Family Language Alive - Children Learning Chinese

Situation #3.4: I am skeptical about choosing Mandarin as the language to learn since we speak a different Chinese dialect (e.g. Cantonese, Toisanese) at home, but most curricula are in Mandarin…

October 2, 2010

3.4 Main Article

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Situation #3.4: I am skeptical about choosing Mandarin as the language to learn since we speak a different Chinese dialect (e.g. Cantonese, Toisanese) at home, but most curricula are in Mandarin.

Reality: The best language to learn is the language you use to communicate with the members at home. You already have the best environment for your child to learn. Why waste it? You need to be aware, however, that the spoken forms of most spoken dialects (excluding Mandarin) can be quite different from their written form, which is very much standard and similar across all dialects. Therefore, you need to ensure that your child understands the written form at the same time she is acquiring your dialect. What this means is that your child needs to be read to frequently enough to be able to understand the written form used in books and other written materials. This will help her immensely toward Chinese literacy. Furthermore, it will become much easier for her to learn Mandarin later on if you deem Mandarin to be an important language to learn because Mandarin and most dialects share an extremely similar writing system.

Some dialects, like Cantonese, have invented their own characters to convey their particular sounds and speaking styles in pop cultural written materials like magazines. However, the official writing in books still utilizes the standard writing system.

The reality is that a child can progress much faster if the language is being heard and used repeatedly outside of class as a real-life communication tool. Thus, for a Cantonese-speaking family, the natural way for the child to learn Chinese should be that she learns Cantonese (at least initially), rather than going straight to Mandarin, especially when the child is young. Sadly, the latter is usually the approach that families use due to the standing Mandarin has in society, which confirms the status quo in our world, without choice, that the prestige of languages is linked very closely to societal power.

If your native Chinese dialect is unpopular or is dying out, it would still justify for your child to learn the home dialect simply for individual needs and preferences, but you should be prepared for the fact that learning a language that is of lower prestige in the society will invite pressure and prejudice from outside your family. Therefore, from the very beginning, you should understand how to cope with this reality and decide as a family what your mission is in using your native dialect.

Considerations:

  • What is the prestige and status of my home dialect perceived by the society? What is my family decision on this issue, based on my mission of why my child is learning Chinese? Will this decision help toward attaining the goal, perhaps not immediately, but in the long run?
  • Is it possible and natural enough in some way to use the dialect I want my child to learn in a home environment setting? Can I and any member of the household use that dialect with him on a daily basis?
  • Where else, besides home, can my child be offered the opportunity to practice regularly the same dialect of Chinese that she is learning right now?
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