A Bilingual Child: Mythbusted

Robin Hood, Myth, Bilingual Children

He robbed from the rich and gave to the poor? Has to be a myth by Duncan Harris (CC-BY-2.0)

Before Mr.T was born I had the responsibility of researching how we were going to approach language in our family.  Both Mrs Head of the Heard and I wanted to him to speak both English and Portuguese, but we weren’t quite sure how to go about it.

Thankfully the internet was invented to answer such questions and my findings were surprising.  I was told things like it was hard, but worth it.  It was expensive, but worth it.  I would come up against resistance from other people, but ignore them because it was worth it.  Some kids are slow to pick up either language, but keep at it, because it’s worth it.

The main thing I took away from my research was that it was worth it.

Our experience, after 3 1/2 years, is that it most definitely is worth it.  However, most of the rest of problems haven’t presented themselves.

It can be hard

Obviously I have never had any experience bringing up a monolingual child, but I can’t see it being much easier than bringing up a bilingual one.  I speak English to my son, my wife speaks mainly Portuguese and everyone else uses whatever language they feel like, which is usually their first language.

I have had to go online to find/remember nursery songs and we have made a conscious decision to play TV programmes in the original language.  I have also actively sought out opportunities for my son to be exposed to English so that he doesn’t just think it is some weird thing only his dad does (there are lots of other weird things that only his dad does, but that is beside the point).

But hard?  Difficult?

If this is as difficult as raising a child gets then being a parent really is a piece of cake.

Stonehenge, Myths, Bilingual children

Built by Druids so they’d know what time the pubs opened by Qallnx (CC-BY-2.0)

It can be expensive

Again, this isn’t true.

We have an extensive library of children’s books, with about 75% being in English and the rest in Portuguese.  I guess that if we were only using one language at home we could have made a bit of a saving there.  All the DVDs we have in the house were bought in Brazil and are usually in both English and Portuguese, so we haven’t had much of an expense there.  We go back to the UK every 9 months or so, but that is primarily to keep Mr. T in contact with his UK family and learning English is just a happy bi-product.

Compared to some of my friends who are spending a fortune sending their kids to private language schools or to bilingual schools then we are actually saving money.

You can face resistance from family/friends/educators/doctors…

Not once have we come up against anybody who thinks it is a bad idea for our son to be raised speaking English and Portuguese.  His doctor thinks it is great and regularly practises his own English with our son.  The teachers at his school said they had difficulty understanding him at first, but they have worked extra hard to communicate with him, as they have done with other children who come from a bilingual background.  Friends are envious of him either because they know he is going to speak great English or because they know we won’t have to spend a packet teaching him English.

And when he calls me ‘Daddy’ at school all the mom’s and teachers think it is just the cutest thing ever.

Now, I understand that English is a prestige language and so this could have an impact on other people’s ideas.  However, I know quite a few people from language communities that have less prestige who are also bringing their kids up to be multilingual and not one of them has told me about friction with their friends, relatives or health/education professionals.

Zeus, Mths, Bilingua Children

One of many godly myths by Tilemahos Efthimiadis (CC-BY-2.0)

Some children are slow in picking up both languages

Ok, so there might be a grain of truth in this one, but merely a grain.  Our son is only 3 1/2 so it is still too early to say, but about a year ago we had a few minor worries that his language wasn’t progressing as well as other kids.  We have a good friend who has a son 3 weeks younger than ours, and we were shocked one day when we visited and he was coming out with fully formed sentences, whereas our son could mutter a few words, if that.

But then, all of a sudden, Mr. T’s language started to blossom.  He is still a little behind the average of his peers in Portuguese, but not by much.  He is catching up every day and we no longer have even the merest hint of a worry.  And he understands everything in English, which none of his peers can, so I am pretty confident he is going to end up knowing both languages perfectly.

Of course, there is a chance that he was slightly behind the other kids because this is a totally normal thing.  Children pick up languages at different rates whether they are monolingual or multilingual.  We’ll just never know the reason for our son.

Our Experience

The important thing to remember with this, though, is that it is just our experience.  If we were to try to do this in another country, or even another city in Brazil, we might have more problems.  If I wasn’t a language teaching professional it might have been more worrisome.  If we didn’t have access to Skype and the internet we might not have had so much free contact with grandparents.  If we had been teaching a language other than English we might have had more difficulty finding opportunities for exposure in the minority language.  However, for us, so far, it has been all good.

This post is part of the November edition of the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival.  You can find more information about this excellent project, as well as finding past editions of the carnival, at Piri Piri Lexicon

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4 thoughts on “A Bilingual Child: Mythbusted

  1. I love your financial assessment and reminder that this is way cheaper than a private immersion school. The condition is probably that you are creative and also resourceful in optimizing trips to your minority language country instead of shipping them all to your house on the other side of the globe. Like you, we also tend to purchase minority language materials there, since we don’t have access to an amazing library like we do for our majority language…but we are quite selective because we want them to last. For that reason, they become favorites, read/listened to over and over.
    Also loved your observation about speech delays and that monolinguals also develop speech on a bell curve. We have had to remind people of this over and over too.
    Well done on your investment, Stephen! What a gift you are giving to your family.

    Reply
    • Thanks a lot for your comment, and I would just like to say that enjoy rreading your stuff even if I don’t comment that much at all.

      A lot of the books we have in English have become family favourites, but none more so that The Gruffalo which I think is going to stay with us for a long, long time.

      And it is amazing when you start talking about speech delays how many monolingual people have experienced it as well. Each kid learns in their own time and in their own way, and most of the time there is nothing to worry about. But of course, this doesn’t mean much when it is your kid who is have the problems!

      Reply
  2. Interesting to read about your experience, Stephan. The fact, that I have been to Brazil, helps me imagine you living there 🙂 And yes, I agree with you that the language journey of every multilingual family is different. It has its own ups and downs,and worries. I was worried what language my older child would speak to his sister. I am glad he chose the minority language 😉

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment Galina, and I am very happy you have enjoyed reading my post. From what I have read from most parents of multilingual kids, it all seems to work itself out if we just keep at it.

      Reply

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