How we’re raising our kids to be bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural: Part 2, our son’s journey

This is part two of a three-part series looking at how my wife (Chinese) and myself (Canadian) are trying to raise our kids to be bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural. While not essential, it may be helpful to read the last post prior to reading this one.

In my last post, I discussed how we’ve gone about developing our daughter’s bilingualism and biliteracy. The takeaway from our experience with her is that school languages matter. That children, given enough exposure, tend to pick up the language there.

While the school language has been important for our son, what we’ve found to be more important in his language development is his confidence. There may be several reasons for this lack of linguistic confidence. It could be down to his personality. He is intensely creative, but doesn’t make friends as naturally as his sister. It could be that he is a boy, and that there is some truth to the stereotype that girls acquire languages more easily than boys. Both he and his sister have been exposed to a similar diversity of languages, but it seems to take him longer for any of the languages to catch on. Whatever the reasons, our son has reminded us that best-laid plans can go awry.

My mother frequently reminded me that I was slow to learn to talk but that once I started I never shut-up. Our son has been like that. His sister could tell intricate stories before she was two, but he was only able to string a few consecutive sentences together until he was past three. Mind you, with his sister constantly jabbering away there was little opportunity for him to speak.

My wife took care of our son for his first three years, only speaking to him in Putonghua (Mandarin Chinese). I spoke with him in English. When we moved to Hong Kong, he was too young to attend the Canadian school I was teaching at, but we managed to find a half-day spot at a Hong Kong Cantonese medium kindergarten. Cantonese is the version of Chinese spoken in Hong Kong and across the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, where my wife is from.

After a full year in this kindergarten, he still wasn’t speaking a lot, though he clearly showed understanding when addressed in either English, Putonghua, or Cantonese. In our second year in Hong Kong, when we placed his sister in a local primary school, we decided to continue with his enrollment in the local kindergarten. Although we were not huge fans of its very structured program, we wanted to give him a chance to let more of the Cantonese stick.

And it eventually did.

Halfway through his second year at the kindergarten, the Cantonese started coming through. Spontaneously. Remember, up until this point, it was like pulling teeth trying to get him to express anything in any language. Now, our kids started playing (and fighting) using Cantonese. For the first time, our son’s linguistic proficiency in a language was higher than his sister’s, who had only been learning Cantonese in her primary school for four months.

From this point on, he has not stopped talking. He’ll talk in whichever language he’s most comfortable in. And he’ll talk loudly. Very loudly.

Our son has always been a little more zany and slightly more socially awkward than his sister. He’s very competitive and doesn’t like to look bad. (Much like his father.) But once some language mastery kicked in, and he was demonstrably on par with others or, even better than his sister, the language crunching brain of early childhood ramped up and did the rest.

Even though we were well aware he was speaking more now, we were still quite surprised to realize that his teachers perceived him to be an extrovert and outgoing student at school, that he actively participated in class. This trend has continued until now.

In order to balance the language and school learning experiences of both of our children as best as possible, we enrolled our son in the Canadian school I was teaching at for the Canadian equivalent of Senior Kindergarten (K3 in Hong Kong, Year 1 in the British system). His class had a diversity of languages, but the language of the school and play was English. The inquiry and play-based approach to learning was a welcome contrast to the Cantonese kindergarten.

He became increasingly more confident and also started using English more at home. As had been the case with his sister, if at a slightly slower pace, the school language was taking over. Playing with his sister now involved moving in and out of three languages, but with more of a bias to English. He also began to speak to me using more English with some interesting results.

A Ferrari is faster than a Lamborghini tiny.” (A Ferrari is a tiny bit faster than a Lamborghini.)

This is mummy’s twoth time.” (This is mummy’s second time.)

Or these sentences when discussing the earth’s crust:

Shi zheyang dig straight ma?” (是这样dig straight吗?) (Is this how you dig straight?)

Ni xian dig outer Earth.” (你先dig outer Earth.) (You first dig through outer earth.)

