My husband's family speaks Cantonese. As you may have noticed, a Cantonese phrase or word makes it on here now and again because, frankly, it usually isn't made clear to me which language I am being taught. Before I learned any Mandarin, my mother-in-law would prompt me with what to say for special occasions, usually giving me 2 choices of what to say. She did not, however, mention that one was Cantonese and the other Mandarin. So, I learned some words and phrases in Cantonese first. Forgive me if they appear once in a while! The way I look at it is, at least I learned SOMETHING!
So I started out trying to learn Cantonese. I bought some tapes and a couple of books and really tried. That is until I hit a couple of major road blocks. The biggest one was that Pimsleur only had 1 set of Cantonese CDs as opposed to 3 sets of many other languages (Swahili, anyone?), including Mandarin. Even if I worked hard, there was no room for advancement! Doomed before I had even started! Another one was that every relative kept telling me how Cantonese usage was quickly being replaced by Mandarin, even in Chicago's Chinatown, which (according to them) was predominately Cantonese-speaking 20 years ago. Who wants to spend time and effort teaching their kids a language that maybe only a few people will speak someday? they'd say. Pretty effective argument, I'd say. And forget about finding a class in Cantonese in the burbs! Even the Mandarin class I signed up for at a local college got cancelled due to lack of interest. (Lack of interest? really?)
The truth is that, for a while, I gave up. My husband wasn't even intent on teaching them Chinese (although he is "on board" now). We visited a non-profit Chinese school about 2 years ago, only to be discouraged by some other parents we met and overwhelmed by the commitment that it would obviously take. Believe it or not, during this time I actually bought some Spanish books! It was my minor in college, so I thought I'd just take a ride down the easiest road. But, I found that I just wasn't enthused to teach them a language that had no connection to their ethnic & cultural heritage. Then, one day, I was looking at my tiniest one and I just thought, "It's not too late for him. Or for any of them, really. In fact, my daughter isn't even 4 yet . . ." The search for a way to learn Mandarin was born!
And here we are, not even a year later, with 2 kids in Language Stars* reciting poems at family dinners and (cross your fingers here) actually learning the language. I am SO proud of them!
I'm proud of myself, too, you know. It takes commitment, a little sacrifice (of sleep, mostly), and plain old determination to give your kids something that no one else in the family has: Mandarin.
Or do they? I was pretty excited tonight (and a little perplexed, as well) to hear my mother-in-law speaking on the phone in Mandarin. "So you DO speak Mandarin, " I kidded her once she got off the phone. I knew it all along, but this was the first time I actually HEARD her. (I mean, she grew up in China, so how could she NOT speak at least SOME Mandarin?) Granted, she obviously did quite a bit of word searching and spoke slower than in Cantonese (again obvious if even I heard the difference), but she can speak it well enough to carry on a conversation. So, now, if she'll only converse a little more with the grandchildren . . . Perhaps I'll put it to her another way: Who do you think speaks better Mandarin, me or you? We ALL know the answer to that one!
Thanks for reading,
*We get 50% off our tuition for blogging about our Language Stars experience. But the opinions expressed here are my own. I LOVE the Language Stars classes!