My Cantonese was awful, most of my Chinese family would say it still is awful (we’re a blunt people, aren’t we?). Both my parents are from Hong Kong but I was brought up in England, I spoke only Cantonese until the age of 4 and then went to school and, until I had my first son in 2011, hadn’t really spoken Cantonese since. Like many failed bilinguals, I could understand a lot of my mother tongue, could string together the odd stuttery sentence but as soon as the conversation got more challenging than that of a 4 year old, I got stuck. Why am I telling you this? Because I get asked about how to start a playgroup all the time. And the biggest doubt that potential group leaders have is about their level of Cantonese. I would like to officially say “Don’t let that stop you!” and here’s why:
You don’t know who’s out there until you try to meet them
When I first started PlayCantonese in 2011 there was nothing in the UK to support Cantonese speakers younger than Chinese school age, now there are playgroups running all over the country. It all started with a discussion thread on cantonese.sheik where parents were trying to find a time to meet up – it dragged on for weeks trying to find a time and a date to suit everyone and I realised that someone need to just name a regular time, date and location and those who could make it, would, those who couldn’t, wouldn’t. I was amazed by who turned up. There were parents fluent in Cantonese as well as Mandarin, non-Chinese speakers looking to give their kids an extra edge with a tonal language and lots of people like me, BBC, professional with young kids. I was also amazed by the resources that people brought with them, in the very first meet up in my garden, parents brought CDs and picture books and lots of great ideas. None of this would ever have happened without those parents.
Good Cantonese speakers will come to the group – let them do the talking
The second time we all got together was for a dimsum, by then 30 people had signed up so we hired a room in a restaurant (which became standing room only) and I spent most of that meal coercing better Cantonese speakers than me to do the speaking. We got a mum to read a story and another mum had really generously brought a stack of Cantonese nursery rhyme CDs she’d made to give away.Now, in PlayCantonese sessions we find that parents are learning from the better Cantonese speakers and I frequently quiz other parents on bits of vocabulary I’m missing. When I hold a session myself, I prepare a lot but am often caught short. No-one is suprised when mid-way through reading a story I stop, stare blankly and whisper to another parent, “How do you say ‘rainbow’ again?”. Don’t be embarrassed! We push our kids to give it a go, we should do so too!
You don’t have to do a PlayCantonese playgroup – a simple meet up is great too
PlayCantonese started from a meet up but it could have stayed at meet ups and been just as productive. There is no need to go the whole hog of renting a room and putting together a curriculum etc if you don’t want to. Try signing into the PlayCantonese PlayDate Finder to see who is near you and send them an email asking if they’d like to meet up. You never know who’ll you’ll meet and what ideas and suggestions they’ll have and where that can take you.
If you don’t do it, who will?
How to start a playgroup
- Decide what you would like to do during sessions
We sing a few common Cantonese nursery rhymes, tell a story and play a game each session but the best sessions encourage the parents and kids to talk to each other so they can make friends and build relationships outside of the sessions. We’re kind of like a dating service 🙂 This means that in a 45 minute session, there is usually only about 15 – 20 minutes of activity and the rest of the time is given to the parents and kids to chat and play
- Find a group leader
If you take the format above the group leader job is really easy. You would just have to sing a few songs and pick a story to tell (I usually pick a book in any language and translate into Cantonese on the fly). Don’t worry if you aren’t fluent in Cantonese – my Cantonese is terrible!! (I’m a BBC, so not 100% fluent, I regularly have to stop mid way through a story to ask another parent for some vocab)
- Find a location
This is also quite easy. I have found that most libraries are happy to have us as long as the sessions are free and someone is happy to be DBS (the new CRB) checked. Libraries also have hidden resources like boxes of instruments and toys, cushions to sit on etc. Otherwise, some other group leaders have found church halls, restaurant rooms and rooms in Chinese community centres that are very cheap to rent