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We are a Brazilian family in Brazil and therefore we speak Portuguese. I can speak English reasonably well but my wife is just learning it now. We want our 9 months old son to learn English, too. However, we only use Portuguese at home and there is no environment where we speak English naturally, so I bet we will have to resort to English classes (and help at home, of course).

There are a lot of questions about multilingual children here but none of them seems to approach the precise point I want to understand. So, my question is: what would be a good age to start to teach a child a foreign language? What would be good ways to teach such a language to a child?

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I am not sure, but based on a TedTalk I watched, I would say not via tv/electronic means. A live native speaker seems to be the best. This same Ted talk showed babies learned the phonetics of a foreign language quickly even without much exposure. –  Christine Gordon Nov 28 '12 at 2:31
    
Welcome to the site brandizzi! –  balanced mama Nov 28 '12 at 6:58
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The TedTalk @ChristineGordon is referring to is here: ted.com/talks/… –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Nov 28 '12 at 7:08
    
@TorbenGundtofte-Bruun, thanks! I read (in NurtureShock I think) that this is the woman who's work the Einstein Baby products are based on, but, ironically, they don't include much connection between visuals and audios (ie you can't see the faces of people talking) which is contrary to her research. Hrm. –  Christine Gordon Nov 28 '12 at 18:30

4 Answers 4

Any age Please start right away! It is great for your child to have even just exposure to another language. Others will disagree and talk about exactly how to achieve fluency, but my take on it is, exposure no matter how small is better than just plain old monlinguism. Since you speak English pretty well, if you used English with the baby 24/7, it would serve to teach your baby the sound of English even while he/she also learns the sounds of Portuguese.

As babies listen to the sound of the adults in their first year, they have the capability to hear and learn to repeat every sound of any spoken language, but their brains (for the sake of efficiency) are growing rapidly and along the way sounds they don't hear and the nerve centers that react to those sounds will not develop making it harder to pick up those sounds later in life. Expose, Expose, Expose - listen to English radio if you can, watch world news online in English if you can . . . It can only help your wife learn more of it faster too.

As your baby grows, it will become critical if you want true fluency to create an environment that includes both English and Portuguese text, AND for you to continue to use English with her. If your wife uses both and the baby's friends and other family members are all using Portuguese she'll be fine in both languages.

If you can get a copy of "The Bilingual Edge" I highly recommend you check it out, it will have all the tips and suggestions as well as studies you need and even offers up ideas for resources, clubs, online communities such as this one etc in its appendices.

Good luck!

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+1 for starting early, but with a sincere plea to know the language well so you don't teach wrong words/pronunciations. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Nov 28 '12 at 7:23
    
Thanks, mama and Torben, your suggestions make sense and seems to be very good. And be not afraid: I wrote the question late at night and was ununsually tired; my English is not as broken as it appeared in the question :) –  brandizzi Nov 28 '12 at 11:47
    
So you are saying that if we watch Friends (and other BE/AE shows) daily with our newborn daughter listening it'll be beneficial to her in the long run? –  Dariusz Nov 20 '13 at 21:05
    
No, Dariusz. I AM saying that hearing the language regularly and interacting with it has benefits that if followed through on can make it easier for the baby to learn correct pronunciation and usage of the language down the road. If mom and dad are immersing themselves (by watching friends/BE/AE shows) that helps them learn it and feel more confident using it - that helps too. –  balanced mama Nov 20 '13 at 21:13

I think the key is to provide as much language exposure as possible, but in a natural way.

Natural sources could be enrolling the child in an English-speaking Kindergarten, TV shows in English, frequently having English-speaking visitors or babysitters, etc. If you don't have any natural sources of English, then it's up to you alone.

I'm faced with a similar situation in regard to learning English specifically. I'm in a German-speaking country and nobody ever uses English. My toddler is currently learning both his parents' languages so we will add English later.

I believe that even very small children can tell the difference between languages, so it would be okay to speak Portuguese with your son some of the time, and English some of the time -- but I also believe that you must be native speaker, or equal to it: you've got to know all the words you're ever going to need!

