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Our 2 year old son is growing up in a different country (New Zealand) than we did (Brazil).

We try to speak to him in portuguese all times, and we noticed that he is learning english reasonably well at the daycare.

Obviously he does not understand that he speaks 2 different languages yet. But, once he realizes it, I am afraid he will lose interest in portuguese, since he only speaks that with us.

For the people who raised a bilingual child. How did you keep them speaking both languages? What were the challenges?

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Why do you want him to be bilingual? –  Andrew Grimm Apr 6 '11 at 7:23
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@Andrew: Why not? It is his heritage and probably has plenty of cousins speaking only Portuguese... –  Srdjan Jovcic Apr 7 '11 at 22:01
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@Andrew: Indeed "Why not" is the only answer I have for your comment. If my son does not speak Portuguese, he will not be able to speak to hardly anyone in my family. And if you mean only speaking portuguese, well, I am trying to educate him in an english speaking country, so he needs the local language as well. –  pablo Apr 7 '11 at 22:40
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@Andrew that is a misconception that people often have. As you might have seen by the answers bellow, fortunately not a single person had this problem, nor see that as an issue. –  pablo Apr 8 '11 at 7:58
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@Andrew Grimm: that attitude is probably the most damaging idea to ever enter the realm of parenting. Children are designed to learn languages. Artificially limiting their opportunity to learn should be just as unimaginable as keeping them chained to their cribs. Yes, being raised with multiple languages raises the initial "hump" of learning to communicate (i.e. not just random words, but being able to tell others what you think), but after that, being multilingual will actually help the child be better at English than he would otherwise be. –  Martha Jun 3 '11 at 20:50

11 Answers 11

up vote 19 down vote accepted

There are many studies on bilingual children and the most important thing highlighted in those I've read are that exposure to the language in the first six months helps the childs' brain develop the necessary functions to distinguish all the sounds of the different languages.

For example, an average English-speaking adult who starts learning Chinese cannot possibly hear all of the different tones used in Chinese as their brain didn't develop the capacity to do so at an early age. There's an interesting TED talk on it:

http://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_kuhl_the_linguistic_genius_of_babies.html

Our children are exposed to English, Chinese and French and can move between them without thinking about it, but are rarely happy to speak something in a particular language on demand - they don't see it as a party piece, it's just what they do.

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I agree with the general answer but you go too far when saying that adult can't distinguish between the 5 Chinese tones, that's not true. –  Guillaume Mar 30 '11 at 13:43
    
@Guillaume: do you speak a language other than English already? –  JBRWilkinson Mar 30 '11 at 22:08
    
I learned a second and third language at 20+, and while it took a while to learn to "hear" and pronounce sounds that didn't exist in English, I did it. –  ashes999 Mar 30 '11 at 22:33
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@Guillaume - I started learning Chinese at 23 years of age and have been learning for over 8 years. At 3 years of age my sons pronunciation was already much better than mine and he rarely makes mistakes with knowing which tone to use. Adults can definitely distinguish which tone to use, but don't use them as well as children growing up speaking the language :) –  xiaohouzi79 Jun 1 '11 at 3:04
    
While I think that your answer contains very good info, it seems to me that it doesn't actually answer pablo's specific questions. Care to add some? –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 23 '11 at 5:44

Don't worry, keep up educating your kid in two languages. you want your kid to be able to understand your relatives in Brasil. You could keep the interest alive by watching youtube films from brazil, or buy some children dvd's from brazil. I have many friends that are bilingual and none of their kids lost interest in their second (first?) language. On the contrary

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This is a common problem for immigrant families to the US. In nearly all cases that I have seen (I am multilingual myself, so have a tendency to observe) the kids that grew up still speaking their "native" tongue were the ones who had parents that never gave up. Sometimes it's easy, like if the parents don't speak the host country language, but other times it can be difficult to remember. Just keep speaking Portuguese to your kids, all the time.

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While I am not (yet) in your situation, I've been reading a lot about it and it seems many kids do lose the minority language. While kids are very flexible at learning, they are very flexible at unlearning too.

Consider how well you want him to know Portuguese. Well enough to converse with the family is a much lower threshold than well enough to be able to write scholarly Portuguese, for example.

