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.

  • 4
    It's not like you can do anything about it if it is too late. Just try. Commented Nov 29, 2012 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. Commented Nov 29, 2012 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
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 21:30
  • 1
    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
    Commented Mar 9, 2013 at 20:59

6 Answers 6


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.

  • 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... Commented Nov 29, 2012 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
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 21:46
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    @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. Commented Nov 30, 2012 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. Commented Dec 2, 2012 at 8:23
  • Anecdotal but my mother's family came to the US as refugees after WWII. She was the youngest of 11 and was about 5 years old when they came over. All of her older siblings still speak with a very noticeable accent 70 years later whereas she has none.
    – Kevin
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 16:59

Children can learn multiple languages without problems from an early age if they have to. The don't learn as many as you want.. they learn as many as they have to. With my son who Swedish and English bilingual living in UK he didn't start to speak Swedish back to me until he met Swedish little friends on holiday in Sweden and they couldn't understand what he said when he spoke English. He was then 3 and that is the time he started to speak Swedish. Before then he understood me but didn't want to speak the language. Best thing is to introduce your son to friends that only speak English and not Portuguese. Has he got English family you can visit? The advantage you have here is that English is one of the biggest languages in the world so it could be quite easy to find some English people living in Portugal who doesn't speak Portuguese at all. For me it was harder to convince the Swedes not to ever speak any English back to him or even pretend not to understand what he said in English. That is why it is so important for him to play with mono lingual Swedish children. Find English monolinguals to hang out with would be the easiest and quickest way for him to understand the importance of English.


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:



Kids are all different, so really all that you can do is try. I have 2 kids, one is 15 and we moved to a different country when she was 4. She now speaks that language as a mother-tongue and locals say that her accent is indistinguishable from kids who had been learning it since birth. My second kid was born in this country and despite being taught the language since birth in daycare and school, he has a hard time. We found out later that he has a language learning disability.

The thing about kids is that they are people with strengths and weaknesses and even preferences when it comes to languages. I would suggest just going the OPOL route and see how it goes.


I do not know if this will help you, but our son is speaking 3 languages, and he is 3.5. We speak (parents) 4 to 5 natively and have always talked in 3 languages with him, at least immediately after he started speaking. He confuses words at times, or uses different languages in the same phrase, but we don't care.

The more time passes, the better he gets at them. And it's a natural process too, for him. He does it in games, outside, at daycare, etc.

P.S. The languages are : Romanian, Russian and English, if this matters.


I live in an English speaking country and my parents tell me I did not know any English when I first entered preschool. English is my dominant language now, though I can still speak in Vietnamese and do thing such as argue over the phone (though I can't read it nor can I speak it academically because frankly, there's not much use for that).

So 3 is not too young. The bigger problem right now is exposure.

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