A Bilingual Child: Looking for some advice

Mechanical Painting

I couldn’t find an appropriate image, but I really like this painting by Mark ChadwickCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I recently saw a video of a friend who is bringing her son up to speak English and some Portuguese.  I have a lot in common with them due to the age of the child (about 3), the fact that they come from the same city as me and we have similar backgrounds.

They are also different because they both speak English as a first language and, instead of bringing their child up to be bilingual by speaking two languages at home, or some variety on that, they are making sure he knows certain words in Portuguese.  There are many advantages to doing this, for example, they avoid bad Portuguese while at the same time make their child aware of other languages/cultures early on and also prepare him for learning a language later in life, for example.

One thing that I was struck by was how the parents ask their son ‘What’s X in Portuguese?’ and their son was easily able to tell them.  They ran through about 15 different vocabulary items and their son was able to tell them very quickly what the translation was.  I was impressed.

This is something that we have never done.  To simplify our arrangement, I speak in English and everybody else speaks in Portuguese, but I have never checked if he knows there are two languages or if he is aware that monkey is the English for ‘macaco’.  I have mentioned before in other blog posts, and to anyone who will listen, that I have a sneaky suspicion that he doesn’t even realise that he is being exposed to two different languages

So I have a few questions for those who have more experience of bringing up multilingual children.

1. Did you explicitly ask your child what the word was in a different language or did you just speak the different languages at home assuming that the child would sort it out in his own sweet time?

2. If you did make it explicit that there were two or more languages at what age did you start doing this?

3. If you didn’t highlight the two languages do you feel it made a difference in their language acquisition?

4. Am I being just being a relatively normal parent and finding something to worry about where there isn’t really an issue at all?

If you have any answers, please leave a comment below, write your own blog and link back to this or find some other way of letting me know.  I am genuinely interested in what other people have done as I have found it hard to find any mention of this from my research.

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A Bilingual Child: Speaking in Chunks

Balti Lamb Tikka Saag

I could murder a Ruby Murray (Simmo1024)

I have been a teacher of English as a foreign language for quite some time now, which means that it is very rare that I read something that revolutionises the way I see language or the best ways to teach it.  This might mean that I have become a bit old in the tooth and set in my ways, but I try to combat this by remembering a few things that I read many aeons ago that did completely change the way I view my profession.  And because I deal with language, when my view of language changes it changes my view of life and how I relate to it.

One such moment of clarity was while I was studying for my Diploma in teaching English about ten years ago.  I read a book called ‘The Lexical Approach’ and its follow-up ‘Implementing the Lexical Approach’ by Michael Lewis.  At the time there were a lot of controversial ideas in these books about how we use language, how we learn language and the best ways to teach language.  Among these ideas were the fact that vocabulary, or lexis*, is far more important than grammar and that we shouldn’t worry about individual sounds when teaching pronunciation but on things such as word stress, sentence stress and intonation.

One of the main outcomes of the Lexical Approach has been to accept that we don’t construct sentences by putting individual words together.  Instead, we have sort of prefabricated chunks of language that we can use in whole or in part.  For example, if we really want a cup of tea we don’t search in our minds for the word and then the word would or ‘d and then think of the word love, followed later by and then cup to soon be followed by of and then finally the search for the word that means tea.  The Lexical Approach teaches us that we have stored in our minds the expression I’d love with a slot that could filled with other fully formed expressions like an apple, a Ruby Murray or a cup of tea.

And so it was with some interest that I have been following my son’s journey on his language acquisition.  Would he learn language in individual words, or would he acquire chunks of language.  After all, just because we learn and use a second language in chunks, doesn’t necessarily mean we would learn our first language in the same way.

Cover of "The Gruffalo"

Daddy reads when, and what, he is told to read.

From the age of about 1 it seemed as if the ideas of the Lexical Approach wouldn’t really tell me much about how we learn our first languages.  My son, Mr. T, was picking up and using individual words.  He learnt the colour ‘blue’ and the adjective ‘big’ and the word ‘plane’.  After a while he might say ‘big plane’, but it still seemed as if he was thinking about the two individual words, rather than using them together.

And things started to change.  He never learned the word ‘read‘ or the word ‘book’, but that didn’t stop him saying ‘Daddy read book now.’  While we were in the UK this usage of chunks of language exploded.  He came out with fully formed expressions such as ‘See you later’, ‘Look out the window’ and Go home Noel!’

And so I am pleased to report that my totally unscientific observations have proven that the Lexical Approach is 100% true for both first and second language acquisition.


*Lexis isn’t really the same as vocabulary.  Vocabulary is usually thought of as individual words, whereas lexis is more about individual words and the way they appear with other words to form expressions or phrases.

