Getting past 'Jook-sing': How to teach kids Cantonese in a mixed-race home

Posted by Habbi Habbi on

Little Kozzi CanadaCharing | Mom of 2 | Born in Hong Kong, but grew up in Canada 
Identifies partly as “CBC” (Canadian-Born-Chinese) - “Jook-Sing”  
Raising two bilingual children (Cantonese & English) 
Co-Owner of Little Kozzi - selling Chinese children’s books to Canadian parents 

Teaching kids Cantonese is already an achievement - but trying to teach them as a non-native speaker in a mixed-race family is another level. We loved our chat here with Charing - raising two bilingual children (Cantonese & English), in a mixed heritage family (her husband is Caucasian). 

We discussed how she overcame the mental hurdle, success factors, resources, Cantonese vs Mandarin, and of course how Little Kozzi (her lovely Chinese children's bookshop in Canada) came about. It was such a pleasure - we left the chat with practical tips and loads of inspiration. We hope you enjoy too.  

What is your bilingual background?  

I consider myself mostly like a CBC - Canadian-Born Chinese (specifically, Cantonese). Even though I was born in Hong Kong, I grew up in Toronto, and my dominant language is English. My partner is White Caucasian.  

There is actually a term in Cantonese called “Jook-Sing” - kind of like a “Banana.” When people get labelled this way, there is an implicit understanding that they are very Westernized and don’t speak Cantonese very well. When my eldest was born, that’s what I assumed his path would be. I assumed that losing our heritage language was part of the normal path of being a second- or third-generation person in Canada. 

How did your motivation to raise bilingual kids in Cantonese and English come about?

I saw other CBC parents who were (successfully!) teaching their kids Cantonese and Mandarin, and I was so fascinated by them. I thought - Wow, if they can do it even though they are not native, as someone who was born in Hong Kong, I have no excuse! They also have non-Chinese spouses who don’t speak it at all.

Their kids are slightly older than mine, so I looked to them as role models and trailblazers. Sometimes, I wish others could see these people and their stories. We think language learning is so daunting (especially for non-native parents), but these families helped me get over the mental hump. And while it sounds trite, watching them made me realize it is just about me putting in the effort. 

How do you approach teaching your kids Cantonese? 

Since we are a mixed-race, mixed-heritage family, we try to follow the “OPOL” approach - One Parent One Language. I only speak Cantonese with my kids, and my husband speaks English. Sometimes, he will attempt simple words as well - which shows effort and the importance of Cantonese in our house. 

Does your son speak to you in Cantonese and to your husband in English? 

For the most part, yes, though given our family background and the fact that we live in Canada, my eldest’s dominant language is still English (my youngest doesn’t speak yet!). If he does speak back to me in English - which is natural because it is the first thing that comes to mind, I will repeat what he said in Cantonese to try to help his brain switch over, and we will continue the conversation in Cantonese. 

What are the key elements in your bilingual home?

Again, the most important was actually getting over the mental hump that it is possible. For me, that meant surrounding myself with examples of people who had done it before.

Then I think it’s consistency. In the beginning, it was really hard! We shouldn’t sugar coat that. English is my dominant language - and the language I speak with my husband. Trying to switch over is very odd in the beginning. Also, I found that I lacked a lot of vocabulary. But I just took it one word, one day at a time. I was not afraid to look things up mid-conversation. Fortunately, once I found the vocabulary the first time - like the word for ‘avocado’ - I can just keep using it. 

Are you thinking of bilingual literacy in addition to speaking? 

For me, I’m focused on Cantonese. Cantonese is almost its own language - and it’s different from the written language. So, I’m very focused on mastering listening comprehension and spoken language - before launching into reading. 

There are so many mixed-race families. Can you share more about your husband's role?  

