Losing Your First Language: Cantonese

From Face[t]s of First Language Loss, by Sandra G. Kouritzin (Routledge, 1999), pp. 164-165:

Nellie remembers that she really didn’t want to come here from Hong Kong when she was 6 years old, and she remembers saying “I don’t want to go there; I don’t know how to speak the language” (October 6th, 1995, p. 1). At first, she was really quiet in class, and she’d spend time on her own during recess, and eat lunch alone, because she was too afraid to talk to anybody, but she remembers also feeling confident during math class because her math skills were so far advanced. After her first year (Grade 2), which she spent in an ESL class with six other students from different grades and different first languages, she began to feel more confident in English, but she sometimes slipped in Cantonese words when she got excited, and then she became fluent, and then she began using English at home. Her parents even commented to her that “it’s good that you learned English, but when you’re home, we’d like you to speak Cantonese” (October 6th, 1995, p. 2). But, there was no one in her school or her neighborhood who spoke Cantonese, and she was able to speak to her siblings and her parents in English without being punished, and so that is what she did. From that time forward, she remembers being quiet whenever she was immersed in a Cantonese-language environment.

The pampered baby in her family, Nellie found that language loss did not really affect her relationships with her father or sister, but it did make her relationships with her mother and her brother more distant. As her brother was never able to become comfortable in English, he chose not to respect her language abilities, refusing even to slow his speaking pace, or adjust his vocabulary, in Cantonese. Nellie speaks of him with coldness. Her mother now admits that she really disliked Nellie when Nellie was growing up because her mother was unable to understand her.

As a teenager and young adult, Nellie had a long-term relationship with a Caucasian boyfriend. Her parents, particularly her mother, were extremely upset by the relationship, even moving to Toronto in the hope that she would forget about him. Their plan backfired; Nellie instead refused to leave Vancouver, and moved out on her own. Over time, and with the evolution of her relationship, she decided to move to Toronto, but, by the time she announced her decision to her parents, they had already made arrangements to move back to Vancouver. Nellie was also frustrated by Chinese cultural standards. Whereas she was an above-¬≠average student who didn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs, who never got into trouble, who didn’t date until she was 16, and who took on responsibility in school, she didn’t meet the criteria for a “good” Chinese girl. Only over time, when Nellie was in her mid-20s, and with Canadianization did her parents come to appreciate her in Canadian terms.

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Filed under Canada, China, education, language, migration

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