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Flat Hunting: His Granddad’s Grandson

For sale signs

To let or buyby Boyce Duprey CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

We are looking for a new flat at the moment.  We did have plans to build our own house, but thanks to the interminable bureaucracy that is the Brazilian government we have had to put these plans on hold for a while.

My dad, back in the UK, has a thing about houses and flats.  He finds it almost impossible to walk past an estate agent’s without looking in the window to see the prices of property in the area and to see if there are any bargains going.  He is quite happy to go and view houses and think about what he could do to them to improve them.

If he were with us in Brazil he would be like a pig in muck.  And so, it seems, is his grandson.

We showed our son a couple of properties online and he was enthralled.  He loved looking at all the pictures and we took the opportunity to describe some of the things we could see in the pictures, things like the names of the rooms and some of the furniture.

We then took him with us to see some of the flats and told him we were going the ‘apartamento’.  Mr. T was in his element.  It helped that the first couple of flats were empty so he could run around without us worrying he was going to break something.  He quickly learnt the Portuguese word ‘apartamento‘ but seems to have decided that it should be spoken with an English accent so that the final ‘o’ rhymes with ‘toe’.  Do I really sound like that when I speak Portuguese?

It has now developed into an obsession, though.  Yesterday we only saw one flat, but there were tears as we were leaving amid demands for another ‘apartamento’.  During the evening we were having some quiet time before going to bed and all of a sudden Mr. T started asking about more ‘apartamentos.

I think his grandfather, or doe doe as Mr. T calls him, will be very proud.  Despite living half way around the world, it is clear that he is his grandfather’s grandson.

Further Reading

Over my holiday I read ‘Dublin’ by Edward Rutherford.  It is a romantic history of the city and, while not the greatest book in the world, did provide some worthwhile insights into the home of my grandfather.


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Hello, It’s Good to Be Back

Oasis soup

Oasis Soup by atomicjeep CC BY 2.0

As you probably haven’t noticed, I haven’t written anything on here for about a month or so. I went to the IATEFL conference in the UK and decided to make a bit of a holiday out of it for both myself and my son.  As my wife couldn’t get time off from teaching at university it meant leaving Mr. T with my parents while I went off and developed myself at the foremost English teachers’ conference.  I was a bit worried about Mr. T not being comfortable with my parents, so we went back to Birmingham a couple of weeks early so he could get used to them again.

I needn’t have worried as he had a wonderful time with my folks, going to a safari park, visiting a fire station, going on a choo choo train and much, much more besides.  His English has improved far more than I could ever have expected.  Before we went, he seemed to be entering a phase of improving all of his language skills, but while in the UK it was unbelievable how much and how quickly his vocabulary increased.

I also learned a lot at the IATEFL conference, as well as meeting up with lots of old and new friends.  I really must try to get to more of those conferences.  I gave a talk about using linguistic landscapes to teach English that seemed to be well received.  I have this idea to write a book about it, if I can just find the time.

The one thing that I learned outside the conference was also a bit startling: it seems that it is now 2o years since Britpop was a thing in the UK.  The likes of Oasis, Blur, Suede and Pulp formed a large part of the soundtrack to my days at university,so to realise that it is now 20 YEARS since I was a carefree student just doesn’t bear thinking about.



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Carnival in Curitiba: Zombie Walk

Ready for the Zombie Walk, Curitiba

Ready for the Zombie Walk

We don’t do carnival in Curitiba.

We have a couple of pre-carnival days a couple of weeks before the big holiday, but from the Friday before carnival the vast majority of people in this city escape to the beach, another city in Brazil that celebrates carnival or anywhere else at all.

The city is left to people who have to work, have no way of getting out or who just don’t like the idea of carnival.

There are a surprising number of Brazilians who actively dislike carnival.  A lot of them live in Curitiba.

The city is empty.  There is no traffic.  The restaurants that are open don’t have queues.  It is relaxing walking around the parks without the normal hordes.  It is almost like a ghost town.

Except the ghosts are zombies.

Because, while we don’t have samba and blocos, we do have a very alternative crowd left in the city.  The sort of people into psychobilly music, the living dead and motorbikes.  So they get together and have their own parade through the city. A parade of zombies.

A lot of people put a lot of effort into their costumes.  There are references to various films, songs and video games.  The creativity is astounding.

There are also people who just slap a bit of red make-up on at the last-minute.

They all get together in one part of the city and walk to another part where there is live music of the pstchobilly/heavy metal variety.  There are Hells Angels and families, lots of young people and the odd pensioner.

Funnily enough, there is hardly any police presence and, to my eyes at least, not a bit of bother.

So next year if you are in Brazil but don’t fancy the same old carnival routine, come down to Curitiba for a bit of peace and quiet and a lot of zombies.

