Obviously this applies to Cantonese-speaking parents… 🙂 but the underlying principle is the same, no matter what your home language is. I’ve been thinking about this issue since I visited Hong Kong in March, and met with many lovely parents who were all attempting to raise their children to be bilingual. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, of course. What was wrong – if that is even the right word to choose – was that these parents were choosing *not* to speak Cantonese to their children, in favour of English. Again, what’s wrong with that? The answer is, of course, it depends. But for most of the families I met, what was wrong was that they were favouring an outside language over the language that their children need to be a part of their families, community, culture. They were making this choice for many reasons, but the ones I heard the most were to have a better chance of getting their children into an English-language school, and because English is “better” than Cantonese. In an effort to give their children the best start they could, several of these families explained to me that they had chosen to use only English (a second language for them) with their children from birth, for anywhere from 2-5 years. They had thought that Cantonese would be “easy” to add in after, and were finding that this was not the case.
So what are the issues in choosing to speak a language that is not your “mother tongue” to your children? Again, the answer varies according to circumstances (and I did this myself, so I am not adamantly against using another language with your children). But in the Hong Kong context, what is happening is a deepening divide between “high” and “low” varieties of language, with English and Mandarin in the front seat as the high varieties and Cantonese firmly in the back seat. In some of these cases the most pressing issue is the use of a non-fluent language as a parenting language. The potential issues when parents use a language that they are not fully fluent in as the main language with their children range from issues with bonding to issues of language development. Focusing on the language aspect, children need a robust and varied input to fully develop in a language, and to be exposed to a level of language that promotes on-going vocabulary and structural development as well as increasing cognitive proficiency in the language. The worst case scenario is that the children end up struggling in school because their language level and abilities are not age-appropriate due to lack of the right types of input. So in this sense, the parents choice to use English to help their children in English-language education may very well actually be working against them. Far better to arrive at school with a very well-developed home language and then build English on that strong foundation.
A second, but not secondary, issue is related to culture and identity. Children in Hong Kong also take “Chinese” in school, but rather than studying the Cantonese used all around them, they almost exclusively (in English-language schools at least) study Mandarin, which is a completely different language. So then the children are learning in and studying two foreign languages – but not their own language. In some cases, they may have enough family members speaking Cantonese to them that they can use this language too, but at least some of the families I met were in the situation of having school-aged children who had very little Cantonese. This means that the only language they can use to communicate with their extended family is English, rather than the language of their community and culture. These children are essentially third-culture kids being raised as strangers within their own culture.
So what should parents in Hong Kong, and elsewhere (this problem is not limited to Hong Kong, of course) do to give their children the best chance of being successfully bilingual and acquiring the languages that the children need and the languages that the parents want? My answer is to start at home, doing what you do best and what your children need first – your own language. Choose at least one parent to pass on the home language, and to be active in this process. If the other parent wants to use English, and is fluent enough for this to be a viable choice for a parenting language, then you can do both at home using the one-parent, one-language model. But the community language should not be sacrificed or neglected in the chase for higher status languages – the better you do your job at home with your own language, the better prepared your children will be to add other languages. The bottom line is that Cantonese children should speak Cantonese – for them, it is more important in the early years than any other language. It’s what makes them a part of their family, extended family, culture and identity. Give them this first, and then plan to add in the other languages (within reason!) that you think are important for your children too.