If you can expose him to Portuguese speaking kids, that would be ideal. Most often, if you a really a minority in your area (and not like Spanish speakers in many parts of the US), these will be his family (cousins, &c) who do not speak English very well. Have him spend holidays with the family if possible.

In your day to day interaction, they need to be talked to (not just exposed—TV or passive hearing is not enough—but interacted with) at least a few hours a week in a language or they will lose it. The amount of time can vary, but think on the order of at least 20% of their interaction should be in Portuguese for them to be truly fluent. Some families have rules like "only portuguese in the house" or something. The rules do not matter as such, but they might force you to talk enough Portuguese to go over that threshold.

I recommend Raising a Bilingual Child by Barbara Zurer Pearson where you can find scientific support for all of the above.

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My wife and I were worried about this too and we can't run a rule on the lines of "only Greek in the house" as I don't speak Greek.

What seems to be working for us is my wife and I use Greek as we can (my wife speaks Greek to our daughter 50% of the time) and once she hit 3 1/2 yrs we took her to our local Greek church which runs a Greek Saturday school. Going to that meant that our daughter could see it was not just some odd language that only her mum spoke. I’d recommend you do the same. If the local area already has a reasonable sized Brazilian population I’m sure other parents would have had the same worries and set something like this up.

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I've actually heard that children learn a language well even if one parent speaks the language exclusively to the child. That becomes "Mommy's language", in a way. But then it's important not to mix - "Mommy's language" should stay consistent. I don't have specific sources to point to on this, but I've heard it from a few different places. –  Ziv Mar 29 '11 at 23:19
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We have the same situation. I speak Danish to my son 99% of the time, and my wife speaks German 100% of the time. (We live in Austria, my family is in Denmark.) We understand each other perfectly. Wife doesn't want to speak Danish because she feels that she isn't fluent enough; a fair point to consider. So my son learns Danish only from me, but he understands me perfectly. When he's older, some outside input (community?) would certainly be a good idea. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Apr 5 '11 at 6:15
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One parent; one language. It's what's done in our home. We live in Denmark and my husband speaks only Danish to our son. I use only English (I am fluent in Danish). We speak both Danish and English to each other at home. –  Darwy Apr 26 '11 at 17:32

My family moved from the U.S. to Israel when I was very small, and my younger sister was born in Israel and learned English here. I've also seen how a lot of immigrant families from different countries have handled this. English is probably a lot easier than other languages... but I hope this is helpful.

  • We always spoke English at home. "At home" might not seem like a lot, but it's huge for a kid. That's not something you lose interest in easily - and consider that once he knows the language, maintaining it isn't a major effort.
  • It's true, though, that if the child isn't interested in the language (or in culture available primarily in that language) that he might not become very proficient or eloquent in it - say, up to high-school level.
  • I read a ton; my parents always encouraged me to read in English to keep the language up. They wouldn't let me read anything translated from English to Hebrew, even the translation was more readily available; I had to read the English. Similarly, you can make Portuguese books, movies, music, and culture available to your child. This is a great hook, because for the rest of his life, he can always look on his own for more of what he enjoys.
  • My family moved to a place with a very strong, vibrant English-speaking community. That meant lots of people to speak English with, including other kids my age. It also meant that there were English-speaking activities, ongoing classes, and events to take me to. You might not have this option available, but any other Portuguese-speakers you connect with will widen the circle in which your child finds the language useful and interesting.
  • Private classes. I'm actually not sure what the English phrase for this is - less a class and more of an after-school activity. A few kids doing lots of English-related stuff - reading, writing, games. With just a few other kids, and the time, you could probably organize something like this.
  • When my sister was small, my parents got an English-speaking nanny for her. (Now my Russian in-laws want us to find a Russian-speaking nanny for my daughter...) Obviously this makes a huge difference; the less-used language is at least more firmly ingrained than if they'd taken a more-easily-available Hebrew-speaking nanny.

I can say that my siblings and I have excellent English (some better than others), and the same is true for a lot of other families I've seen, not only English-speaking ones. It might be more difficult if it's very difficult for you to find Portuguese for your son outside of everyday family conversation - but I hope finding such resources is doable.

