I am after some advice. We as a family are bilingual. I am British, my husband is Brazilian and we live in Finland. My 4-year-old daughter has never had a speech delay, if not amazingly speaking earlier than the normal. It’s like she was born to be good with languages. She speaks all three languages at pretty much the same level and fluently.

We have been very consistent at home in that I speak English, my husband Portuguese and Finnish is spoken in daycare, which she has been attending since one and half for five days a week eight hrs a day. So she has had about the same exposure with almost all three languages. Portuguese is the minority language, but we have boosted it with TV programs and regular 40-day visits to Brazil each year and Skype calls with family and reading stories. Also we have a strong social connection with Brazilians in Finland.

She has very close friends would who she only plays and communicates in Portuguese. I can not say that she is stronger or weaker in any of the three languages. They are about the same level. If someone starts to speak a particular language with her, she herself will refuse to switch away from it later. She knows which language belongs to whom and in which circumstances and will not blend them. She refuses to speak to me or her father in the other language.

I have one concern: we now have an 8-month-old baby boy and we will be moving to England. I believe our daughter will lose the Finnish language, which is a shame but I think the two family languages are more important right now. I just do not know what I should do. Should we continue the way we have been? Or should we switch so that the four of us at home speak solely Portuguese and watch Portuguese TV etc? We are afraid she and our son will lose the language as our social connection will stop. There really are no Brazilians or Portuguese-speaking families where we will be moving. And also I think our regular yearly trips to Brazil will become further apart due to the costs. What do you recommend? We are afraid our son might never learn the language.



Dear Kelly

Congratulations, you have got to a really impressive start with your daughter, who is switching between three languages at four years of age! The clear distinction between the languages and the balanced exposure to them has undoubtedly made it easier for her to pick them all up so well. She will also most likely want to keep to the language separation she currently follows between mum’s and dad’s languages, even after you move to England.

With regards to retaining her Finnish, you are right that, unless she has use for the language, when you move to England, her language skills will take a step back. You did not mention whether you yourself know any Finnish at all. If you do, then what you could do is to come to an agreement with your daughter (yes, this is a matter of negotiation as she clearly has strict rules about who speaks what) that you occasionally read Finnish books and watch Finnish cartoons together to maintain the language after your move. This way she could retain some of the language. If she has Finnish friends you could set up regular Skype calls with them.

I do however understand that Portuguese is the main minority language you want to and should concentrate on as this will become even more of a minority language with no other Portuguese-speakers in the area you are moving to. Both of your children will soon have English as their majority language, so you could well switch to speaking only Portuguese at home to give them more exposure to it. If you were to do this, your son would certainly learn Portuguese, and you may even convince your daughter to speak only Portuguese with her brother (this may change when she gets older, and they both go to school in English, but enjoy it while it lasts.)

The question is – how would you feel about switching to talking Portuguese with them 100% of the time? You did not mention how fluent you are in Portuguese and whether it is what some people call also an “emotional language” for you. Would you be comfortable in expressing your feelings in it? Can you imagine having those deeper discussions with your children in Portuguese when they grow a bit older? You would also have to take on the task of convincing your daughter that this is now the language you two are going to speak with each other. Not an easy one, I know this as I have been through it myself. To switch from speaking English to Portuguese with your daughter, you will need a way for her to agree to this change – she will have to want to do it, otherwise it may be a very difficult transition, and I would not recommend doing it until your daughter is fine with the idea.

I am not saying you should not switch to speaking only Portuguese with your kids, but I want you to consider what it really means and whether you are ready to take on this task in addition to all the other upheaval the move inevitably means to the family. To help with the minority language exposure, what you could also consider is a variation of the time and place approach where you allocate certain times, places or activities to speaking only Portuguese in the home – this could for example be during the weekends. By not switching to Portuguese 100% of the time, you would still have the opportunity to use English as the communication language for those situations you feel it would be the better option.

I commend you for thinking ahead and planning the family language strategy for your little ones. With this much thought I am sure your husband and you will be successful in making sure your children grow up to speak two languages and possibly even more.

Please keep us updated on how it goes.

Kind regards