On raising a bilingual child – 39-month mark

I keep a Google Keep file to keep notes. I love how this series is developing because while observing the changes in the kid’s language ability, I’m then keenly observant of the phases he is going through, that he won’t revisit. This time, these last few months, the list became very long!

He doesn’t really mind if you speak in Chinese to him. But if something is really established in English for him (like nursery songs), he doesn’t want it translated. When I translate, I’m stumbling and stuttering over the words and it’s irritating to him.

Play with his cousin and friends is entirely in English. This is not unexpected.

There are words he says in Chinese but he’s had ample opportunity to hear the English word. Words like 車/car and 奶/milk. And there’s so words he knows only in Chinese like 胳肋底/armpit and 蝦/shrimp. Then there’s words he knows in English and I’ve just ruled there is less of a point in knowing the Chinese word, like stegasaurus and seagull.

Sometimes I want to explain to him everything. I want to introduce his sponge mind science and observing phenomenon and he puts his little hand over my mouth. Lately, he’ll shout at me, “無講嘢!” and we always laugh at that!

Does it help with his learning and retention if we have fun with the words? I firmly believe so. At the time, we were playing with the word 水牛/buffalo. Each part of the word, 水 and 牛, are simple words meaning “water” and “ox” and we played with drawing out the sounds and giggling.

Likewise, I like to augment his creativity and observation powers and instead of just saying something is red, I’ll say it’s apple-red or something is grass-green. He enjoys it as he loves naming colours. In fact, I can’t quite fathom how some kids don’t get their colours until the age of four. Maybe that doesn’t happen in this day and age where there’s Youtube videos hammering in the colours!

In August, I spent over a week with my mum. She assessed that while my Cantonese accent sounds right and proper, she says the kid sounds like a 土生 (Chinese born in Canada). I didn’t quite understand what she meant and find it funny how the kid’s accent can sound off if I’m the primary educator and mine is okay.

I also saw my sister in August and says he sounds cuter in Chinese. Since she said that his English sentence structure is wonky and makes him sound ESL, maybe his Chinese grammar is actually better. I haven’t really concentrated on grammar and only lead by example.

(My sister also reminded me to separate my issues with not feeling like I was raised Chinese enough – oh yes, I feel that way! – and me pressuring the kid to learn Chinese.)

We started to noticed how he doesn’t pronounce some works like 三/three, 長/long and 墻/wall. I guess that is where my mum’s comment about him sounding 土生 come in. I’ve never had that problem that I’ve observed in some guy friends (but not female ones?) where instead of 長 sounding like coeng but instead coeRng or 點樣 should sound like dim2 joeng6 and he adds some flair and a syllable and says “dimME joeRng”. And the kid says 三 with this additional phlegmy sound that I think sounds like the Toishan way to pronounce it.

And then there’s the old-person/native speaker way he says some things, displaying his comfort with his words. One of the cute ones he likes to say – because who wouldn’t – is 圓東東 which I’ll translate as “roly-poly” and I am using “東” because I can’t find the right word.

In this last period, I’ve found he asks me for the corresponding words in Chinese. Sometimes it is something he has heard before but he has greater familiarity with English but he knows I want us to be saying it in Chinese. Sometimes, it is a new word and this is such a turnaround from the previous periods. It’s awesome. He’s more patient with me looking it up, too.

Earlier in the last period, I felt like we had reached a bit of a detente. He speaks what he wants to speak and when he wakes up in the morning, he babbles adorably in Chinese. We will remind him, “中文,” to repeat what he said in Chinese and he will either comply or he’ll say, “唔識!”. So we tell him until he repeats it.

One of his favourite words is 扁/flat (and correspondingly 凸出嚟/protrude, a very slang way to say it). He finds so many uses of the word and it cracks us up. Pancakes are 扁. His sport car style Hot Wheels (cf SUV style or trucks) are 扁. His chest is 扁! And his glee with saying 凸出嚟 is an example of the old-person/native speaker slang that he’s picked up.

We’re having fun and rolling with his lisp(s) as we notice one and then it goes and another one comes. There’s not point in making childhood less fun with being militant. I’m already militant on the speaking Chinese front.

In the previous periods, he wasn’t able to pronounce “qu-” sound, but now he can. He is measured when he approaches the words as he’s mastering this new sound. For the word 裙/dress that is pronounced kwan, he used to say “kun” and now over-enunciates as he tries out the properly way, “kwun”. Likewise with other English words like saying the name of the Paw Patrol pup Skye as “sky” instead of “guy” and instead of saying “keem” he says “cweem” for “cream”. We have lots of fun teasing him and saying the words as he used to as a “baby” and he laughs and corrects us.

His latest lisp is regarding his Ls. There’s a host of words he says that start with the “l” sound but he uses the “y” sound instead, words like 零/zero, 靚/pretty, 嚟/come, Lululemon (a relative works there) and “Let me!” the last of which he frantically says when he wants to do something instead of allowing us to do it: “Yemmy!”

One prize conversation went like this –
me: blah blah … 靚/leng … blah blah
he: blah blah … YANG … blah blah
me: LENG, “llllll” 聲音/sound
he: “rrrr?” (when he see the letter “L” he doesn’t say “el” but “rrr” instead)
me: (laughing) Yes!
he: (very deliberately) Lang. 靚係乜嘢嚟? (What is “pretty”?)
me: Hmm, 靚 is something you like. Something you like is going to be 靚.

Here’s another quick laugh –
me: I can’t see what you’re pointing to.
he: 你有眼! (You have eyes!)
And if it’s to NPY, he’ll say, “你有眼鏡!” – you have eyeglasses!

A few weeks ago, a cousin came to visit and she can only speak in English to him but when she was asking him about the animals printed on his pants, he responded to her in Chinese! I was surprised because he would have heard me speaking to her in English all along. I guess when he gets more comfortable with her, he’ll figure out which language to use and go with it.

He’s at an age where we can have guided conversations with him, or even just let him chatter and we follow along. I’m sure that during this past period, he’s more willing to speak in Chinese. NPY has been making a decent effort to speak in Chinese to the kid in normal conversation but it breaks down during play and when he’s angry at the kid. Consequently, play is entirely in English. But it’s a marked progression from before and I’m enjoying it.

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