On raising a bilingual child – 36-month mark

Oh. My. Gosh. So Much. English.

On the eve of E turning three, I had a really sad moment. I was trying to get him to sleep and he clearly had some energy left and he was trying to act out a rescue scenario, calling for a “winch” as he hears so often in Paw Patrol episodes. It was all in English and he was so adorably fluent. I felt like I lost the battle, nay, the war.

But then he started chattering about other things and that was a better mix of Chinese and English and that is more like how things are these days.

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I’ve been writing these updates so much more frequently in the past year and feel justifiable about it. So much is changing and I want to capture the essence of what is now, mark how he’s still saying X and he won’t always say X.

In E’s new daycare room where’s he still the youngest and small kid despite now reaching the age of three, there are 24 other kids and he has more peers to observe. He will say to us, “有啲細路仔 like this”. We could take him literally and he is observing others and shows us what others are doing – like “bad kid” antics. Or it’s his language to show us physical tricks he’s seen his classmates do and he wants to emulate it too.

He says “mama” and “baba” with a perfect Chinese accent and thrown in amongst the English he uses. When he wakes, instead of crying if he’s alone, he shouts from his room, lying flat on his back, “Mama! Baba!” Sometimes he seems to be practicing what he’s heard other kids say and calls out “Mummy” in a curious and sweet tone, trying it out. I call my mum 媽咪, and I’m not sure I want to share a name with my mum! And, way down the road, I kind of like the idea of being Ma and Ba, how my mum’s family called my grandparents. I don’t want to be “Mom” (which is MIL) or – gasp – “Mommy”. But I also think that could be up to E and not me. I’ll just be happy being Mama as long as possible!

The “issue” of language at his grandparents persists. I have my theories why English is being spoken so much there. I still haven’t outright asked the grandparents to speak exclusively in Chinese to him. I feel like I shouldn’t have to and you would still know my wishes if he watched me interact with the kid for a few minutes and spent a split second digesting that I unwaveringly make the effort.

At the core, I don’t want to open up a conversation and fear that asking them to speak Chinese is like conceding daycare isn’t good enough. Maybe that if I want that for him, I would choose to stay at home with him. FIL says that when E speaks in Chinese, they respond to him in Chinese. So, I guess if E speaks in English they don’t encourage him to switch? Shame!

He knows he knows two or three languages, has three words for the words “colour” and “one”. His Aunti J remarked how he knows to switch to English with her (and a good deal of his relatives – basically everyone) which isn’t surprising because he’s been in daycare for nearly two years and knows the drill. He might not implicitly know what is English and what is Chinese but he has figured out one language is the discouraged one and we’ll toss in the Chinese word for an English word he said. Meanwhile, if he speaks in Chinese, I’m happier and not giving him the corresponding English words!

Once we said to him, “Say something in Chinese.” It’s the best way to put someone on the spot but he rolled with it and started counting in Mandarin. He got to 7 and then switched seamlessly, cluelessly to Cantonese and finished out counting to 10!

The tricky part is to not create disincentives to him for from speaking Chinese, like it’s the forced upon and not fun language. Oh, but those whole English sentences break my heart. And I realized that I have to do my part and learn words to keep up with him. That’s why I’ve been creating the vocabulary lists like mad. Sometimes I don’t know the word and I tell him I will tell him later, after I have checked with the Cantonese dictionary. He doesn’t have patience for that! I have to make a judgment call, if the word we don’t know is worth learning it in Chinese or not. I’m trying to exercise some consistent logic. And for words he already knows so well in English, it’s a challenge for me to instill the newer, Chinese version.

Within the past few months, we attended six 45-minute music/percussion classes conducted in Mandarin. At the very least, we were practicing at creating a weekly routine (including the parents practicing) and E picked up precious little. The focus of the class was on various percussion instruments that were play-based rather than music-making and teaching some baby sign language like rubbing a circle on his tummy as a sign for , and not learning by heart the Mandarin lyrics of songs. Oh well, and that’s okay.

For a while, he was displaying curiosity about his surroundings – when he heard sounds he couldn’t identify, he would ask me, “乜嘢聲音” (what sound?). But already he’s just as often asking it in English, something like “What dat sound?”

In English, he uses the preposition “on” in the place of several other prepositions like “in”, “at” and “under” and I don’t bother to correct his English. I focus on getting him to express himself properly in Chinese. He has the various Chinese prepositions.

One time, NPY was frustrated and lashed out about E not being taught English (by me). Does he seriously think E is at risk of ESL? There’s two more years of the daycare and Chinese will all but be wiped out by then. If it could happen that E was assessed for ESL, I think I would congratulate myself. For if his English isn’t so great, it’s because I’ve focused on shoring up his Chinese-ability.

Does he speak more Chinese when he’s tired? I like to think so.

One evening, E and I were looking at a Search and Find volume and Auntie J was hanging out and asked if I knew several of the words we came across in Chinese. I didn’t. They were related to farm equipment or something and after that I started making the vocabulary lists. But I got a glimpse of the future. When the conversation is all populated with nouns that I can’t translate, is it ridiculous to continue in Chinese? Conversation with an older toddler is going to get more complex and they deserve all the rich vocabulary you can throw at them. I have that … but only in English.

E is demanding explanations to how things works now and that is switching to more action words than necessarily new words. It becomes a test of my grammar to explain things coherently and fluidly in sentences or phrases. I wonder if notices that I’m more stilted in Chinese than the English he hears me and NPY speak “over his head” and through him regularly.

At the same time, I’m “conversing” with NPY more in Chinese, as a show for E that his parents use it too, not switching 100% of the time to this alluring English language.

In less than a month, I will be going on a 10-day trip with E back to Halifax and Toronto. I hope he comes back speaking a modicum less English!

It’s a daily low-level whirl of emotions and anxiety to me about E learning Chinese. I know there’s a day when I’ll give up the ghost and I don’t know how sad I will be.

I get some calm from knowing the kid is trainable and there is also my part. If I continue to speak in Chinese, he continues to have to understand me. Until some age when he’s defiant and ignores me unless I speak in English. But that’s far enough off for me to not think about….

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