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Our first Christmas back home and impact on language acquisition

pastel_de_nata76 Bilingualism, Blog, Foodie, Portuguese, Resources Leave a Comment

This was supposed to be our first Christmas as a family back ‘home’. I flew over with the 2 and 4 year olds and Daddy was to follow a few days later, due to work commitments. Things did not go to plan…

Daddy fell ill and was not able to fly on doctor’s orders. And that’s how the girls and I spent our first Christmas away and without Daddy. It was not easy. But hey, that’s life. As a family, it was not what we had planned but the silver lining is that the girls spent a lot of time exposed to the target language, with plenty of meaningful interaction. The main purpose of this trip was to immerse the children in the target language and culture. I’ve been astounded at how effective it was.

Immersion in the target language as an extremely effective tool for language acquisition

We’re told often by experts that immersion in the target language, and in particular, visits ‘back home’,  is possibly the best thing to do to speed track good language acquisition. I wish I had done it before, and more frequently, but we have our own challenges. In any case, I finally managed to take my girls to Portugal and I am astonished by the result.

It commenced during the outbound airplane journey. The 4 year old started using Portuguese words to communicate, of her own volition. She had been primed for weeks for this occasion – that we were going to Portugal, spend time with family there, have fun and practice the language – and she obliged beautifully.

I too had prepared myself – see my checklist here

So… how did it go?

Week one

Without English speakers around, we had no option but to speak Portuguese, and lots of it. We went out every day, sightseeing, shopping, and even doing everyday things – getting a haircut at the hairdresser, visiting the butcher and the cobbler. The girls hung out with their Portuguese cousins and played with other children.


Collage of Christmas trip memories


They were constantly surrounded by Portuguese speakers, and felt the ‘need’ to speak the language. The 4 year old asked how to say specific things she wanted to say and even ‘translated’ for her little sister – bless her! And she stood up (in Portuguese!) to a boy who was winding her up. I was so proud!

When not out or playing, they would watch cartoons in Portuguese TV.

It was clear over the course of the week that the girls’ Portuguese was progressing nicely. From speaking just a few words here and there to speaking in sentences. Ok, not 100% of the time, but still quite impressive.

Week two

This was the week when all the Christmas celebrations took place and I think that being ferried around constantly, with little control over our own schedule, missing Daddy and their own toys started taking a toll on them. We’ve never been away from home that long (2,5 weeks) and certainly not without daddy. Plus traditions are different in each country and Christmas has a special meaning, carrying a lot of expectations.

I personally didn’t enjoy the Christmas eve as much as I usually do when in Portugal because I could see the girls were so tired – they usually go to bed at 7pm and in Portugal it’s tradition to stay late and open the presents on Christmas eve. We didn’t get home until midnight and I could see they were rubbing their eyes in tiredness from 6pm onwards. We had asked Santa to deliver the big presents (a bike and a wooden theatre/shop) to our home in England as they would be difficult to take back so I guess that evening didn’t have as much of a wow factor as it would have had if they had unwrapped those big presents on the night.

Still, by week 2 Sophia was building her own sentences, putting together 5 plus words, and both girls regularly used the minority language as a matter of fact, without being prompted. This is brilliant, considering there’s been very little Portuguese spoken around them. It goes to show how much quality and variety of interaction can impact on their learning.

Back home

We’ve only been back for a couple of days and I’m still very impressed. The girls have carried on talking Portuguese not just to me but also to their British grandparents. The eldest, in particular, seems to be proud of it and of herself and wants to show off. The youngest, for now, just copies her big sister.

The importance of being intentional

The truth is, I had a plan – see my previous post with  7 things to make the most of this trip.

I didn’t turn into a taskmaster. It’s just that having thought about it, and shared my plan with others in this blog, it was always at the back of my mind. I knew that the point of this trip was not for me to relax. It was to have a good impact on my children and their practical and emotional connection to the language. There was an intention – to have my girls feel like they belong, and by association, to feel pride and the need to speak the language.

I wanted to make it irresistible, fun, delicious. I wanted to create special memories, an affective start to this new stage where I intend to up our efforts a little more.

From what I can see, the seedling has been planted. I will take care of it. Feed it, water it and give it sunshine regularly. The key word here is regularly and I’m working up some ideas that I intend to share with you.

3 takeways from this experience

  1. At any age, but specially in the first 5 years, visits to the home country can make a world of difference. If you can, visit as much and for as long as possible.
  2. Fly with your partner! Flying alone with a 2 and 4 year old was not easy (see why on this post) and I hope not to have to do it again.
  3. Be intentional, and importantly, make it fun, create lovely memories… and enjoy!

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