Question

My daughter is 2.5 yrs. I have only spoken to her in Spanish her whole life (we live in the US) her mother, a stay-at-home mom, only speaks English. If I press her, she will speak in Spanish, but she always responds in English unless I refuse to listen unless she says it in Spanish.

Also, I would like to teach my kids Portuguese, but my wife thinks speaking to them in Spanish and Portuguese will confuse them because they are similar. I wanted to talk to my daughter in Spanish and my 1 yr old son in Portuguese, but my wife didn’t want that because she wanted them to be able to talk to each other in the same language. Will it help them both learn Portuguese and Spanish if I do one language per kid? or should I just do both Spanish and Portuguese to both… like maybe picking one day a week to speak only Portuguese?

Michael

Answer

Hello Michael,

Thank you for your question. If I understand correctly, you are seeking to resolve two separate issues in your family’s multilingual plan:
1. Your 2 1/2 year old daughter doesn’t respond in the target language (Spanish) and prefers to speak in the community language (English).
2. You would like to teach your 2 1/2 year old daughter and 1-year-old son an additional language: Portuguese.

Let me address the first issue first. It is quite common for children to have a strong preference for the community language. Most children want to be the same as their peers and although your daughter is very young, she seems to have picked up on cues that tell her that English is the community language. Her mother, a stay-at-home mom, must have a great deal of influence on your children as she likely spends entire days with them. Does your wife speak Spanish? What is her feeling towards raising your children bilingually (English and Spanish)? If she speaks Spanish, would she be willing to also speak Spanish to your children? In this way, you could achieve teaching the minority language (Spanish) in the home and the children would still learn the community language (English) through very little efforts of your own. It is good to encourage children to speak the target language, but be careful not to be too strict. Children should be free to express themselves in the language they feel most comfortable in. Try reading books in Spanish with both your children, play silly games or sing songs in Spanish to make it fun and you might just be surprised at your children’s increasing desire to express themselves in Spanish. Your son is still very young and might not speak yet, but these are the golden moments to help prepare him for when he will say his first words!

Now about the second issue… I am curious to know why you would like to teach your children Portuguese. Is it one of your heritage languages? (I am assuming that Spanish is one of your heritage languages.) It’s important to examine your own motivation for wanting to transmit another language as well as evaluate your own proficiency in the language. Do you speak Portuguese fluently? As I mentioned earlier, as children grow they pick up cues that tell them what the community language is and it usually becomes their language of choice. It is very likely that your children will speak to each other in English. And I wonder, does your wife speak Portuguese? The answer to this question should also help guide you as to how to proceed. If your wife doesn’t speak Portuguese, how will you make sure that she feels included in conversations with your children? I would personally discourage one language per child as I feel it would create a fragmented structure for communicating within your family, especially if your wife doesn’t speak one or both of these languages. If you wish to introduce Portuguese, I would recommend following your own idea of choosing a time or place to speak Portuguese: a specific day of the week, a certain time of the day (bedtime or bathtime, for example) or in a specific area in the house (a language corner, for example, filled with books and toys in Portuguese). Even though your children might not achieve the same level of proficiency as in English or Spanish, teaching them a third language would be beneficial for them, opening their worlds and their minds to yet another language and culture!

I hope these basic guidelines will help you to establish a family language plan and that you will enjoy your multilingual journey!

Please don’t hestitate to write again.

Sincerely,
Maria Babin

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