Looking at my own experience of Cantonese, there are 3 things I wanted to do for my kids before they reached school age:

  • Create a need for Cantonese
  • Find some Cantonese speaking friends for your kids
  • Get as many Cantonese voices as possible

My son needs to speak Cantonese to speak to me but he knows that I speak the other household languages so, when he started nursery 3 days a week, I was worried that English would soon take over and that this was the end of our Cantonese journey.   Complaining about this at a PlayCantonese session I saw that other mums were in the same situation, even the stay at home mums were concerned.  So, 3 of us clubbed together and hired a Cantonese speaker who liked kids and created a structured playdate every Monday and Tuesday at my place.

This structure is what has made language really come alive for my son and it arrived at just the right time (we started when he was nearly 2.5 years old), just when he was naturally wanting to articulate himself more.  Each week the tutor arrives and the kids play, with the tutor narrating their play in Cantonese (“It looks like you’ve got a train there!  And what’s that?  Train tracks and a bridge!”).  After some free play the tutor introduces the theme of the month, in our Body month they sang a body song (if we can’t find a song online we make one up), drew around their hands and feet and coloured them in, pointed to body parts, stuck stickers on body parts and so on.  Then there is some singing of common nursery rhymes and finally the tutor and a mum take the kids to a local playground for a run around.  When the kids come back, we all have lunch together (the mums take it in turns to cook a simple Chinese meal), with the kids chattering away and having chopstick battles at their kiddy table.

This format has been brilliant for everyone.  My son stands on his toes every morning looking out the window waiting for his friends to arrive.  One of the kids was in the early stages of being a classic failed bilingual i.e. he understood Cantonese but was replying in English; now his Cantonese is voluntary again and he is all smiles arriving for his playdate.  Us mums, meanwhile, get to take it in turns to stay in the house keeping an eye on things and preparing lunch, allowing 2 of us to get some me time without the kids.  Just spending an hour having a coffee and reading a magazine has been a welcome refreshment to my regular weekly routine.

We now have 2 teachers, one who comes on Mondays and another for Tuesdays, as well as special guests who showcase musical instruments or take us around museums.  We have also got the kids writing letters to each other so they get post from their friends (there is nothing more exciting than a letter addressed to you in handwriting, is there?), which has been a lovely extension to the playdate.  It is something I would definitely recommend.

How to set up a nursery group

  1. Find a teacher

    If you are in London, I will be able to recommend some teachers (email info@playcantonese.com), otherwise I would recommend getting online and asking far and wide to find the right teacher.  There are websites dedicated to finding tutors as well as Cantonese focused Facebook groups, gumtree and CantoneseSheik forums.When looking for a tutor, the ultimate is someone with experience of this age group.  This is extremely rare so I would prioritise experience of toddler and pre-school ages over other teaching experience.  The point of the session is not for children to have a sit down lesson, but for them to hear another person speak Cantonese and to interact with other kids also in Cantonese.  I find that this has be drummed into the tutors’ heads as they often tend to try and get the kids to learn 20 new words, which is just impossible and unnecessary at this age!

  2. Find other kids

    If you don’t have other kids in mind then I would use the Cantonese Parents, Babies & Toddlers Facebook group and the PlayCantonese PlayDate Finder.  It is very important to find kids with similar levels of Cantonese – in a group of 4 kids, if one speaks predominantly English ALL the kids will switch to English.  At the same time, if one kid understands Cantonese but needs encouragement to speak it, their Cantonese will blossom in this environment.It is also really important that the parents all like each other!  It sounds cliquey but the hope is that the kids will like each other and have many more playdates – this means you will be spending a lot of time with these parents!

  3. Decide on a structure

    We use the structure below so that the kids know what is going to happen every week:

    pre-9.30 Free play
    9.30  Welcome song; How are you feeling, what did you do last week?; Discuss what today’s session is about; Group themed game
    10.00  Pack up group game
    10.15  Snack
    10.30  Songs, story time, group discussion
    11.00  Free play with specific toys
    11.20  Pack up toys
    11.30  Play outside
    12.00  Lunch

    However, this structure is very involved and a simpler structure of just an hour of play would be equally beneficial

  4. Decide on a curriculum

    This is an added extra.  We found that we needed to give the tutors some guidance, otherwise they would feel like no progress was being made (when in fact the kids were learning how to play with other kids and absorbing tons of new Cantonese) so we wrote a curriculum for the year.  This is made up of subjects the kids would enjoy (dinosaurs, trains, story telling, volcanos etc) and we stick with one subject for at least 2 weeks (I actually think 3 or 4 weeks would be better)