On raising a bilingual child – 54-month (4.5 year) mark

With a lot of pride, I’m happy to report that at the 4.5-year mark, Kiddo is doing excellent in my opinion. He’s self-assured at daycare where he speaks English and he’s so expressive at home in Chinese and it’s so clear in his head where he uses which language. Given he’s been in daycare for over three years, I’m so happy – and a bit floored – he’s still bilingual.

(This post is only a month late!)


(3 November) Although I use the correct adjectives to describe lighter and darker hues, e.g., 淺藍 and 深藍 for light (literally, “shallow”) and dark (literally, “deep”) blue, respectively, Kiddo has different ideas on this. He calls them 光藍 and 黑藍, literally, light/bright blue and dark blue. It’s imaginative and interpretive and we love hearing it.

(4 November) We got this this brain quest games for ages __ and it’s a conundrum for me when the question involves English language skills. I’m adamant and keep it Chinese. The question would be the image of a _ and and I would ask Kiddo in Chinese if he knows the word and what letter it starts with. He does. Then he has to browse three other objects – e.g. _, _, and _ – and identify which of the three starts with the same letter. I provide the instructions in Chinese and only reluctantly help him if he doesn’t know what one of the objects is in English.

Kiddo wants and wants and we scramble to identify alternatives to suggest to him. NPY often says “how about” and so I started shoulding “試吓” which Kiddo at times uses and understands now.

(6 November) One evening, NPY took Kiddo out so I could concentrate on making dinner with only Baby to contend with. They went to London Drugs to buy some toothpaste for me. A day later, Kiddo’s play scenario was to “出去買牙膏” (go out to purchase toothpaste). Cute!

(24 November) I was away for nine days in November to bring Baby to meet my mother in Halifax. I was as anxious about Kiddo being exposed to only NPY, daycare and the in-laws and decreasing duration of face-time with me as the days went. The logical part of me reasoned that he couldn’t be undone in nine months what we’ve been building for four and a half years. And he wasn’t ruined. Whew!

He tried to say “no wonder” (唔怪得之) and said “mm gwaid zee”! Sheik (Cantonese dictionary) says “唔怪之得” – had I got it backwards all my life? It wouldn’t be so surprising if I did. But in terms of that term, it’s not something I set out to teach him so it’s an example of things he picks up then tries to get on his own!

Kiddo loves his vehicles, so he is good at using the correct classifier “部” as in 一部機. But for the classifier for cars, he’s pretty terrible and I’m constantly correcting him to use “架” as in 一架車.

We visited with my friends Andrea and her partner, Vlad. Kiddo spoke blithely with them in English and after one wrong start, switched to Chinese for me. Way to go!

(7 December) We tease him and he rolls with it when we tell him when he was a “baby” (young toddler), he would say kun instead of kwan4 for dress/裙. So when I said the word for “frequent” which sounds like “kun” (can’t find the character), he thought I was mistaken and corrected me to kwan4! Adorable.

(8 December) At a holiday gathering, I was corrected by a friend on the proper word for police car, 警車 vs 警察車. I’m not sure if I was taught my version or something I just adapted and I like how it introduces the word “察” which means thief, part of the word for police officer “警察”. But I guess I should at times say the proper word so he’s exposed to both, even if he doesn’t transition to the proper term. The same applies to fire truck. Some Chinese friends give him a blank look when he uses the word he learned from me.

(11 December) I translate to myself the term 麻煩 as “bother” but in order to find the characters in Sheik (Cantonese dictionary), I had to be imaginative and found it under “annoying” (to wit, “annoying; troublesome; hassle”). Anyways, when Kiddo was dissecting the word, he broke it down to words he knows better: 嫲 (grandmother) + 飯 (rice)! Sounds good to me!

We asked Kiddo if he wanted to learn skating with his friend Taylor? “No, 我想學中文!” My stars! But the time of writing, he’s learning skating and not in Chinese school.

(13 December) We’re policing him harder about saying 問 (ask) for every instance, even when he should be saying 講 or 話. The funny usage is when he says “我要你一個秘密” (“I want to ask you a secret!”) Oh do you??

(16 December) I’ve been like one rabid trying to figure out Chinese school and conducting “philosophical” chats: with a daycare mom whose kid six months Kiddo’s elder started in September, with NPY’s friend’s spouse who remarked to another friend that they wouldn’t be able to handle their kid in Mandarin immersion, but that I could if Kiddo got into Mandarin immersion school; and learning about this hybrid Cantonese-Mandarin education which thus means it’s not as commonly offered. It was presented to me that they learn Cantonese and Mandarin (Pinyin system) and traditional characters. The daycare mom is Taiwanese and Christian so she’s bent on her kid learning from Taiwanese speakers and not entertaining the Buddhist school with locations around Vancouver. For my part, Cantonese is important but not at the expense of delaying Mandarin and I also favour the traditional writing system. There is also the bopomofo system used in Taiwan that the daycare mom might switch her kid to because he’s starting to get confused between Pinyin he’s starting to learn and phonics he has yet to formally learn. But isn’t bopomofo maybe limiting when Pinyin rules?

It is totally adorbs (adorable) to hear Kiddo speak to Baby in Chinese because he doesn’t think she understands other languages – I want to record and video every moment of it.

We read the I Love You Through and Through book. He says will say 鍾意 while I say 惜/錫 (two characters for it) which I thought he thinks only means “kiss”. But when questioned, he knows! He picked out the English word and warbled “love”.  Makes a stone-cold heart melt.

