I’ve got a new found resolve. Yay, fantastic!
However… the last thing I want is to alienate my children and risk having our special bond broken, or having them hate all things Portuguese by introducing it into their lives so quickly that it feels ‘forced’.
So, for me, the process naturally broke itself down into the following steps:
- Gently introducing more minority language references in our lives
The idea was to very gently ‘normalise’ the minority language, and even culture. This meant:
- including more minority language words when speaking to the children
- repeating to them what they said in the majority language but in the minority language
- using more of the minority language when out and about
- whenever possible, naturally, and without overdoing it, linking conversations back to the minority language and culture. For example, of we were eating fish for dinner, Daddy and I would talk about how fish is very appreciated in Portugal. When reading about or observing animals, we might mention whether they exist in either country
- Gradually exposing the children to more minority language resources.
We listened more to music on Spotify, from pop music (including my old favourites which I pointed out I used to hear when I was younger, about which they could visibly see my joy) and children’s songs to Fado (a unique Portuguese type of music), folk and political songs. In essence, anything Portuguese, Brazilian, Angolan, Mozambican or any other nationality, as long as it was in Portuguese or related to it. For example, many Morna (music from Cape Verde) and Kizomba (from Angola) are in creole. This is an interesting subject and one that I intend to return to at some point in the future
I ferociously sought out resources such as books, Apps and their favourite character based films on DVD so I had an arsenal to choose from. On this subject, it is worth noting a couple of points:
- Children grow and evolve. I felt that the one app we liked which had Portuguese as a language option and had used for a couple of years was not quite enough for my eldest daughter’s new found abilities
- I would normally not encourage hoarding, however, given the scarcity of resources in our minority language, when I had an opportunity to get hold of many, or of more complex materials, I stashed some away to ‘drip feed’ at a later stage. The purpose being to keep things fresh. I often take out some books and replace with ‘new’ ones. Sometimes, for example, I keep a particularly appealing resource for a later stage for the surprise factor, or because I know that I can use it to reinforce messages if I get it out around a particular season or event (for example, in Autumn, Holidays time, Christmas, Easter, etc). Or it could be that they are not yet ready for it, but may be in in a few months or even a couple of years.
- I googled and printed colouring in images of their favourite characters, ideally with Portuguese words on it, to reinforce the memory and emotional connection to the DVD they watched (Moana in the minority language, for example). The words printed in the picture gave an extra exposure to the language in print, which adds to the experience generally but especially when they are older and able to read. The whole process of colouring in provides an opportunity to extend the conversation in the minority language. I sat with them at the start and asked about the picture, name of the characters, what she did in the movie, what colour they were going to paint the boat, etc
- We would listen to story CDs where possible, especially in the car where they were a captive audience. I forgot to change the CD for a few weeks and one day the 4 year old started singing the words. I, of course, jumped in excitement to congratulate her. That made me realise that, rather than switching CDs regularly for the sake of variety , we ought to keep it until they eventually learnt it by heart and sung the songs by their own volition. None of this was forced. They chose the CD and it just stayed in the CD player. If they wanted another favourite one, they could have it. We also read the books associated with the story CDs at home. When they were able to hold books without constantly dropping them on the floor of the car, they started taking the books with them on longer trips. Now each of the girls chose a book and a toy to take it with them in a purse on the trip. They find this very exciting, creating another emotional connection to the book, CD and ultimately the language
- Seizing small opportunities to link back to the minority language
My eldest started school recently and can read and write a little. On a couple of occasions the opportunity presented itself to write in the minority language or talk about letters and sounds, so I seized it. I had been advised by her teacher not to do so, that just talking and reading in the minority language would be enough for now so she wouldn’t get confused. Parents know their children well. I felt that she was receptive, curious, even. It was a good moment and so I seized it in the spur of the moment.
That inspired me to gently introduce words and letters in a fun and playful way. We do this occasionally, with no pressure.
- I started pointing at the words and read slowly just as we do for her school home work
- We had board books with images of objects and animals which we started using more until they knew all the things in it. The words help reinforce their knowledge even though they can’t read in Portuguese yet. I eventually improvised my own flashcards to play a game of matching (I will share images and details another time)
- We know what the school curriculum is and when doing homework or talking about what they’ve done in school, we try to mirror the conversation in the minority language. For example, colours, shapes, animals, the concept of light and dark and so forth
- Introducing longer and more sophisticated sentences
As I could see the increased exposure was seeping through, I started talking more to them, in longer and more sophisticated sentences, less fearful that they would not understand. My daughters might not always understand it all but it is important not to be fearful otherwise we end up censoring ourselves. It was important for that I, the parent, increased gradually the amount of the minority language I spoke to create my own better habits and set their expectations. Speaking to the children in the minority language and reading to them is possibly the most important things one can do to improve ability in that language.
- Engaging in purposeful sit down activities
We are now aiming to start purposefully engaging in sit down activities, where I sit with the girls doing activities that we can link back to the minority language and culture. This can be as simple as colouring in a fish or a swallow which have a cultural significance in the minority country. This gives us an opportunity to start a conversation and make a multitude of connections. They don’t realise yet that I’m aiming to be purposeful about the time we spent. I just wanted them to enjoy it and eventually, as painlessly as possible, start a routine of sitting down to ‘study’ the minority language just as they will do for the majority language
- Increasing my own exposure to the minority language
In this journey, I realised how I had forgotten my roots. And the impact that this would have on my children and how much more I could enrich their lives by sharing my heritage alongside their British identity. This became blatantly apparent when I tried to translate words for them and I could not, for the life of me, remember them in the minority language! Or someone would ask me about a tradition in Portugal and I would not remember.
I had to reconnect and relearn by listening to more music and podcasts and read more in the minority language. With two small children time to read is limited so this is usually in the form of news articles online. I also reconnected by trying to make at home, or buy, more food and pastries, and drink more wine from my country. A huge sacrifice, I’ve got to tell you, but I do it all for my children! I talk to my own mother frequently (ok, I admit daily) and our conversations now are more about our family and country’s customs, which can only be a good thing.
Encouragingly, I am starting to notice the children learning more words, even putting the odd sentence together. I certainly see a lot of enthusiasm for the language, which is becoming a joyful addition to our family life. And this is the metamorphosis I am seeking.
Why metamorphosis? Because my husband and I are aiming for a transformation from a barely there Portuguese influence, to a fully bilingual family. It will not take just a few weeks as butterflies do to transform and emerge from their pupas, but I hope the process is as magical and rewarding.
I am so happy that I finally started this journey and can’t wait to share it with anyone who has the same ambition of raising bilingual children.