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I'm English and my wife is Portuguese and we are living in Portugal. I'm bilingual in Portuguese and my wife and I have always spoken Portuguese together. When my son was born, I found it somewhat strange and unnatural to talk to him in English, even though I knew I should have. As a result I only spoke English with him occasionally. Shortly before his 3rd birthday we had a holiday in England, with English friends, where I found it more natural to talk to my son in English. I decided that was my cue to continue, and since then I've managed to talk to him almost exclusively in English, and it now feels completely natural.

My son seems to understand pretty much everything I say in English, but he only ever responds in Portuguese. When he asks me a question in Portuguese, I always reply in English, and he seems to understand, and not find it strange.

After reading everywhere that bilingualism has to start pretty much at birth, I'm worried that I may have left it too late for him to become a native English speaker, especially as I'm the only exposure he has to native spoken English (other than films and TV and a few iPad apps for learning English).

Did I leave it too late? As someone who was raised bilingual myself (English and German), and has a passion for languages, I hope that my early stupidity won't cost my son the chance to be a native English speaker.

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It's not like you can do anything about it if it is too late. Just try. – Dave Clarke Nov 29 '12 at 14:08
I agree with Dave Clarke. Its never too late to give him something - which is almost always better than nothing. Go for it. Welcome to the site. – balanced mama Nov 29 '12 at 18:15
@DaveClarke of course. I've no intention of not trying. Just wanted to know whether I started too late for a truly bi-lingual outcome. – mluisbrown Nov 29 '12 at 21:30
I support the others in that it is worth trying, but would suggest another thought: Since English is the additional language, it does not matter so much whether you succeed. The kid will learn English anyway in school. I feel that makes it more forgiving for the parents to try in comparison failing to teach a language which is otherwise lost to the child, because it is no longer widely taught in schools. – oezi Mar 9 '13 at 20:59
up vote 8 down vote accepted

It's never too late to start! Especially if you're a native speaker, just go for it.

In my experience languages are most easily learned in the first 6-8 years -- learning happens more or less subconsciously while kids are that young. With other kids, it feels like actual, conscious learning.

Specific example:

  • I was raised bilingual (Danish, German) so as far as I can remember, I've "always" spoken these languages.
  • When I was around 4 years old, my family moved to Sweden. My recollection of learning Swedish (which, granted, is very similar to the Danish I already knew) was that one day I realized that I could speak Swedish -- so learning it was totally subconscious. Of course I had the advantage of being immersed in it -- in Portugal, you might have a bit of a challenge to immerse your child in English but at least it's significantly easier with English because it happens to be "the" international language so you'll have plenty of material to choose from (books, games, movies, etc.).
  • Around 10 years of age I started learning English (nowadays English classes start much earlier) and I recall that I actually had to learn it. But because my mind was already primed with 3 languages, it was just "oh let's take another one" and not a challenge at all.
  • Around 16 years I learned French in school. That was hard and no fun at all.
  • Around 30 years I learned Japanese. That was hard because it is really foreign but it was fun again -- not sure why.

Let me also refer you to this question and my answer to it.

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I think it depends on the immersion level as well, I work with a lot of refugee/immigrant kids and they pick it up quickly from school even as teens. I've heard tell that kids can learn a new language in 3 months, but I've yet to see that for myself... – Christine Gordon Nov 29 '12 at 16:47
Thanks Torben. Your first point in your answer to this question says: "Start immediately. it won't do to decide on this after a year or more". That seems to go contrary to "It's never too late to start". But thanks for the answer – mluisbrown Nov 29 '12 at 21:46
@mluisbrown: With both statements, what I really mean is Start as soon as you can. That other question was about a future child; you're referring to a 3yo. I think one might as well start right away but failing that, starting sooner is better than starting later. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Nov 30 '12 at 12:12
Let me second "It's never too late to start!". You just cannot get done something you never started working on - language, or whatever else in life. – Matej Kovac Dec 2 '12 at 8:23

No it is not too late.

If your child listens in one language and responds in another, it may help to assign one language per person who talks (or lives) with him. For example, when you speak to him, only speak in English, even if he responds in Portuguese. Have his mother only speak to him in Portuguese, even if he answers in English. This will help him keep the languages distinct.

Another option is to use only English at home, and trust that he will Learn Portuguese in school and from other people in your community.

Here are some more tips:

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