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Parents with bilingual children, how did you do it?

Although I mention parents specifically in the title, this isn’t just for parents to respond.

My wife and I are trying to raise our child to be bilingual (English and Portuguese). Currently we’re both speaking a bit of both to our child and when they eventually go to school we’ll speak more Portuguese as they’ll be exposed to English everywhere else.

Is this a good approach or is there something we can do better?

Soku ,

My friend is French, his wife Portuguese, they live in England with their two children. When all together, they all speak English with each other. When the kids are with one parent, the speak that language. In the park with father, French. Baking with mother, Portuguese. Bedtime stories are in the language of the parent reading. Kids switch between languages easily and understand what to speak with whom. Effortless trilingual.

Another friend moved country with her husband and had three kids. Home language was always mother tongue, both my friends had fairly bad English. Everything outside parents is in English for the kids - media, school, anyone outside the household. Again, the switch for the kids is really easy, they are fluent and have no accent in both languages.

HatchetHaro , avatar

Here in Hong Kong, we have three official languages: English, Cantonese, and Mandarin (okay, two only if you count Canto and Mandarin as one language, in which case dllm), and all three are taught in schools (Mandarin generally up to grade 9, the rest up to grade 12).

Almost all of us grow up trilingual.

lfromanini , avatar

I moved to the Netherlands when my boy was 8yo. At that time he was fluent and capable to read and write in Portuguese. Now, two years later he can also do the same in Dutch, but the challenge now is that he is forgetting some words or some meanings in his mother tongue. I ask to everyone coming from Brazil to bring books for him, which helps a lot (he loves to read). Besides of that, it’s super hard for me to follow up him with his homework.

redbr64 , avatar

How well this goes depends on a lot of factors: are those languages native to either parent? What language is spoken where you live? Do you have other people in their lives that speak these languages? Are there other contexts in which those languages are spoken beyond the home (social occasions, TV, etc)?

Apparently, for it to really stick, it takes a lot more than just a parent speaking. I recommend listening to this podcast episode with a researcher that runs a bilingual child development lab. TBH, it’s a bit disheartening to hear how hard it is to make it work:…/bilingual/

The questions I asked above come from listening to that. Another big takeaway is consistency. One parent should stick to only one language talking to the kid.

I live in the US and I am a native Portuguese speaker, and my wife is a native Farsi speaker. We both spoke our own languages to our kid, and at age 2 he would mostly only speak those languages, and would even translate between them naturally (like I would say “go tell mom X” in Portuguese, and he would go and tell her in Farsi). But at age 3 he started just replying in English… Even went to Iran at 4, and could understand all his cousins but only replied in English. Farsi had a better shot because he has more exposure to it than Portuguese, but still… Honestly, it’s one of my bigger disappointments in my parenting because it was really important to me, but I myself fumbled with it: when he started speaking in English to me, I started sometimes mixing it up and responding in English, which is not good for this (I have lived in the US since high school, so it’s honestly a little easier for me at this point too). I was also a little concerned about his development in English and communication with his friends in school, but that’s not necessary, that will come no matter what, so stick with it. My brother also lives in the US and is married to another Portuguese speaker, so his 2 kids born here speak it just fine since it was the only language at home. Their grammar and vocabulary is a little weird, but they can get by just fine.

Edit: sorry for any repetition, when I went to comment I couldn’t see any other comments for some reason and thought I was the first to respond

beerclue ,

Kids are like sponges, especially when it comes to languages.

We lived in Romania until a few years ago, when we moved to Germany. We speak Romanian at home, and they have a decent grasp. The oldest is fluent, with no accent, the youngest lacks vocabulary, applies German grammar rules and has a bit of German accent. All of them speak German fluently, and they use it when they talk to each other, with friends and at school. They are also fluent in English, and that is because of the media. I only use English when it comes to devices OS/interface, streaming services etc, and they are used to it. They consume YouTube, Netflix etc in English only.

They sometimes mix the languages, especially when talking to us, since their exposure to Romanian is limited.

AccountMaker ,

My parents don’t speak English, but I learned it as a kid by watching a lot of Cartoon Network. All the cartoons were in English, no subtitles or dub or anything. Somehow I assimilated the language without any external aid, and then learned the rest when we first got the internet and I started communicating with others via games.