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This. The one thing I'd add is, whenever possible, send the kids to spend the summer with grandma/grandpa (or some other relative) back in Brazil. Just make sure they come back at least a week before school starts up again, not so much because of the jet lag, but because it can take some time to turn that language switch in your brain, and the teacher looks at you really strangely when you accidentally greet her in the wrong language. –  Martha Jun 3 '11 at 20:59
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Another thing I'd add: to make the "only Portuguese at home" rule really stick, you'll have to limit TV pretty thoroughly. Dunno if it's necessary to go to the extremes my father did (we didn't have a TV set at all), though. –  JPmiaou Dec 27 '11 at 16:57
    
@JPmiaou - Well, at least until he is a certain older when he would be able to have access to Portuguese literature to supplement just talking with his parents (and younger siblings?). –  Adam Mosheh Jul 11 '12 at 21:38
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@AdamMosheh: he doesn't need to be any older to access Portuguese in written form: ask for books from Brazil for every birthday, starting with the board books and picture books. But literature has a hard time competing with TV, even for bookworms, so unless you can get Brazilian TV stations (perhaps via the computer), you'll need to limit television by decree, not by distraction. –  JPmiaou Jul 14 '12 at 4:31

I'm multilingual too, able to turn the language switch in the brain without effort. The important part is growing up in some way surrounded by the language, even if just the parents speak it. Perhaps make a soft "house rule" that Portuguese is the language that is used in the home, and English is only needed outside the home.

You have the advantage that both parents speak the language, so you can implement that house rule automatically. Since your son is so young, he will hear it and learn it all along, even if he doesn't speak it much himself for now. But you'll be surprised: when the grandparents visit and don't speak English, he will be able to communicate with them anyway.

Languages is the key to the world. Teach that being able to speak more than just English is a talent and an asset that will bring many benefits later on.

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What happens when they bring friends home? Then what language gets spoken? (Opportunity for the rule to be broken). –  nGinius Apr 5 '11 at 1:51
    
If the guests don't speak the house language then the guest language should be used. This is also a delicate situation to teach or practice manners: it would be rude to speak the house language in front of guests, except if it's obvious that it's really a private matter. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Apr 5 '11 at 6:09

Make sure they are part of a bilingual community. As they grow older, they need more than just family who speak their "mother tongue". This is where the community provides support for continuation.

Find other people from your country. Start a children's group where the parents and children speak the language. This should help.

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At two years old, your son is very likely aware that he is exposed to two different languages (although he might not be able to verbalize this knowledge yet). It is definitely important to be consistent. There are many strategies to raise a bilingual child. For example, you can decide to always speak Portuguese to your child, no matter where you are. That way, it will likely become quite natural for your son to speak Portuguese with you.

There are different strategies you can use when other people are around that don't speak your language (e.g., your child's friends, at the playground, etc.). For example, you can continue to speak Portuguese but provide a simultaneous translation to the person(s) or translate only the important parts or, depending on how comfortable the friends are with not understanding, you might not have to provide a translation at all. You can also speak Portuguese when only addressing your son and English when addressing your son + the friends, or you can switch to English when friends are around.

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My husband and I have different mother tongues though he understands and can speak mine fluently. We speak english to our children at home, and converse with each other mostly in my mother tongue. I've been teaching the children my mother tongue which is commonly spoken in our country. My husband however refuses or has been adamant to speak his language with the children. He however converses in his language in our presence whenever his family members are around though they can all speak my mother tongue as well as english. There's a teenage niece of his staying with us, and he only talks to her in his language and in our presence and has turned deaf ear to my objections about that. I feel he wants to cheat our children and me by keeping us in the dark as to what goes on in his family whilst his ears are widely open to what goes on in mine. What can be more beautiful than teaching your children your own language. Why cheat them, and expose them to other family members to cheat them as well?

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I would simply like to recommend a book that is fabulous for your situation. It provides encouragement, ideas, and a list of additional resources for the particulars of trying to raise a child to be multilingual. It is especially suited for families that have a "mother tongue" different from the location in which they live. The Bilingual Edge

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