Even though I came to Australia when I was a toddler, I grew up speaking Cantonese at home with my parents. On top of that, we watched Chinese soaps on television almost every night (both during and after dinner) and every other weekend, we would break out the karaoke microphones and serenade each other with our favourite Honkie pop songs. As a result of all this, my Cantonese never faded. It’s remained with me, even if on some days, it sounds embarassingly Chinglish.
I guess I’d always thought that my children would speak Cantonese, like me. Even when I married Rick (who, in case you haven’t noticed by now, is neither Chinese nor Asian), I just assumed that I would teach our kids Cantonese. Somehow, they would learn it. Of course they would.
My plan was simple enough: Rick would speak to the boys in English, and I would speak to them in Cantonese. That’s what all the professionals say anyway.
The reality, though, is that it is hard work speaking to your children in one language and your husband in another. It requires double the mental effort and double the amount of patience. That’s on top of the sleep deprivation and the crazy notion that you now have a little person to look after and be completely responsible for.
It’s not that I never tried. I did. I’d sing songs in Cantonese to Angus, and when it was just the two of us, I would talk to him in Cantonese.
But then he turned two and a half and was diagnosed with “moderate to severe expressive language delay.” In other words, he could understand everything but was unable to verbalise words himself. And so began speech therapy sessions and homework which manifested in the constant repetition of single words, then phrases, and eventually – sentences.
As you can imagine, speaking in Cantonese completely dropped off the radar. I could either divide my time and spread my resources or I could harness my efforts and focus on the one language to help my son to talk.
I chose the latter.
It was truly exciting when our efforts seemed to be rewarded and Angus started not only uttering words but stringing sentences together. Before long, he was forming compound sentences and I started wondering what on earth we were even worried about to begin with.
Fast forward to the present day: Angus speaks like an adult; Pete is where Angus was at when he was diagnosed with the speech delay; and Jamie is rattling words off like a two year old and almost catching up to Pete! Meanwhile, I’m dropping in Cantonese phrases here and there, hoping that it might make some difference but knowing deep down that such inconsistency does nothing except to confuse the boys, especially the younger two.
I know I have two options: Stop worrying about (read: stop feeling guilty about) the whole Cantonese thing altogether and move on, or, drop the English and just do Cantonese with the boys. Obviously, the latter will mean risking further speech delay for Pete and also not being able to relate to Angus at the same level that I do now.
One seems like the saner choice. The other just seems like hard work, with no guarantee of long-lasting results – chances are, when the boys get to school, any ability to speak Cantonese will just be crowded out.
But here’s the catch: I will always look back and wonder, ‘What if?’ What if I’d tried harder? What if I hadn’t given up?
Because clearly it’s not just about the boys speaking Cantonese.
It’s about upholding that part of their culture.
It’s about continuing their Chinese lineage.
It’s about preserving a bit of me, and who I am, in the boys.
It’s about strengthening the bond between them and my parents.
It’s about teaching them that being Chinese and speaking Cantonese is ‘normal’ – just as being Australia and speaking English is ‘normal.’
I remember one particular time when I was trying to teach Angus a phrase or two in Cantonese, and he responded with, “No, mummy, I want you to talk like normal.” It just about broke my heart.
And so – if you were me, what would you do? Am I crazy for wanting to give it a go at this stage? For all the speech therapists out there, is it too late? And if you speak a language apart from English, do you expect that your children will learn it too?