We don’t do carnival in Curitiba.  We do the walking dead.

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Zombie Walk Curitiba Official Site

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Another alternative carnival

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Reading Aloud

English: Interesting Story

An Interesting Story (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I first started writing this blog, I posted a number of reviews of books that we were reading to our son.  I had envisaged this being a regular thing, perhaps every couple of weeks or so.

I soon stopped because, although we have a lot of books in both Portuguese and English, we accidentally developed a core of about 15 books or so that we would read again and again.  These were books that we as parents lie, but also that Mr. T, our son, also liked.

It is no secret how important reading aloud to your children is.  We have been reading to Mr. T ever since he was born and it is one of the best parts of the day.  Even without the educational benefits that come with reading to our son I would be loath to give up this exercise.  Recently, however, we have been seeing some of the fruits of our pleasurable labour in his language as well as just finding the time to bond.

Reading to himself

One of the joys of the last few weeks has been to see our son getting a book out from under the bed and reading it.  Obviously, at 2 and a half he can’t actually read, but he does do a good impression of it.  He sits up in bed with his legs crossed and opens the book at the first page.  He then babbles away to himself about what he can see in the picture before turning the page and doing the same thing again.

I love to see this.  Apart from it being funny to watch it also means, hopefully, that we are well on the way to encouraging Mr. T to see books as a natural thing to use in his free time, and not just something that has to be picked up because you are told to.


T for Mr. T (Scootie)

Reading letters

He has learnt to recognise the letter ‘T’ and he can even write it now thanks his vovô showing him how to do it on a blackboard.  Whenever he sees the letter ‘T’ he shouts it out with wild abandon and repeats it just to make sure that we saw it as well.  He has started to recognise some of the other letters in his name as well as the letter ‘A’.

We are not trying to push him to read letters as I know there are grave doubts about trying to do this at such a young age.  However, he is very interested in letters so we encourage him to do it so long as he wants to.

Learning language

One of the main reasons to read aloud to a child is to help their language learning, and this is perhaps especially important for a bilingual child as it is a great opportunity to provide further exposure in a minority language.  One of the most favorite books in our house is ‘The Gruffalo‘.  It is so beloved by all of us that we have been reading since day 1.

A couple of weeks ago, as my wife was reading it to him before bedtime, he started to say some of the words at the same time as my wife.  Over the next couple of days we encouraged him to do this more and now he can say practically all of the end rhyme words throughout the story.  He has also started to do this with other books that he has heard practically all his life.

At the moment he only really uses these words when the book is being read, not in his every day life.  But I am sure that this shows he is aware of more words than he is using and that pretty soon he is going to be ready to start producing even more vocabulary.

Children's books

Children’s books (zetson)

Future Reading

I am aware of some disagreements over how to teach bilingual children to read.  Some people say you should teach them to read one language at a time, others that you can teach both together.  I’d love to hear people’s experiences in the comments sections below.

Further Reading

There is of course some wonderful material out there on the internet about why parents should read to their kids and how to go about it.  3 blogs that I have read and found particularly motivating are:

Bilingual Children: Why reading is important from multilingualparenting.com

My Favorite Way to Get a Bilingual Child Reading More in the Minority Language from bilingualmonkeys.com

Teaching a Multilingual Child to Read and Write from expatchild.com

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A Bilingual Child: Not blue

Variations of blue

The future is bright, the future is blue (Wikipedia)

One of Mr. T’s first words wasblue‘.  This is hardly surprising as my football team back in the UK, Birmingham City, are nicknamed Blues.  I am certain that this is due to the fact that they play in blue rather than a near-lifetime of giving me the blues.  Whatever, the reason, I made sure he was exposed to the name for the colour very early on in his life with songs and chants that it was almost inevitable that it would be one of his earliest words.

Since then, other colour words have been very slow coming.  He will say ‘red’ and has something approaching ‘black’ but sounds more like ‘ba‘.  He has a word for ‘white’ that is similar to the English, and he knows the word ‘orange’, but only in the context of ‘The Gruffalo’.

The interesting thing is that all the colour words he uses are English ones.  Our theory for why this should be so is the mere fact that the English words are generally a lot shorter and easier to say; compare ‘red’ with its Portuguese equivalent of ‘vermelho‘.

He understands most other colour words, in both English or Portuguese, he just hasn’t got around to remembering how to say them.  To get around this he has devised a cunning strategy.

Yesterday evening I picked him up from school and the teacher had drawn an alligator on his hand, or a ‘jacaré‘ as it is known in Portuguese and to Mr. T.  The jacaré was green so I asked him what colour it was and he looked at it for a bit and then proudly declared ‘Not blue!’


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