When he wasn’t offering these blended sentences, he needed development in basic standard English grammar:

“When he was wenting to where, what did he found?” (When he was going there, what did he find?)

Linguists have long observed this process in how kids pick up and eventually sort out the grammar in their first languages. Despite many of my best intentions, I really just need to give the process a little extra time as our son has been picking up not just one language, but three.

Here’s an example of me trying to correct him:

Son: This shoe gooder than the other one.
Me: This shoe is better than that one.
Son: It’s more comfortabler.
Me: More comfortable.
Son: In the whole universe it’s the comfortablest.

After a year in an English medium Canadian style kindergarten, our family moved to another part of Hong Kong so that we could be closer to our new bilingual Putonghua-English school that I would be working at and the kids would both be attending. We are now two months in and this has added a few unforeseen curveballs for our son’s language learning experience, which may or may not pan out for our plans for him to become fully bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural.

As so many Hong Kong parents do, we’ve enrolled our kids in a number of after school extra-curricular activities and most of them are delivered in Cantonese, but our son loves to give the impression to the instructors or others that he can’t speak Cantonese. They will then, usually, proceed in English.

On the playground, he’ll hide that he can speak Cantonese, and because of his lighter complexion, many kids assume he’s a “foreigner” and speak to him in English, even if their English is not as good as his Cantonese. When I ask him why he does this, he says it’s because he’s not comfortable speaking Cantonese. However, if we play a Cantonese cartoon at home, he’s content to watch that through.

Most of the lessons in the new school are in Putonghua, and the playground language is also Putonghua. But when he comes home with classmates on the subway, he’ll often be speaking English with classmates whose English is worse than his Putonghua! One possible explanation is that the things he’s interested in, the Marvel universe, Star Wars, and Minecraft, he’s only ever encountered in English. Apart from the shared language content learned in Chinese class, he doesn’t have as much cultural capital to share. So English be it then!

Our son’s Chinese class at school has skipped over the first book of the Grade 1 Chinese textbook with the assumption that students will have already covered the content in kindergarten in mainland schools. It’s a little frustrating, as our son had no Chinese at his last Canadian school. Because he’s in Year 2 (British equivalent of Grade 1), I sometimes feel that there’s an assumption that Year 2 should translate to Grade 2 work. The arms race to get kids learning literacy at ever younger ages is relentless, both in Hong Kong and the West, but it’s so much easier to fall behind with the pictographic script of Chinese. We’ve been working hard to keep him on top of things, but I wonder what chance does a child without Chinese speaking parents realistically have to acquire literacy in Chinese, when even we, a mixed family, struggle?

Our daughter has always been very organized and even though we do have to push her to do homework at times, we never have to worry that she’s missing things. Our son, on the other hand, has more important things to think about, such as Thanos, Minecraft, weekly soccer class, or why when two odd numbers are added the sum is always an even number. (I had to ask a secondary math teacher for the proof in order to manfully and meaningfully answer him! Like father, like son, eh?) He is not as motivated to please his teachers.

A further challenge is that our son has the stereotypically messy handwriting of a boy, in both languages. He writes his characters all helter-skelter and in incorrect stroke order. His English letters blend lower-case and upper case well. The tails of lowercase g’s, j’s, and y’s ride above the lines while a’s, b’s, and c’s are as large capital N’s, M’s, and O’s. I know he’ll get it, eventually. With some of our help, but more likely in spite of us.

So what of it.

Well, our son has shown us that building confidence is important. He will march to his own beat, and he’s not interested in toeing the line just to please teachers and parents. And when that threshold of confidence is met, he won’t hesitate to jump in and use his languages. Perhaps we’ve lost Cantonese, and perhaps English is the language he’ll stick with. Or perhaps not. Perhaps we just need to wait longer for more exposure to Putonghua at school. Whatever the end result, raising our son has taught us to focus on what’s most important when raising a child. That children are to be loved unconditionally. As important as language and bilingual aspirations are important to me, there’s an important beauty in the pleasure our boy takes spending hours constructing in Minecraft or chasing after a soccer ball with groups of children speaking all manner of Englishes.

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