So, if I had to teach a kid English, I’d just expose them to as much English as possible with plenty of context and encourage them to express themselves in English when they can. This is also a popular method how adults can learn languages, called tprs

zaph ,

Have you received formal training since then? If you told me you’re a native English speaker I’d believe you in an instant.

beerclue ,

Same. Grew up watching Cartoon Network, HBO and the Discovery Channel with no subs (or dubs, they are not a thing in RO). Then there was music (lyrics) and later on video games and the Internet. It helped not having any OS or software available in my native language. Even to this day I use my phone and computer in English.

While I did have English classes at school (6th to 12th), the level was rather basic… I also took French for 10 years, and I can barely speak it. Otoh, I didn’t take one Italian class, but I can speak some, and understand almost everything. Again, this is because we had a bunch of Italian TV channels in the early 90s.

Binette ,

I’m bilingual.

They just sent me to an English daycare and spoke French with me at home.

Then I could do the rest on my own.

howrar ,

I grew up in a multigenerational home. Grandparents spoke one language, my parents spoke another. Used to play with the neighbours a lot and picked up a third language from them. Then started elementary school and learned a fourth there. It seems to work well to have each person in your life exclusively using one language.

Contramuffin ,

Former child in a bilingual household. The time that your child spends outside of your home has by far the biggest influence on language fluency. You can have your child speak a language at home, and they would be able to understand it and speak it, but it would be limited - likely conversationally fluent, but not natively fluent.

If you can find a community for that language and culture that you visit every once a week, it will help reinforce that language. There might be language schools run by people from that culture - it’ll be an easy way to get in touch with other people from that same culture

Fishroot ,

French and English in school, Mandarin course on Saturday. Cantonese with parents,

At least that was my upbringing

Serinus ,

You need to take advantage of code switching, similar to how you’ll use curse words in some contexts, but not in others. Or retail language vs casual.

They should have some intuitive idea of when to speak Portuguese and when to speak English. If you’re mixing within the same context, that will be difficult.

governorkeagan OP ,

I hadn’t thought of it like that, but it makes perfect sense. Thank you.

BackOnMyBS , avatar

I was born and raised in the US. My parents spoke Spanish only. They maybe knew 5 words in English. I grew up learning Spanish fluently at home. Everything else (i.e. school, tv, friends) was in English, so I learned that naturally.

Downside: I feel like it created 2 personalities. I feel emotions, relate to family and romance, and cook in Spanish. I think logically, conduct business, and have friends in English.

Name ,

Oh I do that too and I read somewhere that it’s pretty common to adapt different personalities to each language. I am by far more courageous and bold when have my English personality.

Erika3sis , avatar

I was raised bilingual, and speaking from my own experiences I’d say that it’s a good idea to consider the following questions if you want to maximize the child’s ability in either language:

  1. Is there a parent who the child sees more or less often than the other? What will one do in case one parent dies, or in case the child has a language disorder, or there is otherwise some sort of unexpected problem that could impact the child’s language development?
  2. What are the language dynamics at play in the family and in the local area? What will the child associate with each of the two languages? Can the child have all its needs met in the non-dominant language? Does the child have access to a broader community of speakers, and in what way?

I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to share my own story because it gets pretty melodramatic at points, but yeah, language skills need to be built and maintained over the course of one’s entire life, so you need to be able to adapt to changing circumstances. But as a whole I think that what you’re planning for your own kid sounds like it will work well, or at least decently well — the only way to know for sure is to get a time machine and go forwards 20 years, and until then I think it’s best to have faith in your competence as a parent. There’s no-one who knows a family better than itself.

And beyond that, one should also ask oneself… Well, what types of language skills does one want to see in one’s child, and what happens if the child ultimately does not reach the goals one has set? I’d say that I have sort of a nuanced or over-complicated relationship to so-called “bad grammar” because of my position.

frightful_hobgoblin ,

We speak Irish to the kids as much as possible, essentially all the time. Them learning English is a given, a force like gravity.

We try to get them to read Irish books, watch Irish cartoons, but that can be a struggle with the temptation of English-language ones. Children have their own strong preferences about those things.

linearchaos , avatar

When I visited Ireland I was very impressed by the Irish cartoons. Anywhere I went I hardly heard a lick of anything but English, but it was obvious what they were there for and it was very cool thing.

governorkeagan OP ,

Our little one will be learning Irish as a third language at school.

SurfinBird ,

When I was the kid, the house rule was French at home, English everywhere else. Kind of like your plan but stricter. Now that I’m the parent, the kids are in French Immersion school, so at home we do 50/50.

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