To bring it to the forefront of his mind, I was teaching him the origin of colours: 橙 is orange the fruit and colour; the word for brown (啡) comes from the word for coffee (咖啡); and gray (灰色) refers to 灰 (ash). What’s ash? What’s left after a fire! Fascinating stuff for him.

(25 December) Hearing his English is endearing (that toddler lilt/accent, the uncertainty in the language) but bittersweet. I’m good at English and have a lot to teach him. Amazingly, what he knows in English, he didn’t learn from me!

(26 December) I was reading to NPY the Chinese words for Star Wars (星球大戰), the Force (原力, translates to Prime/Original Power) and Baby Yoda (尤達寶寶). In addition, I stumble but try to say 光劍 (“bright sword”) instead of lightsaber and NPY said that Kiddo needs to know the English to play with friends. No he doesn’t! He will absorb with no trouble with English and for the time being respects and requests the Chinese version because he knows that is what I want and speak.

(28 December) When I was away in November and it was only revealed to me now, NPY told Kiddo that when Kiddo is old and we’re beyond old, we’d be in 天空 (sky) and Kiddo accepted it. We’re fielding those questions already! And only later I remember 天堂 and how shall I describe that!

(29 December) Confusion! The word 鐘 for so many things – clock (鐘), alarm (鬧鐘), bell (鐘), fire alarm (火警鐘) etc. Need to differentiate if possible.

(31 December) I’ve been saying it wrong all along but can I undo it? I’ve taught him a fire truck is “救火車” which causes NPY confusion because a train is 火車. Some adults have been confused by it. Can I convert Kiddo to 火燭車 or 消防車 at this point? Yes, if I’m consistent. The former is a Cantonese word so it’s probably beteer to teach him the latter one. Still, it was just great to hear on Christmas morning him saying to NPY, “救火車, 唔係 ‘fire truck’ 中文!!” when NPY was lazy and said it in English. It would be accidental if I managed to record Kiddo pleading for Chinese.

(1 January) We’re still working on “ask” vs “say” and we just laugh a little when he say 問你秘密, translating to “ask you a secret” because he’s all into telling us “secrets” which aren’t a secret at all.

As if it’s just rote memorized, Kiddo can count to thirty-something in Chinese but then doesn’t see the pattern or understand the concept to know that after 39 comes 40 or as you say in Chinese “four tens”. I tried drawing him a diagram but he wasn’t in the mood. But it’s not too bad, his ability. His favourite number changes from time to time but one of the numbers he says most often, as if it’s a supremely large number is … 58!

(11 January) Talking about Chinese shool was my favourit topic through December and early January where I was chatting with “veterans” Su who has kids aged 7 and 9, Edi whose older son is 5 and has been in school for a year, Nan whose son is Kiddo’s daycare buddy and started school in September, and Ed who is considering starting Chinese classes for her son same-aged as Kiddo. Su told me about Hybrid classes that include Cantonese. Edi sends her kid to a Taiwanese-based Buddhist school. Nan also sought out a Taiwanese-based school teaching out of a high school in Richmond. Ed went the way of Crocodile Mandarin for the play-based aspect. On 11 January, Kiddo attended the first session of the winter term at Richmond Mandarin School where Nan’s husband said they had withdrawn from. I had mixed feelings about Kiddo starting mid-term and sat in on the first part of the class from 1 p.m until first break at 1:45. The two-level kindergarten class seemed chaotic and I had no idea how somoene was supposed to learn, let alone Kiddo who’s missed the first term. NPY accompanied Kiddo for the next part and when they breaked at 2:45, Kiddo was very symptomatic of the cold he had feeling chills all over. Meanwhile, during the second part, I was talking to someone who might have been an administrator, about my concerns about Kiddo catching up and we not-so-gracefully exited during second break, a bit panicked that Kiddo would start vomiting everywhere.

While Edi’s son is displaying impressive ability to read Pinyin before he can read English words and is confident were will be no confusion when he’s reading English words, Nan is worried that her child will confuse Pinyin pronunciation with English Phonics that they will soon learn. She’s considering moving her son to a school that teaches bopomofo (those Taiwanese pronunciation characters) so there is a clear separation for her kid. We left that afternoon with me inspired to have Kiddo learn words and phrases using flashcards. That lasted, oh, one evening.

As for Kiddo, he did not enjoy school as he didn’t have a clue what was going on. Otherwise, he’s keen to hear words in both “our Chinese” and “嫲嫲’s Chinese”.

(12 January) Accentuated by having a fever, in the middle of the night, he said, “我鍾意你,我成日鍾意你,我係你嘅細路仔” translating to “I love you, I always love you, I’m your child.” Where is a continuous recorder when you need one!

(16 January) When he didn’t know the word when talking to me, he whispered “land” (re airplane) because he knows he doesn’t know. I tried looking up that word and it’s not one I know. Darn.

(18 January) I enrolled Kiddo in rock climbing at the community center and I accompanied him to the wall where he is in a harness and an instructor is there to belay him and give him guidance. He didn’t take to it. I was allowed to hover near him and so I was rapid-fire trying to advise him, repeating what the instructor said but in Chinese. He gravely did not trust the instructors and I felt bad in those instances of speaking in Chinese in front of them, especially for the two instructors who might actually have understood me. When I tried repeating something in English, he asked for  me to stick to Chinese. I think he understand English words, but is reassured by our language!

(21 January) I taught him Star Wars in Chinese and it’s awesome when he gets it into his head to charge at something, he shouts it!!

(24 January) He said something that translated to “it’s too bright” and I think he said 猛 (intense) which made me so quietly proud because it seemed so expressive of him – he’s a 4.5 year old today and getting to be super expressive in any language – but he just casually used a word he picked up from me, I don’t teach him but nouns, I feel!