I would also provide English-language materials, like books, DVDs, and toys. If you like electronic, talking toys then consider getting one that talks English. When you start showing DVD's like Bob the Builder or the Barbapapas, why not have them in English rather than in Portuguese? Later, when computers become interesting, only have English software.

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I will answer, quickly, to say that in addition to @balanced mama's answer, there is a lot of useful information in a book I just read called NurtureShock about how to improve babies' language skills in general (I don't know if these techniques apply to older children, this was all for babies, like the 0-4 crowd). Basically, children learn language/vocab the fastest/when:

  • You expose them to language by engaging with them, talking to them, etc.

  • But, this was new to me, the biggest difference is when you respond to their baby-talk. Talk to them as if you are having a conversation. Like, they say "goo goo gah gah" and you say "oh really? how interesting! we'll have to tell your mother about that one." etc. It sounds silly, but apparently this is how they learn the flow of language and conversation.

  • The other big lesson for me was to pay attention to what your baby pays attention to. So, when they look at a tree, say "tree", when they touch your nose, say "nose" etc. Be as spot on to their attention as possible. Delays can actually be harmful because they will associate the word with the wrong thing (apparently this is quite common).

  • The high pitch baby talk we all do naturally is apparently helpful as well

  • Here's a big one: when they hold up a spoon and make a noise that sounds like they're trying to say "water" don't respond to what you think you hear, respond to what is holding their attention. "Yes, that's a spoon!" Apparently these vocalizations don't actually sound like the intended word, but they use the same muscle movements so it's like a workout for their throat. Makes it tricky for us adults listening! But associating the wrong word for them again is confusing.

  • When you speak to the baby, change your grammar around like: "Can you give the toy to daddy?" , "Yes, you gave the toy to daddy!"
    ie you are changing the order, sequence, tense, etc. (hard to think of examples off the top of my head but the book gave plenty)

So while this doesn't directly answer the foreign language question, I think it answers the language acquisition in general question. Since your child is (hypothetically) learning two words for everything ("tree" and whatever it is the native language), this is why bilingual babies are a little slower in the beginning with language from what I understand. Meaning, they get confused a bit early on, but they figure out which word to use with "tree" based on who they are speaking to. But the long-term gains speak for themselves from what I understand.

And, I think other common convention, especially from Stanley Greenspan's work, is to be pretty animated when you are working on specific skill-building with a child, and let them see your mouth especially when you are teaching language skills. Babies are hard-wired to be fascinated by mouths/faces and they learn best when they can mimic your mouth shape. Plus, being animated keeps them interested/excited which a big component of Greenspan's Floortime approach.

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I have the same thing - we live in Holland and my wife is Dutch, and we want our child to learn both languages. So from my experience, I can only repeat what has already been said here before, but yes, start talking English with your child right as soon as you can, and be consistent. If you wind up talking Portugese a few times to other members of the family, that's fine, but generally keep talking to your child in English. Read some books in English. Get some children videos in English if possible. You will probably find that when your child starts talking, they will speak Portugese at first. This is because other than you, just about everyone around your child will be speaking Portugese to them. But stay consistent. If your child asks a question in Portugese, respond in English. My 3 year old daughter understands English quite well - I can talk to her in English, and she'll respond in Dutch... though she is starting to use some English words and phrases :) Good luck!

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It's not quite evident but I assume that you're English and not Dutch, so you have a bilingual household, right? Your story is identical to mine; my son only actively uses German but I only speak Danish to him, and he has no trouble at all. He demonstrates a perfect passive understanding of Danish and I'm sure that he would be able to go active with it if he finds himself surrounded by non-German-speakers. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Nov 29 '12 at 8:06
    
@TorbenGundtofte-Bruun, yes, I do have a biligual household. My wife will sometimes use English when talking to the kids (and I will wind up talking Dutch when my MIL or other people are around), but generally we each try sticking to our primary languages around the kids. –  Barry Hammer Dec 5 '12 at 9:03

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