How To Read To Your Child When Your Cantonese Is Not Fluent

Amongst the many benefits of reading to your child, one of them is that you will help boost language acquisition and literacy skills. This is especially important for a minority language, to increase the exposure to the language, to introduce a wider range of vocabulary, to normalize the use of the language, and to create positive experiences in the language.

If you are reading this, you probably already understand these benefits. The challenge lies in the difficulty of reading in Cantonese when you are not fluent.

  • Cantonese is a dual layer language. What you read is not how you talk. Most Chinese books come in Standard Chinese, and one has to translate to Colloquial Cantonese.
  • There is no phonetic Cantonese guide in most books. Unlike books for Mandarin speakers, there are no Zhuyin or pinyin guides. You can look up the pronunciation of words one by one, but that is really labour intensive. And if you can’t read Chinese, then it is near impossible.

So, reading to your child in Cantonese will definitely require more effort, not just picking up a book and winging it. Here’s some ideas of what you can do:

Outsource it or learn from others:

  • Ask someone fluent to read to your child – this is the best idea, and requires the least effort (on your part). Try to be involved in the reading, and learn from it, so that you can read it next time.
  • Ask someone fluent to record a reading (either video or audio). You can either play it like an audio book, or just learn the vocabulary from the recording so that you can read it next time. This is great for friends and relatives who live far away. and will help the children to build a bond with relatives who they don’t see regularly. You can also play it in the background, in the car like an audio book
  • There are Cantonese book readings on YouTube that can help you with the Cantonese reading.
  • Books with CDs/ audio downloads. (Find those that read in Colloquial Cantonese.)

Translate the books

If you can read Chinese, translate the book from Standard Chinese. It is easier than translating from English, as the Chinese will provide a better guide to the sentence structures, and to the vocabulary. Most ideal, of course, would be a bilingual book in Chinese- English, where you have the guidance in Chinese, and have the original English to make sure you did not misunderstand the Chinese words. I am always happy when I see a Chinese- English bilingual book in the library, regardless of whether it is Simplified Chinese or Traditional Chinese.

Otherwise you can translate from English or other languages. I just find that this requires using more brain cells (at least for me).

Either way, Pleco or other dictionaries will be come in handy when searching for the right vocabulary.

I’ve reached the stage where I can translate simple books on the fly or after hearing it read once or twice in Cantonese. Depending on your level of comfort, it is not always necessary to write down the full translated text, but you might find it helps to ensure consistency each time. Here’s an example of a full Colloquial Cantonese translated text –  Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do you See.


What if I try to wing it and come across words that I can’t translate?

Don’t fret. Either say that word in English (or your dominant language) or look it up on the spot. That depends on whether it will disrupt the flow of the reading. It is of course not as ideal, but it will be OK. You can look it up later, and you’ll know the Cantonese word the next time when you read the book again – and by then, your child might know what you are referring to, as he or she has heard it in English. For me, with limited time and priorities, I don’t always translate everything. I struggle with names of Disney princesses and of dinosaurs. I just say the names in English. Another thing to note is when your child see you looking up words, it will demonstrate the importance of lifelong learning.

Remember, Hongkongers code switch all the time, so it is not the end of the world if your Cantonese storytime has some English peppered in. Your child will still learn the grammar structures of Cantonese.


What if the book is too difficult for me to read in Cantonese?

Read what you can in Cantonese. If you have to mix it up in English and Cantonese, it is OK.   Something is better than nothing. And you’ll improve with each reading.


What if my child doesn’t understand much Cantonese?

If the child doesn’t know Cantonese, it may be too hard or too boring to hear an entire  book in Cantonese and not understand a word. It is like being in a foreign country. For young children pick a book that the child is familiar with in another language. We started with Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do you See.

If a child starts learning Cantonese at an older age, the easier books might be too babyish. Instead pick a book that the child is interested in:

  • Repeat each sentence in English and Cantonese.
  • If the book is too long and you don’t have the stamina for it, then say a few key phrases in Cantonese and slowly increase it with each reading. I might repeat the word in English and Cantonese, and I try to increase the amount of Cantonese and reduce the English with each reading. E.g. 愛哭的公主. The 公主 princess 公主 who likes to cry. The 公主who likes to cry. the 公主who likes to喊. 鍾意喊嘅公主.

I try to pick Chinese books for this, as it helps them associate Chinese characters with Cantonese. I can also point out some words. But English books work too.


I hope some of these ideas work for you. These are purely my opinions and what has worked for our family and our extended family (who have varying levels of Cantonese proficiency). Along your journey, you will find what works for your family and your circumstances. And it may not follow what experts recommend. Just experiment and find your way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *