Why We Chose to Start with Cantonese and Not Mandarin

"So and so knows 579480453 languages by the age of ___"...JUST KIDDING...Sorry if that brought back traumatic memories! Inevitably though, learning a second language is a comparative experience, always measuring the target language against the native language.

爸爸Baba uses Mandarin at's also the more popular dialect. So how did Cantonese become the predominant Chinese dialect at home for the first 3 years of our children's lives? When our first child was born, I made the deliberate choice to start speaking in Cantonese with her first, rather than counting on the most probable dialect that can be spoken at home. Here's why:

1. Of the two dialects, Cantonese has more tones to learn (9 tones in Cantonese vs. 4 tones in Mandarin). I wanted to naturally acquaint our kids with a larger variety of tones to train their sensitivity to sounds, which should make it easier to adapt Mandarin tones in the future also.

2. Tom uses Mandarin for work. So the last thing he wants to do is continue "working" when he gets home. [Insert something snarky about parenting not being work here]. Cantonese is definitely more attractive to him by comparison, not only because of the novelty, but it actually helps with his research and understanding of Classical Chinese literature.

3. Guangdong is where most of my extended family resides. So, we end up visiting the Cantonese-speaking south more anyway...for the full-immersion experience. The assumption is that our kids will also be exposed to Cantonese cuisine more, so it'd make learning Cantonese dishes a practical survival tactic for all of us. Here we are in the outskirts of 佛山FoShan, feasting on a local concoction of rice noodles, roast duck, and soup:

4. When 公公GongGong & 姥姥LaoLao visit, they will switch to Mandarin when speaking to Tom, there's still some inherent exposure to Mandarin along the way, even if it's not the predominant dialect being used at home yet.

5. The Cantonese dialect is not as easily "teachable" as Mandarin is, probably because of the lesser developed / fewer teaching materials available. So, Cantonese has to be strategically embedded into their natural environment, rather than taught.

6. It's what worked for me. I spoke Cantonese with my parents at home, learned Mandarin and simplified Chinese formally, read Taiwanese newspapers written in traditional characters (because that's what was available in the Bay), and got to use them all for work.

7. Quality > Quantity: Even though Mandarin could have a higher frequency of use in the house, it doesn't necessarily mean that it will be the more naturally learned / spoken language at home. Since I grew up speaking Cantonese at home, I've memorized the multiplication tables in Cantonese, and can more naturally respond in Cantonese, it would come to me in a more casual setting...whereas Mandarin feels more formal because it's used for work. When I hold my babies, my inclination is to speak Cantonese if I'm being mindful not to speak English. In many ways, Cantonese is the way my kids and I can bond, that's slightly different from everybody else. It's Mommy's language. That's special. That's quality.

the beauty of multilingual nursery rhymes

Our collection of familiar favorite nursery rhymes in Cantonese & Mandarin

When we became parents, we ditched our TV set in an effort to delay screen time as much as possible. Yet, by age 2 our firstborn was able to get a hold of our laptops and cell phones, and we knew she'd get suckered in. So, in order to use screen time to our advantage, she (and now her little brother) was allowed to watch Chinese language materials on-screen in little spurts, more specifically, via Chinese songs that they can sing along to.

Over time, I've noticed that the content most frequently played and repeated by request were often the nursery rhymes. To drill down even further, the Chinese nursery rhymes that had real staying power were the ones where the tune was based on a popular English nursery rhyme they heard on random occasions. Once repeated enough times, our toddler would unknowingly sing the Chinese version, instead of the English one!

Then, around age 3, we'd hear some Chinese phrase sung, followed by "what's that mean?" Which then gave me the opportunity to answer their question/start a mini conversation in Cantonese. or Mandarin (woohoo!)

More specifically, these are the familiar nursery rhymes that made the cut:

  1. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star's translation is closer in Mandarin than in Cantonese
  2. London Bridge, but really birds falling down 有隻雀仔掉落水 in Cantonese
  3. Frere Jacque is actually about 2 tigers 两只老虎 in Mandarin
  4. Itsy Bitsy Spider became about 2 spiders 一隻两隻蜘蛛 in Cantonese
  5. We Will Rock You, or a runaway cat 有一隻貓鍾意跑跑跑 in Cantonese
  6. Skip to My Lou, but actually 3 good pigs + a sleepy pig 三只白白猪 in Cantonese
  7. This Old Man became a counting song in Cantonese: 數字歌 刷牙歌
  8. Ten Little Indians is really about finding fun things to do 朦查查 in Cantonese

I reiterate: Repetition is key! Our toddler requested to watch these on loop until she could imitate the sounds herself and visualize the video images in her head.

*will continue adding to the list as more songs get repeated on our playlists & in our heads

Updated: 2021-06-29

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