Thursday, October 14, 2004

Bilingualism. Yeah Right.

Certain friends of mine in Japan have been bugging me about teaching my son and daughter Cantonese, which is one of the languages that I grew up with. Basically, this is how it breaks down. I was raised by my family to speak Cantonese, which is a Chinese dialect. My mother's family speaks it in Malaysia, and my father's family speaks it in Singapore. When I was starting Kindergarten, we often spoke Mandarin a lot as well, which is the main language in most Chinese culture. Then when I started St. Andrew's, my primary school, the main spoken language was English. Though most of the kids I started out with spoke Mandarin, eventually after all the teachers and instruction converted us to English. Mandarain was taken as a mandatory second language.

I was never formally taught Cantonese; it was just spoken around the house. I never got really great at it, because I always had to rehearse what to say to my grandparents during Chinese New Year. See, we would serve tea to our elders, and wish them a happy and prosperous New Year, and say something witty and wise to them. I always had to rehearse mine. We spoke Cantonese in the house, but I used English to fill in a lot of blanks because my mom could speak both.

So this is my argument about teaching my kids Cantonese. I would LOVE to, but it will probably not be very possible. I spoke to a co-worker at work, who speaks Italian and whose parents were immigrants. We discussed how she came to pick it up, the environment involved, and how her kids don't really speak the language, but do pick up a few words here and there.

The first setback, which is a crucial one, is that my wife doesn't speak Cantonese. Without another person to converse to, a child will have trouble picking the language up as easily because there is only one person who can speak the language, and that person would have to do some pretty weird conversational monologues by himself. I do that in English plenty, but I don't even think that I could come up with enough material in Cantonese to blabber about.

The second setback is that I don't speak Cantonese that well. Sure, it's holds up better than most people with their high school Spanish, but when your only practice is occasionally with your mother and what little Hong Kong films I watch, it's doesn't qualify as fluent whatsoever, and I probably would have problems conversing with someone who only spoke Cantonese.

My co-worker and I agreed that it was because she always had family around conversing in Italian that it wasn't hard to pick up. Her parents spoke Italian, so she was raised on it. Her kids however, hardly know the language - but they do pick up a few words here and there.

The obstacles of teaching my wife and children Cantonese is tough because I'm not that great of a speaker, and Asian languages are tough to master. Granted, if my children learn early enough, the linguistic pronounciations will come naturally, but even my own pronouciations are very stilted. I'm all for kids knowing different languages, but I'm sure that the language will likely die with me.

Interesting though, I remember reading somewhere that children who learn some Asian languages, Chinese in particular, are less likely to be tone-deaf because of all the different tones and pitches inherent in the language. I found this article that relates to that.

I thought that was pretty cool.

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