At first I was going to title this post “Why we’re raising our kids to be bilingual”, but I feel I might do better with a focus on the pragmatics. I have my personal reasons for supporting bilingualism, but at the end of the day decisions about language belong to the family or circumstances.
For those interested in how to maintain a bilingual and biliterate family, particularly a Chinese-English one, you may enjoy the first two posts of this series. In the first, I’ll discuss our daughter’s journey, and in the second, I’ll focus on our son’s. Of course our kids are still young and I can only comment on the journey so far. In part three I’ll examine the challenges and opportunities of being intentionally bicultural.
They say that parents often try to push their hopes and dreams onto their kids in order to make up for their own regrets. And to a certain extent, that’s true for me. As I’ve written here, I regretted not learning Urdu better as a child when I lived in Pakistan, and not pushing harder to learn French in university and then Putonghua in China. Three years of living in Hong Kong and I’m no further ahead speaking Cantonese than I was in my first month, even if I can understand more.
Now as a parent, language teacher, and blogger, I better understand the importance of childhood and school environments in learning, and losing language. I can also hold a less condescending attitude towards my own language learning failures. Together this has enabled me to be more informed in the language choices we’ve made for our children. What follows now is less the why and more the how and what we have done.
My wife is Chinese and grew up in the southern coastal province of Guangdong, the one that’s connected to Hong Kong. I was teaching in Guangzhou when our daughter was born. For the first two years after her birth, I mostly spoke to her in Putonghua, the national language of China. I was up to the task because she couldn’t talk back, and the complexity of the sentences was within my ability. My rationale was that I thought she was more at risk of not acquiring Putonghua than she was of not learning English. Meanwhile, my wife used only Chinese with her, and we continued to use English to communicate between the two of us.
On a visit to Canada just after her second birthday, I was a bit embarrassed that she couldn’t speak much English. From them on, barring the occasional sentence or two, or using Putonghua amongst Chinese family and friends, I have only spoken to her in English.
When she was four, she started attending the Chinese kindergarten at the school I worked at in Guangzhou. Her Putonghua further developed and it soon became common for her to speak to me in Chinese even if I addressed her in English.
We moved to Hong Kong and our daughter attended the senior kindergarten at the English medium Canadian school I taught at. Knowing that the school language has an even greater impact than home languages, I did anticipate that she would start to lose some proficiency in Chinese. What I did not anticipate was how quickly this would happen. After one month of English kindergarten, she stopped speaking Chinese to me and would switch languages between my wife and I. This has continued to the present.
It was at this point that we became really concerned. Our daughter would only continue to lose her Chinese speaking ability if she remained in an English medium school environment. Several Chinese colleagues at the school had also observed this with their children. The longer the kids stayed at the school, the better their English got, but the weaker their first languages became. Since we did not have a completely Chinese speaking home environment, the loss would be quicker.
This phenomenon is common in countries with immigration. The children of immigrants often lose their first languages or retain only a very basic spoken ability. Children of many friends of ours in mixed-marriages, where English is one of the languages, usually end up speaking English mostly. This is not something we wanted, especially as we were living in China.
It took a while to come up with the solution, but we decided to put our daughter in the local public school system. Our daughter spoke native Putonghua and English, but she did not know any Cantonese, the main language of instruction. Fortunately, my wife can speak Cantonese, having learned it as a child from watching Cantonese TV programs.
We were well aware of the heavy homework loads of the public system, but we were confident that our daughter would be able to adapt. We knew we always had the option to pull her out and have her attend the school I was teaching at if things didn’t work out.
It wasn’t easy, but things did work out.
A month into the new school, I remember being a little annoyed by some teachers who were critical of her not speaking Cantonese. I knew she just needed some more time. Sure enough, half-way through the school year, she was communicating in Cantonese with her brother, who had been attending a local kindergarten throughout this time. The speed of this acquisition was greatly helped by her fluency in Putonghua as well as my wife being able to speak Cantonese and use that sometimes during homework sessions.
Placing our daughter in the public system was one of the best decisions we made. The beginning of primary school is when most students are introduced to reading. Although the school our daughter was admitted to was not particularly prestigious, the lack of prestige did provide a lower pressure environment for her to acquire a foundation for Chinese literacy. I had already helped her to learn how to read in English, and so even though she would not be quite at grade level by Canadian standards, I knew that this was compensated for by being able to speak three languages and eventually read and write in two.
Her two years in the public system were not easy, but they weren’t brutal. Already a responsible person, she enjoyed school and saved us a lot of headaches by mostly staying on top of her requirements. If it had been too difficult or was making her miserable, we would have pulled her out. This is what many expat parents do in the Hong Kong public system. But for less privileged ethnic minorities, they have no choice but to persevere. Unfortunately, in Hong Kong public education, language support for non-Chinese speaking families is not as developed as it could be.
