Parent Spotlight: Terri
The Parent Spotlight Series is a set of blog posts featuring different parents in their journeys to raise bilingual children.
From talking to many Chinese parents of my generation, I sense a strong desire to pass on our culture and heritage language to our kids. But, many of us grew up here, with English as our dominant language. We often don’t feel “qualified” to teach Chinese, or simply don’t believe it’s in the realm of possibility given the unfortunate “jook sing” stereotypes.
When my eldest son was born, I had no expectation that my son could speak Cantonese — I was the only Cantonese-speaking parent after all, so I didn't even try.
I am now SO thankful I met the group of local Toronto parents I know now, who inspired me to start this bilingual journey when my son turned 1.5 years old. If it weren't for them, he would not be bilingual today (he just turned 3).
It is now a personal mission of mine to inspire parents like my former self (and maybe even you!), to let you know it is possible. You don't need the "perfect conditions" (two native parents, etc) to do this. And I want to show you this by highlighting different families in their journeys AS THEY ARE DOING IT.
The path to raising multilingual children is messy, and nonlinear. And that’s okay. I hope that from reading about other people's [messy] experiences, you'll give it a shot too!
And with that, we'll kick off the series with our first parent spotlight — Terri!
Julius reading a Chinese picture book
Terri, tell us about your family and kids
Joey is 5. Julius is 3.
Only I (mom) speak Chinese. Dad speaks mainly English, but dabbles in French and reads to the kids in French. We established the "one parent one language" rule right from the start of life for both of them.
We understood that in order to stick to this, both parents had to be on board. We never “translated” for the other partner who does not understand. There were no hurt feelings or feeling left out when I spoke to the kids and vice versa.
My Chinese is functional. I can speak fluently and can cuss like a pro after years of working at a Chinese restaurant. However, my literacy did not extend beyond my own name and a handful of animals that are on a typical menu.
Their dad’s Chinese is non existent.
"We never 'translated' for the other partner who does not understand. There were no hurt feelings or feeling left out when I spoke to the kids and vice versa." — Terri
How did you start teaching Chinese?
We decided right from the start that being multilingual was the best gift we can give our kids. It’s a useful skill no matter what they end up doing in life. Right from the womb we’ve been talking to them in multiple languages.
At the start it was rough. I was having a one-way conversation with my babies. Both my kids were delayed in terms of language. They were both late talkers. However, the question is so what? Do these milestones matter when they end up multilingual?
Both kids now switch easily between 3 languages. When they communicate with each other, it is already a mix of all 3.
Though it is still early, I have expectations they will be at least fluent, if not literate.
What are your language goals?
My goal is that my kids can know enough of Chinese to be functional, and to be functionally literate.
If they can read a simple novel or poem and appreciate the literature for what it is, I will be very happy.
I hope they can at least read a newspaper and be able to communicate with relatives in their language.
What is your approach to teaching Chinese?
"One parent one language" is important in this house. All media is ONLY in non-dominant language. Cartoons are in Cantonese/Mandarin or French, NOT English.
We depended heavily on Sage books. Sage books taught ME the first 500 words and I’ve built from there. We spend an hour a night reading (non negotiable).
We recognize having this type of time is a privilege not afforded to everyone, and especially not our parents when they first came to Canada. Teaching a second language is a commitment—not just of time, but a financial one as well—that we feel privileged to be in a position to do.
What is the most difficult thing about raising bilingual kids?
The hardest part is self discipline. I need to remember to only speak Chinese to the kids. Now that the oldest is in school, English is filtering in (French too since she’s in French Immersion). I often have to say “Say that again” in Chinese.
At this stage of their development, it’s on us as parents to be consistent.
What is the most rewarding thing about raising bilingual kids?
I was born in Canada and my working class parents were out of the house about 14-18 hours a day. I was mostly raised by my illiterate grandmother.
I sometimes went weeks without seeing my parents since I was asleep by the time they came home from work and already off to school before they got up. No matter how much I wanted to learn Chinese, there was nobody (and no tech at the time) to teach me.
Possibly my proudest moment as a mom was when my 5 year old, who was spending time at the grandparents’, read a simple book to them. My parents were floored that my daughter could read Chinese, a skill they never passed on to me.
They thought my daughter memorized the pages so they tested her. When they realized she really could recognize characters, I could see the shock in their faces and the pride in their eyes that their grandkids would be able to read their language, even though their own kids couldn’t.
They praised the effort I spent on the kids and lamented the time they never could take for us. I could feel the lost years and hear the regret in their voices. It was the moment they knew that they never failed as parents and their grandkids can carry on the language.
"I could see the shock in their faces and the pride in their eyes that their grandkids would be able to read their language, even though their own kids couldn’t." — Terri
Any advice for parents who are waffling about whether to start?
Stick to your routine.
I had read a study saying all those cute things parents do for language learning (activities, arts, flashcards, etc) do little compared to just reading with them.
For us, that’s turned out to be true. While we did try to do some activities, we prioritized just reading. Since I am illiterate myself, we started on the Sagebooks together.
Just read. Don’t be afraid.
I had to look up words using Pleco so many times. My daughter thought that was just a part of reading.
When I was away one night, she asked daddy to read a Chinese book. He said he couldn’t read. She said “just use Pleco like mommy does”.
It is a journey for the entire family and don’t be afraid of what level you’re at. Just do it together.
What is on your wishlist?
I would like to find my kids pen pals.
Any funny stories you can share?
I was at the grocery store with my then about 3 year old daughter. A fairly large person was in front of us. My daughter was very excited and screamed quite loudly, “Mommy, mommy loooook. A really big bum”.
Thankfully it was in Chinese.
What are your favourite books?
There was a period I was growing frustrated that my daughter only wanted to look at the pictures and not let me read to her.
Then one day she explained how an aqueduct worked to me based on one of the drawings. I’ve since learnt to relax and let the kids look at and interact with whatever books they want how they want (as long as they’re not throwing them).
They take from the books more than we realize most of the time.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Raising my own language level was a must to stay a step ahead of the game.
In very guilt free fashion, I downed a LOT of C-Dramas (with Chinese subtitles to help with word recognition). I found web novels (smutty, trashy, you name it) and indulged in fantasies about Wuxia heroes kicking butts. I sought out novels with English translations and read chapters back to back between Chinese and English (using Pleco a lot).
I started with having to look up every 3 words, to now getting most things in context and can get away with only looking up 1-2 words per paragraph.
Do whatever you need to do to stay a step ahead of the language game. I have watched so many smutty C-Dramas in the last 3 years. Do whatever you have to do and feel no guilt.
"Do whatever you need to do to stay a step ahead of the language game. I have watched so many smutty C-Dramas in the last 3 years. Do whatever you have to do and feel no guilt." — Terri
Here is Joey reading Tang poems with Mom :) I love her expression at the end ♥️