News / Vancouver

'Lay ho': Conversational Cantonese school reconnects kids with heritage in Vancouver

Many 3rd, 4th generation immigrants don't learn Cantonese at home

Karine Ling is a Cantonese school teacher who says there is demand for classes focused on conversational cantonese, heritage and culture because many 2nd and 3rd generation Chinese immigrants don't speak Cantonese at home with their kids but they still want them to know the language.

Jennifer Gauthier/Metro / Vancouver Freelance

Karine Ling is a Cantonese school teacher who says there is demand for classes focused on conversational cantonese, heritage and culture because many 2nd and 3rd generation Chinese immigrants don't speak Cantonese at home with their kids but they still want them to know the language.

Many third and fourth generation immigrants don't speak their grandparents’ mother tongue but some in the Cantonese community are trying to buck that trend by enrolling their children in a new type of Chinese school.

There are a several Cantonese schools popping up in Vancouver that focus on conversational, rather than written language and cater to those who have no exposure to Cantonese at home. This comes at a time when Mandarin has surpassed Cantonese as the most widely spoken Chinese-language in the Lower Mainland, according to the 2016 census.

Karine Ling teaches an after-school Cantonese class at David Livingstone Elementary and starts her courses with the basics, no matter what age her students are.

“For the first class, I teach them how to say hello and good bye. These are things you don’t usually learn at Chinese school because you would learn at home,” she explained.

“But these kids haven’t.”

Ling, 24, teaches a class of 11 children ages four to 13. The program, called Red Apple, focuses on conversational Cantonese, in contrast to the traditional curriculum that many Chinese children in Vancouver, including Ling, completed.

Historically, Chinese schools in immigrant communities stuck to teaching the written language. Spoken Cantonese is usually taught by parents, Ling explained.

But an increasing number of people, especially third and fourth generation immigrants in Vancouver’s Cantonese community, don’t speak the language anymore.

“Some parents have zero knowledge of Cantonese and I would have never guessed there would be such a gap,” said Ling, who is second-generation Chinese-Canadian.

“Most of those parents don’t even know how to write their kids’ [Chinese] name. They get their Chinese names from their grandparents,” she said.

Karine Ling is a Cantonese teacher and part-time art teacher.

Jennifer Gauthier/Metro

Karine Ling is a Cantonese teacher and part-time art teacher.

Ling says she also has several students who have one Chinese parent and one non-Chinese parent and explains that the class helps them keep in touch with their heritage.

“The kids love when I tell them stories about where words originate from or even Chinese New Year stories, or the mooncake stories.”

As the class progresses, Ling incorporates phrases and even skits, with the older children. She credits her approach to her experience as a student in the French immersion school system.

“We want them to, if they go to Chinatown or Richmond, to be able to order food – something that they can use in their daily life.”

Ling anticipates demand for this kind of Cantonese-language classes will increase as the current cohort of Chinese-Canadians born in Canada grow old enough to have children.

Organizers of another Cantonese school, at Mon Keang in Chinatown, say they are already struggling to keep up with the demand for classes.

The Youth Collaborative for Chinatown group offers “Saturday School” classes, where adult students learn beginner and practical Cantonese. It started in 2016 and the 25-person course is so popular it has a one-year long wait list, according to June Chow, co-founder of the YCC.

She says it plans to open a class specifically for kids as well because parents have been asking to enrol their children.

“Parents want their kids to be able to appreciate what it means to be Chinese and Cantonese and to be able to speak with their grandparents,” said Chow.

The Chinese Cultural Centre, also in Chinatown, offers Cantonese classes for preschoolers.

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