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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12 thoughts on “A Bilingual Child: Looking for some advice

  1. Hi Stephen – some great questions, which I am sure are also on many other parents’ minds. My daughters, now adults, grew up to bilingual and these are my answers to your questions:
    1. We just spoke the different languages. The girls learnt to identify the language based on who they spoke it to. I can’t remember pointing out which language a word belonged to, or asking them to say a word in a specific language.
    2. n/a
    3. I can’t see it did.
    4. Based on my experiences, yes, you are being a normal parent, concerned about what’s best for your son 🙂

  2. HI Stephen,

    My child has been growing up listening to French and Portuguese since she was born. We moved to Brazil when she was only 6 months old and the Portuguese took off very quickly and French lacked behind. However with my mother’s 2 month visit and our trips to Paris her French caught up very quickly. I think it’s fair to say that at almost 3 years old she is bilingual.

    1. I always spoke French to her and would ask her from time to time to translate a work from PT to FR. Not too much, i didn’t want it to become annoying for her.
    2. There were two from the moment she was born.
    3. The fact that our “family” lanuage became French after she turned two helped a lot for her to aquire French much quicker. However when she is alone with her mother they tend to go back and forth between PT and FR.
    4. Normal parent trying to find what is best in which i think there is no “golden” rule as every kid is different and learns at different paces.

    Hope it helps.

    • It helps a lot, Waele. I like your idea of asking occasionally what a certain thing is in the other language and I think this is probably the route we are going to go down. Thanks a lot.

  3. Hi Stephen,

    My husband – is Brazilian and speaks 6 languages. He grew up here in Parana and his family in childhood spoke Italian at home, while he picked up Portuguese interacting with others outside the home and then in school. He told me that when he got to school he didn’t know which language was Italian and which was Portuguese and would answer questions in Italian often when they were speaking Portuguese. But it sorted itself out.

    Now he uses Italian for things like counting and anything related to mathematics because it’s the first language he used to learn math. It’s also his go-to language when he gets mad or emotional.

    His mother taught English and he learned but they told me he was the worst in the class, or so they thought until one day at fourteen he took the English language tests and aced them with flying colours. He moved away at fifteen and began a very English speaking life, and also picked up Spanish and French along the way, having learned Latin in school he had no problems. His Italian Spanish and English are amazing. People here don’t like his Portuguese, they make fun of his accent and tell him constantly he doesn’t talk properly. At this point English is now his first language and he really struggles with the Portuguese. He uses words and phrases that are from the time he left, and from the older generation that taught him, so he uses phrases that are seen as “odd” or old fashioned.

    It’s amazing though how learning to be bilingual in childhood is a gateway to acquiring other languages throughout life. My husband, now 37 is still acquiring and developing his language skills.

    With all his experiences/travels/exposure to languages he has the ability to also get into dialects of certain areas. For instance, he learned Spanish in college from his roommates from Spain, and sometime later from a group of Catalonians and then spent time in Argentina and so forth. So within his Spanish language skills he also has the ability to adapt to the local dialect and nuances. Same with Italian.

    Isn’t it amazing? Keep up the good work, it will all be such an asset for your child!

    • That is an amazing sotry, Angela. I am more than a little bit jealous of your husband’s language skills and if our son can pick up half of your husand’s abilities I’d be happy.

      Thanks for taking the time to write his story, it certainly helps to reassure me that it will all be ok in the end.

  4. Yes, Stephen. And all will be okay at the end. You are just a normal parent trying to do the best you can.
    My husband and I speak Portuguese at home, and our firstborn picked up English by watching videos and playing with other kids at parks. When she was getting ready to go to preschool, I started pointing out the difference between languages and making sure her needs would be met/understood at school. So, I would practice with her how to say “xixi” in English or how to ask for “agua”. Just because of school, otherwise I would let it flow. I believe they notice the two languages eventually; especially when you can’t find a single word that translates into the other language (“saudades”, for ex.).
    Our second child, however, did not want to learn Portuguese, even though the whole family only speaks Portuguese. She “decided” to learn when she reached 1st grade and was excited to have a secret language. Nowadays (7th grade), she is thankful she knows Portuguese because she is learning Latin at school and it is helping her decipher words’ meanings.
    It will all work out in the end.

    • Hi Thereza, thanks for telling me your own family’s experience. It really does help to hear of all the different approaches and stories here and on Facebook. It seems that some people are explicit about the two languages and others aren’t, but at the end of the day iit doesn’t seem to make much difference.

  5. I have never made an issue of speaking 2 languages – I speak the minority language at home, and they get plenty of exposure via relatives, media, Tv programmes, books, etc. Occasionally they might translate a little bit for a family member who doesn’t speak one of the languages, but we’ve never pointed it out particularly – they just seem to assume that certain people stick to a particular language

  6. Hi Stephen,

    I really like your blog 🙂

    Since she was born I have spoken English to my daughter and my husband has spoken German (both our native languages). She is now five. In answer to your questions;

    1. We just spoke our own languages and at some point (aged between two or three) our daughter noticed a difference between Daddy’s language and Mummy’s language.

    2. We didn’t make it explicit – she just noticed at some point.

    3. I don’t think so. We’ve remained consistent speaking our own language and I will always answer my daughter in English even if she speaks to me in German. By not making it an issue she switches to whichever language suits the situation and is completely bilingual.

    4. I have friends who have worried about how much of each language their child uses or understands but we never have. Our daughter comes from two cultures and we don’t want her to feel one language should be used more than another. So we accept the language she uses and stay consistent with our own language use. I would say don’t worry, just be consistent.

    Good luck, it’s an interesting journey 🙂

    • Hi Catherine,

      Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. It really does help to get the experience of others.

      I really liked your point about trying to encourage your daughter to be comfortable with whateer language and culture she chooses. This is definitely something I would like to aim for, so maybe the answer is, as you seem to suggest, to stop worrying and just get on with it.

      Thanks again!


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