And acquiring literacy in Chinese is uniquely difficult. Because the language is not phonetic, students must learn hundreds, even thousands, of multi-stroke characters each year. English has 26 letter symbols to remember and a total of 44 phonemes (unique sounds). With phonetic awareness and some practice, students can read, but not necessarily understand all English. Chinese is different. In order to read a Chinese newspaper, the reader must know around 3000 characters. At one point I knew about 1000 characters, but never enough to meaningfully understand a newspaper. And I still can’t read, let alone, understand all the questions in my children’s Grade 2 and Grade 4 textbooks. By way of contrast, my son, who is in Grade 1 and who I was able to help learn how to read, can already read the majority of his Cambridge English textbook.
Our daughter ended up doing two years in the public system finishing the equivalent of Grade 1 and 2 (Year 2 and 3) second in her class overall, and sixth in her grade. At her birthday party in June, she invited a few classmates from school as well as some other family friends. It was delightful seeing her effortlessly switch between Cantonese, Putonghua, and English garbed in a blue Princess Elsa gown.
But that was the end of her time in the public system. I was able to find a position in a private, bilingual Putonghua-English international school with a heavier emphasis in Putonghua in primary before switching over to English in secondary. It’s perfect for our family. A robust Chinese in primary but with more of the global-mindedness of an international curriculum. Two weeks in and both kids are enjoying school very much, even if they still have a lot of homework.
Now that they are in a bilingual school with heavier emphasis in Putonghua, we feel less pressure to artificially add language classes or exposure outside the classroom. We can take confidence in the power of the school’s lingua franca to develop their Chinese. Our daughter has started to read English chapter books, more or less on track with Canadian reading standards. She has also started finishing Chinese readers. The more difficult goal of achieving biliteracy in two very different language writing systems is closer to being achieved.
When we left Mainland China, I knew that it would be difficult for our kids to maintain their Putonghua. And my belief that the school language is the one that ultimately dominates, especially in the lower primary, was confirmed by our own experience. In terms of literacy, it remains critical to develop at least one literacy in the early years. Because our daughter learned the basics of reading with me, I was not concerned that she would fall behind in the Hong Kong public system. If kids grasp the (mostly) phonetic basis of English early on and are then exposed to sufficient opportunity to practice it, they will do fine in the long run.
Skipping grade one in the Chinese system would have removed a much greater foundation for literacy than it does in English. Chinese is much more cumulative than English due to the writing system. It requires much more exposure and practice than English. As I mentioned earlier, a basic literacy requires some 3000 characters to be remembered both in the mind and “in the hand”. Words cannot be “sounded out” in order to associate them with an already familiar spoken word. Parents often greatly underestimate the complexity of Chinese writing and assume that the pedagogies used to acquire and teach English, as either a first or a second language, are the same for Chinese. They’re not.
The children of Chinese speaking parents who attend English medium schools, and especially international schools where the playground language is much more likely to be English, quickly lose proficiency and almost all literacy in Chinese. We have several friends whose parents came to this realization too late for an older child and have had to enrol kids in separate schools as a result.
Our present challenge with our daughter is for her to maintain as much Cantonese as possible. The writing system for both Cantonese and Putonghua is essentially the same, but the grammar and pronunciation of Cantonese and Putonghua effectively make them separate languages. Now that she does not use Cantonese in school, she is less likely to keep it. Younger kids learn, but also forget, spoken languages more quickly. One way to mitigate this has been to expose our kids to more Cantonese TV shows as well as enroll them in extra-curricular activities.
The main takeaway from our experience with our daughter is that the school language is the language that will dominate, but the inherent complexity of the Chinese writing system means that biliteracy is in Chinese and English is not attained easily. But possessing a literacy is more important than possessing a half-baked literacy in two languages. Chinese parents should focus on developing Chinese literacy and then add on English later on. Non-Chinese speaking parents should start as early as possible to develop Chinese literacy but also develop English as well. Because it’s easier to develop English literacy than Chinese literacy, this is a more reasonable option.
I want to close this post emphasizing that I’m describing the unique challenges posed by learning how to read and write English and Chinese. The journey to bilingualism and biliteracy in languages with similar structures and writing systems will be easier. So Spanish is much more easily acquired than English is.
In Part 2, I’ll explore my son’s ongoing journey to bilingualism and biliteracy, with its separate twists. Part 3 will look at the challenges and opportunities of biculturalism.