a running list of trials & (lots of)errors

Let's see how many 余Yu-turns we make ;) [Yes, Tom is a 余 too!]

From the day Rae & Tommy were born, I would passively speak Cantonese with them - mostly while nursing. However, despite Tom's efforts to occasionally pick up some common Cantonese phrases and speak Mandarin whenever he was up for it, the dominant language at home remained English.

Once Lunar New Year came around for my babbling two-year-old and I struggled to figure out how we should celebrate it, I realized that I needed to take a more proactive approach to teach her (and my newborn baby) Chinese. My kids are only half-Chinese and I am competing with Christmas!

So, I started experimenting with different ways to naturally cultivate their interest and willingness to speak Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin). Here's what I've tried so far:

  1. Friday Chinese-only Days: In theory, it sounds like a great way to immerse our children in both dialects, but in practice, it's difficult for Tom and I to both speak Mandarin and Cantonese, respectively, all day and still be able to communicate - or parent - effectively with each other. What seems to be working, however, is consistently making a conscious effort to speak Cantonese with my children until it becomes natural for me to react in Cantonese to them. But what about Mandarin??
  2. Relying on Tom and my parents to speak Mandarin: Nope. Frequency too low.
  3. Trying to recruit an Au Pair from China to force a Chinese-language environment upon us. She was supposed to fly out of Wuhan on March 11, 2020, but Covid. We waited a year and a half to finally get even our Thai au pair - who we love - but that meant I had no choice but to build the Chinese language environment myself.
  4. Then, I started a "YuTube" Channel to collect Cantonese and Mandarin videos to play for our children: This has worked effortlessly, but limiting screen time is a tricky one.
  5. I'd mark up some popular children's books in both Jyutping & Pinyin: The main benefit of doing this is so Tom is able to be even more intentional about incorporating Chinese during reading time, which our 3-year-old loves to do. The hope is that our 1-year-old will follow her lead...
  6. Record myself reading the children's books using both dialects interchangeably: Suddenly, even the mundane vocabulary books became interesting because they got to "read" along while getting screen time. It worked (!) and continues to be educational for us adults too, but it's pretty time-consuming to do. That said, having a collection of videos to supplement the repetition necessary for simultaneous Cantonese and Mandarin language acquisition does come in handy.
  7. Organizing Chinese-speaking playground meetups: Again, not too many Chinese-speaking families here, and even fewer with kids our age. Also really difficult to enforce while trying to get to know the one or two families who can relate/commiserate (predominantly in English), and have fun in the process.
  8. Supplementing with button books that sing or speak: Often, the recordings are too high-pitched. Many of them sound like cutesy baby talk—annoying, but occasionally captivating depending on the mood of the day.
  9. Creating trilingual single-sheet illustrations for coloring: Somewhat labor-intensive, but allows them to learn phrases at a time, rather than single words that have no context. Super fun and memorable. Hope to make a coloring book out of them one day!

So far, at the age of 3 years and 3 months, our toddler's natural inclination is still to predominantly speak English, which I've developed a habit of translating for her back into Cantonese. As a result, she has started to respond to me in Cantonese...and even informed me of Tommy's poopy diaper in Cantonese the other day! “妈妈!弟弟屙臭臭!"(māamāa! daidai ō câucâu!) She also shouted 唔好掂! (m hôu dīm!) and konked him over the head for interrupting her precious screen time, which forced me to admonish her bout of violence...even though I was secretly proud of her instinctive choice of language used.

There are times when I'd have to pretend not to understand what she wants until it was communicated in Cantonese. And sometimes she'd choose not to respond at all, forcing me to be all kinds of redundant. Fortunately, I've had plenty of one-way conversations with them already, so persistence has become easier....however uncomfortable and awkward it has been to get into the habit of creating Chinese speaking opportunities for my hapas.

Updated: 2021-08-05

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playtime in mandarin

Try This At Home or in a Controlled Environment

Around the same time we started this site, a few neighborhood parents were looking for a way to supplement their soon-to-be 5-year-old's after-school activities with learning Mandarin. It's also around the same time I started introducing Mandarin to my semi-Canto-speaking toddler, who had just realized that different languages/forms of communication can coexist. So, after some dropped conversations - mostly on my part - I finally suggested that we just treat it as playtime, except in Mandarin. Everything we do, everything we read, everything we touch, will be translated and repeated in Mandarin...employing many of the drilling techniques I picked up while working at Princeton in Beijing.

The children are pretty much zero beginners in Mandarin. Some are hapas like mine, some come from culturally diverse parents, some are seeking out cultural diversity. This is a weekly occurrence that lasts 1.5 hours, unfortunately not enough repetition for formal language learning, but sufficiently captivating for kids with short attention spans to keep wanting more. Playgroup size is no more than 5 each time, so each child can get some one-on-one interactions as well. Every session is themed, so we can focus on colors one week, body parts the next, a relevant Chinese holiday whenever one's near, sports, weather, etc.

The structure varies based upon the group's interests and energy level that day, so variations are very much expected, but usually involves these activities:

  1. Drawing names: Basically roll call to learn common phrases like 你好!我叫___, 你呢?(Hi! My name is ____, and you?) 他的名字是___。(His name is____.) ____是她!(____is her!) 她在哪?(Where is she?) 他在那儿!(He's over there!)
  2. Reviewing previously learned phrases,
  3. Reading circle: Read any book aloud in Mandarin, regardless of original text language.
  4. An activity to get them moving around while speaking Mandarin, like Hide & Seek.
  5. Asian snack time: Introduce some snacks they normally would not be exposed to...but only AFTER they've learned to say what they're eating in Mandarin, how to ask for it 我要一个/两个/三个..., how to ask for more 我还要..., followed by 谢谢!(Thank you!)
  6. Free play while listening to Chinese songs.
  7. Coloring/drawing using my illustrations or simply doodling on a blank sheet of paper. Great opportunity to introduce phrases like 这个是什么颜色?(What' is this color?) 我最喜欢的是____。(May favorite color is _____.) 我也要用____。(I would also like to use ____.) 你用完了吗?(Are you done with that?)

So far, the dynamic has been great between the children, we learn with/from one another, and are excited for playtime every week. This is something that most bilingual parents can do at home and schedule playdates for. Just make sure there aren't so many distractions that everybody ends up doing their own thing. Limit the activities in the room to focus only on the things that the kids can do together. Hope this helps!

Updated: 2021-10-07

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