 救火車 (fire truck). The former is thanks to the Cantonese episodes of Peppa Pig I got ahold of. It would be weird to speak in English to him and to me, it’s great to have that weird feeling – it dissuades me from switching, because it wouldn’t be more convenient. He would be perplexed.

I have asked some friends (who will give me the answer I want to hear) if it seems rude to non-Chinese-speaking people to speak to E in Chinese in front of them. Certainly, NPY thinks it’s rude if we do that as two adults, as if we’re talking about people behind their back in front of their face. My supportive friends say it’s not rude.

I just don’t have those immigrant friends any longer with whom I try to speak Chinese. People who know me as primarily English-speaking are surprised to hear me speak to E in Chinese. Or people like shopkeepers make an assumption about me and are surprised. And impressed. It is additional motivation for me.

We’ll say NPY is speaking “more” Chinese to E these days. He is saying more nouns than before in Chinese, particularly the ones he knows E knows in Chinese, and only if he’s comfortable with that word in Chinese. But NPY’s linking words are not in Chinese. Maybe that is part of the two-word phrases problem below.

MIL continues to proclaim she’s teaching her grandchildren – E and his younger cousin – Chinese, particularly Mandarin. I sit back and observe and I’m not sure that’s the case. I could be biased. It’s not like I’m making a mental tally of Cantonese vs Mandarin vs English words. Maybe I could one day, just for kicks.

At some point in the year, I can’t even remember when, I started referring to E by a nickname I thought was endearing: 寶寶 (“treasure”). My mum used to call me “心安丁” (something like “core of my heart”) – mum told me the middle character is not correct but I can’t remember the correct one – so I wanted a Chinese nickname for E, particuarly since he didn’t find his own name that easy to use 寶寶 after hearing it so many times in the nursery song that starts at 21:10 in a series of Cantonese children’s songs videos I was watching a lot. I was swayed to use He’s in that stage where he refers to himself in the third person and it’s just heart-meltingly cute to hear him refer to himself by his cute nickname.

His vocabulary might be deeper than the next toddler’s, that is, for the same word, he knows the Chinese and English words, and sometimes an onomatopoeic version. For example, he knows that “dog”, “wowo” and 狗 refer to the same animal. And I think his vocabulary is amply broad, as with any toddler curious about his surroundings and absorbing words. But he’s nearly 25 months old and stuck on the most simple two-word phrases, e.g., “mama hand” or “寶寶奶奶” (“me milk”). Not too frequently, he will string together three thoughts if two of them are adjectives, like “爸爸白shoes” (“Baba red shoes”). Is it because my Chinese is not fancy? I speak to him in full – if simple – sentences. I asked NPY last night if he’s worried, and he’s not.

He’s the happiest kid on the planet when watching those toddler Youtube videos that teach him shapes, colours, letters and numbers. For shapes and colours that he learned first, it is all in English, except for white which he says in Chinese 50% of the time. He understands the Chinese words because I keep using them. Letters were learned in “English”, naturally. So it’s a full on campaign by me for him to count in Chinese. I couldn’t give a rat’s ass if he doesn’t know his numbers in English until he knows them backwards and forwards in Chinese.

And we love-love-love the guttural sound he makes when he’s saying Chinese words that start with an “s” sound, like 三, 十, 上邊, etc. It’s probably a minor and temporary lisp but I think it sounds a little Toishan-ish (but what do I really know about that dialect) so it’s especially funny to hear a kid say it.

(Come to think of it, he has in interesting time with words that start with an “s” followed by a consonant, like “pin” for “spin” and “dash” for “star”.)

And I love-love-love when he surprises me with a word he retained that seems “beyond” him. Like when he’s just woken up and we’re chatting and he says “寶寶打喊露” (“寶寶 yawned”!). It gives me so much hope he’ll connect with the language long-term.

Finally, as the time may or may not be drawing near, a niggling question arises: if there is another one, what will happen with bilingualism for E and new kiddo? I absolutely plan on speaking to new kiddo in Chinese from Day 1 and would that keep E Chinese-speaking for longer? Or with the struggle of two kiddos to care for and E increasingly English-speaking, would I just switch? The questions that have no answers that with just one kiddo, I have the luxury of pontificating on. :-)