bilingual language learning - A dog looking out of the window

The story so far…

pastel_de_nata76 Bilingualism, Blog 2 Comments

If you read the About this Blog and the About the Author sections, you will already know a little about me and my family and why I started this blog. I wanted to give you more context. Here’s the story so far…

Everyone has their own set of circumstances and challenges. These are ours:

  • I’m the only minority language speaker in the family (my family lives in Portugal)
  • My partner understands but does not speak the minority language. He expressed an interest to do so at some point, but working full time with a shift pattern, studying for a Masters and looking after two small children leaves very little time for other big projects such as learning a new language
  • We don’t have a local minority language network. Although, as you will see in a future post, I changed that
  • I’m the primary childcare giver. You’d think that makes it easier, but it doesn’t. I’ve been speaking and doing everything in English for the last 20 years with minimal exposure to, or interaction with, anything Portuguese, so English is my default language
  • Being the primary childcare giver also means that our two children’s education is mainly my responsibility, such as supporting with English phonics and reading, which tends to take precedence
  • When the babies were born, and as they grew up, we were surrounded by English speakers – my partner’s family, other mums and children in playgroups, other people in the community etc. At the time, for me, socialising felt more important for the girls’ development. It felt that speaking the minority language in a playgroup setting would isolate us. In both those settings and with family, there was also an innate desire not to be rude or seen to alienate people.
  • Our 4 year old started speaking early and, boy, does she speak! This means that she talks so much, bless her, that she dominates the conversation. That means there is less one to one conversation with the youngest to help develop language (English and Portuguese). It also means that, being the closest playmates, the 2 year old is constantly listening to her sister speaking English.
  • Embarrassed as I am to admit this, the children ask me questions in English and I fall into the trap of answering in the same language. Though now, by retraining myself, I started moving away from that
  • Tiredness is an important factor. When one has two small children, works full time and has no support close to home, one can easily take the path of less resistance and just ‘go with the flow’. Initially, because we’re tired from sleep deprivation. As they grow, become mobile and test boundaries, we want to make sure they understand instructions, alert to danger, support learning, etc.
  • Unfortunately in recent years, the anti immigration overtones, subconsciously or not, made me supress any Portuguese that I may have spoken otherwise in public settings like public transport, for example
  • When we were both working full time, the children were put in childcare, first in a nursery, then a with childminder where they were exclusively exposed to the majority language
  • There is a sheer lack of decent resources in the minority language, specially in European Portuguese which is what we speak.
  • We’re lucky that Portugal is only 2h30 away (if you don’t count the 6 hours before the flight). However, in the first 4 years of my eldest’s life, we only visited a couple of times. A confluence of my husband’s work commitments and my reluctance to travel alone with two small children, meant that we didn’t visit the minority language country as much as we probably could, and should, have. Now that the eldest is in reception and we’re limited by school term dates, I regret that decision.

Dear reader, sorry to dull you with these details. Bear with me as I’m about to share with you something that resonated with me and made me make structural changes to our lives.

One of the points that Adam Beck, author of Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability, reiterates constantly is that exposure to the minority language through various sources, and the need to use it, are key to success. He also notes that if one’s circumstances are not conducive to facilitating these two conditions, then one must either change the circumstances, or adapt expectations.

With my 4 year old starting school (in the UK, children start reception pre school if they are 4 years old by September), this became a pressing point. When children start school they are of course exposed more to the majority than the minority language. This event brought home the fact that 1) I had to reprogramme myself and 2) I needed to do it fast, without creating upheaval in my girls’ lives, in their bond with me as their Mummy and in the routines they’ve always known. Not to mention without creating a counter productive aversion to all things Portuguese.

I’ve always been a busy body, with various projects on the go. This new start, with more purpose, gave me the courage to say no to opportunities. It helped me zoom into what matters to me. Right now, it’s clear to me that I’ve not done enough in the first 2-4 years of my daughters lives to impress the Portuguese language into them. I have one year before the youngest goes to pre school. The eldest is still a wonderfully curious person who loves learning new things. I need to act NOW.

So I made the decision to spend more time with the girls. I left my Full Time job. Initially I was determined to set up a business but eventually realised that that was eating into time with my girls, causing stress and tension. I now work on projects but my priority is to concentrate on girls for a year, for, after they start school it will be much harder to get through, make up for lost time. I appreciate this decision is not always possible for everyone. It is not an easy decision to take.

What I would advise people following a similar path is:

  1. think carefully about what you want for your children from day one
  2. come up with a strategy
  3. start early (even if it looks like the infant is not listening or responding)
  4. stick with it!

If, however, you feel that you are in the same situation as I found myself, or have even older children, don’t despair – starting later is better than not starting at all. Just find the right balance that works for you. A balance of your needs as a family right now and that of your children in the future.

I’ve been told many times by experts in the subject that it’s never too late to have an impact in your children’s bilingual journey. I was expecting a backlash from the children when I decided to introduce more Portuguese in our lives. Children are more malleable and permeable than we think. I was surprised to see my children eagerly trying to speak Portuguese, repeat words and ask “how do you say… in Portuguese?”. It fills me with so much pride and happiness!

Comments 2

  1. Such a lovely honest post Andrea. People think that Bilingual Children are just created by it seeping in from around them. But actually it’s a lot of work! It’s always better to start no matter how late. One thing that really helped us was having an Italian family (some friends of ours) come and visit and stay with us for a week. The desire in my children to be able to communicate in Italian increased ten fold as they really wanted to play together. Maybe you could do something similar? X

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