On raising a bilingual child – 33-month mark

I’m writing again because things change so quickly – and at the 33-month mark exactly, no less!

When kiddo was just shy of 32 months, he changed from toddler daycare with 11 other classmates who as he grew older, were all younger than him, to pre-school age daycare where he’s four months younger than the minimum entry age, with twice as many kids, and they are older (topping out at over five years old) who speak like little adults and have expansive English vocabulary. Those are his new peers.

It’s remarkable and delightful that he took to his new classroom and friends quickly and loves it and we observed practically an immediate personality shift. He’s outgoing and he’s silly/goofy. He wants our attention to demonstrate things. His love of movement and dance is coming through and being fostered. He apes what we do and then tells us to follow him with the command, “Mama do dis!”

And the amount of English he gets exposed to! Things haven’t changed in that he spends two days with grandparents and I suspect that environment got more Anglophone as the grandparents struggle to keep two active toddlers in line. So it’s a constant effort to maintain that the language at home is peppered with Chinese in general and that I’m the Chinese speaker – no sliding into English when situations become more dramatic. NPY thinks he’s trying but I’m always thinking it’s not enough.

He’s at the fun age where wants to know about the world around him. He’s not yet asking “why” about everything but I offer the most accurate explanation I can. I like explaining how the body works and what construction vehicles do. I like how those explanations take us out of the everyday banter and vocabulary so he can grow. I still read storybooks to him in Chinese and – to my chagrin – one of his favourite books is this joke book that has a Halloween theme! (Oh my.)

As you’ve heard every parent of a toddler exclaim, they are such sponges and they listen to everything you say. Which means that in some situations when he’s not playing and I know he’s just intently listening to us talking, I will say things to NPY in Chinese instead. It’s good practice for me speaking about different topics, good practice for NPY to hear Chinese directed at him, and enriches E’s Chinese language environment. I really hope that could become a thing, to the point that NPY isn’t so shocked and dismayed when I switch to Chinese.

That makes weekends really important to immerse him in Chinese. It’s still going okay so far and he’s as Chinese speaking in response to me as I can expect. We’re talking about some complete sentences, so I’m thrilled.

What’s awesome is that he knows he has several words for the same thing, especially colours and numbers. I still vehemently deny teaching him even basic English words like “car” and “dog” but I know he knows them.

He can spell his name and ours and that’s not “English” and fun ones to teach him are “no”, “go”, “stop” and “Cosco” (the last one is the brand of stepladder he uses to wash his hands so he stops and spells it every time he sees it). But when we read word books, I will say “A 係 蘋果” instead of “A is for Apple”. I feel less guilty when it’s something that does have the right sound like “B 係 波波”. Similarly, since we want to continue teaching him basic word spelling, I tell him, “C-A-R 係 車車”. I have no qualms about that while others will wonder if he’ll ever learn properly! (He will.)

Since he’s developing a sense of humour, we’re having fun with wordplay, either exaggerating sounds and finding some fun Cantonese words funny, like “armpit”/胳肋底 (gaak3 laak6 dai2), making funny switches like 底褲/dai2 fu3 (underwear) for 豆腐/dau6 fu6  (tofu) and playing with tones like 媽媽 馬馬 (maa1 maa1 maa5 maa5) when I (mama) am carrying him like a horse or 媽媽 嬷嬷 (maa1 maa1 maa4 maa4) when I refer to my grandmother.

Some Mandarin is sticking and we heard him singing the Frere Jacques song, Mandarin version. And whether it’s from videos (Kai Lan) or basic word training with grandma who will drill colours in Mandarin (if not conduct conversation), he is sneaking some Mandarin there. I think he’s appreciative that Cantonese and Mandarin words sometimes tend to be really similar like 紅/red is hóng/hung4 (Pinyin/Jyutping), 藍/blue is lán/laam4, etc. And he doesn’t say sik1 (Jyutping/Cantonese) for 色/colour and says sè/Pinyin, so it’s Canto-Mandarin along with a lot of Chinglish.

He still recognizes the character for “car” and I could barely teach him 1 through 5 and a few other characters (person, mountain, door) but that was a few months now and he’d probably absorb more when I try again soon!

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