Yes. I would describe him as an “enthusiastic learner.” He learns alongside my eldest son, which shows he also finds it important, and it’s not just a Mommy thing because she looks Chinese. He also values it and seeks to learn, too. We have this book called “Everyday Cantonese for Parents” by Ann Hamilton. It has a lot of useful parenting phrases, and he uses that to play games with my son, where he’d try to say a phrase in Cantonese and see if my son understands it.

What is your advice non-native families, in getting started or sticking with this journey? 

My advice would just be about - trying to maximize sheer exposure. Nothing beats exposure. If you can surround yourself with people who speak it and integrate it into parts of your everyday life, it becomes more natural and not something you have to “make time for” and therefore more sustainable. That way, it’s not like we are always “learning Cantonese” - we are just living life - and Cantonese is a part of it, so my children can absorb it.

For example, for our family movie nights - we watch in Cantonese with English subtitles. That way, he can take in more. I try to take advantage of any opportunity for immersion as part of daily life. For example - with cooking, instead of finding a written recipe in English, I look for a Cantonese / Mandarin video with English subtitles. There are YouTube videos for everything now! 

I also lean on video (Netflix, YouTube, etc.) - because we will inevitably have a little bit of screen time. And if I can introduce more language exposure during that screen time, I consider it a win. My eldest son has definitely picked up some vocabulary and expressions that wouldn’t otherwise have come up in our daily conversation - for example, he learned words for surfing! I also find it helpful for him to hear other voices speaking Cantonese and Mandarin, to calibrate the tones for specific words and not just rely on my accent. 

Do you plan on attending a bilingual or immersion school? 

Actually on the topic of formal vs informal learning, I have spoken to other parents (the trailblazers I mentioned before), and they do not believe in traditional Chinese school. That might be a bit controversial, because there are certainly many types of programs, schools, and educational approaches - so I don’t want to make a blanket statement to say “all” traditional Chinese schools are bad.

What came out in the discussion with these parents was a shared experience about how the type of traditional school we attended growing up - sometimes stifled interest in learning the language. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen with our own kids. We think successful retention and learning of our heritage language requires interest, relevance, and fun. They need to want to learn it themselves. 

What do you think of the relationship between Cantonese and Mandarin. Will you learn both? 

Mandarin is practical - it’s about job prospects, future, skills, and is more commonly used. I definitely want my son to learn it. Even in Hong Kong, they also learn Mandarin - because they know it is extremely practical. 

The reason I’m focusing on Cantonese first is because it is my heritage language, so there is an emotional factor. Also, it’s harder to find resources in Cantonese, so I figure I am his primary Cantonese resource and I should help him now. Mandarin has so many learning resources, so I just assume it is something he can easily do on his own in the future. 

Also, the tie between Cantonese and Mandarin is the written language (same written language - just spoken differently). So when he starts to learn to read, I think that’s a great opportunity to also start learning Mandarin. That’s how I picked it up - through reading. 

We can’t end this conversation without talking about Kozzi (your bilingual bookstore)! 

Kozzi started out of my own parenting journey (similar to Habbi Habbi for the two of you!).  I was trying to find resources to help teach my son Cantonese, and it was so hard in Canada. So it happened kind of organically. I would find a few things that I wanted to ship over, and as I was finding them, other parent friends would ask - Can I tack on an order, so we can save on shipping? 

My partner Eveline gave me the final push. I kept saying - No one wants this in Canada; I’m just a niche parent. But it turns out, there are a lot of parents like us!  

One big design decision we made was to make the site and experience English-based. There are a lot of Chinese language bookstores out there, but we wanted something that felt accessible to parents like ourselves. We also include titles that might be more progressive and may not sell as well in Asia but are relevant for a CBC/ABC audience here. 

A lot of this is similar to Habbi Habbi, which is probably how we connected! We love the topics and content you feature in your books. And we mentioned this before, but your quality is so good. We got spoiled by the quality of your Wand, such that we expected other Reading Pens to be similar, and they’re not! 

Stepping back though, while it has not been easy running a small business, we have so enjoyed the community we have connected with - and the opportunity to work on something that means so much to us personally!

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