Growing up bilingual

February 22, 2013 | Hayley

Yesterday was Mother Language Day, so we asked our new recruit Paula to share her experiences of raising her daughter in a bilingual household.

In such a globalized market, raising your children bilingual from an early age is perceived as giving them an early advantage. But what does that mean for your family and the child themselves?

My daughter is now a pre-teen and everyone expects her to speak Portuguese, my mother tongue, as fluently as she speaks English. While now she’s interested in learning it and we have started lessons, that wasn’t always the case.

Yes, sure, in the long run she will most certainly benefit from speaking Portuguese, as it’s very similar to other Latin-based languages such as French, Italian and Spanish so it would be a logical step for her to learn any of these as well, and especially now that Brazil has become a hub for business. However, to a small child that means next to nothing.

There are some substantial drawbacks to growing up bilingual. The first one is the fact the child starts speaking later than a child raised in monolingual environment. My daughter spoke very little until the age of 3. Then when they do speak, they will mix both languages (saying half the sentence in one, half in the other) or merging pieces of words together (half the word in one language, the other half in another). By default they almost develop a dialect of their own. In my house, I was the only one who could understand what my daughter was saying and she found that really frustrating when she was trying to talk to her dad, who only speaks English.

The other interesting factor is that, as a bilingual, you find that when you are tired or annoyed your normal accent or mother-tongue makes an appearance. My family used to joke saying they knew when my daughter was being told off because I would start talking to her in Portuguese. Unknowingly to me, I had taught my daughter that speaking in Portuguese was not good news for her.

Then she started school. While we all want to have our own personalities at school, when you first start all you want is to fit in and make friends. When I spoke to my daughter in my language she felt different. It also meant we attracted attention and she didn’t like the fact it made her stand out. So she refused to talk in Portuguese or would pretend she didn’t understand me. Add that to the fact the paternal side of the family is all English, so that’s all she speaks with them, and she is being schooled in a monolingual English school, so most of her friends are English or don’t speak Portuguese. As a result, you have the perfect recipe for a child who would rather speak English.

Now that might sound a little extreme, but it’s absolutely normal. Even if a child is raised bilingual, they will eventually favour one of the languages over the other. And it will come down to surroundings. I’m sure that if we lived in London and were heavily involved in one of the many Brazilian communities there, speaking Portuguese would be much more appealing to my daughter.

But fret not. The way I worked around it was to reinforce how special and different my daughter was for having two cultures, for being of mixed race. How exotic it is to be half Brazilian, half English. We focused on the positives, and now that she is older she tells me: “Being half Brazilian is a lot cooler than being just plain English.” She is not only interested, but also wants to learn the language properly and find out more about her heritage – Brazilian customs and culture.

And here is where as a parent you should take the opportunity to instil in your children some of your culture. Even though I’m now probably more English than Brazilian – apparently, according to my Brazilian relatives, I have been severely Anglicized, hard to avoid when you have lived in the UK for as long as you have lived in your home country – I think it’s always important to fill your children with a sense of belonging. Being brought up in two different languages doesn’t just mean you speak two languages. It also means you have inherited two cultures and therefore see things and behave slightly differently from someone raised in a monolingual home. Knowing your heritage could explain why you behave or think differently in some key aspects and therefore makes it easier to deal with them.

For example, Brazilians are like Italians when it comes to children. We take them everywhere. So my daughter has done a lot more in terms of travel and visiting places like churches, libraries, music festivals and art galleries than her friends. By default she is a lot more switched on and creative. To her friends, this could sound like bragging; to her it’s just normal everyday life. Understanding the difference could save her a lot of conflict.

Equally, by raising a child in a bilingual household they become more aware and accepting of other cultures; of the fact we are all very different, and all backgrounds and heritages deserve respect.

So, raising a child in a bi- or multilingual environment isn’t quite as straightforward as you may as first think. But if you give them a slice of the culture as well as the language, you are truly doing them a favour.

Are you raising your child bilingual, or did you grow up speaking two languages? Share your own experiences below.