Q&A: How to increase the minority language exposure for a toddler?

by | Feb 4, 2016 | Coaches, Marianna DuBosq, Q&A How to motivate a bilingual / multilingual child to speak a family language, Toddlers | 1 comment



I am Brazilian and my husband is German. We live in Germany and raise our almost two years old son bilingual. We do OPOL with our son and our common language is mostly German. My husband speaks Portuguese but not so well. At the moment my son attends a German daycare in the mornings and I spend the afternoons with him. He understands both languages and speaks less Portuguese than German.

In April (after our holidays in Brazil) that will change, and our son will start also in the afternoons in the daycare, being thus much less exposed to Portuguese. I do not think mL@H is for my family, but I am thinking that if it could be a good idea to start to speak Portuguese in some specific family occasions like during the meals.

Thank you,

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Hi Elisa,

Thank you for submitting your question to the Multilingual Parenting Family Language Coaching Team.

I commend you on thinking ahead and realizing that the shift in your son’s school situation will have an impact on the exposure he receives in his German and Portuguese. You are clearly being very intentional about his language journey and your proactive mindset will be a helpful asset for your family.

From reading your situation I have a few thoughts to share with you:

The first thing that caught my eye is that you will be in Brazil right before your son’s transition. I would dedicate some time during your holiday to look for resources in Portuguese that either you or your husband can use with your son. Books are always helpful but make sure you get books that you can use with your son now but also some that you can use a little later as he grows older.

A real bonus would be if you can get your hands on some audio books! This way you are not the only source of Portuguese in your home. Your son can hear stories and other native speakers besides just you!

You can also make your own audio books. Ask as many family members and friends to record themselves reading a book in Portuguese. This can be a really special way to bond with family overseas and make them feel less far away than they really are.

So now let’s see what you can do once you are back home and your son starts spending more time in the German-speaking daycare.

Whenever families are considering a switch to their language policy, I recommend that you switch to something where all parties are feeling comfortable. You acknowledge that a full switch to a minority language at home model is likely not a good fit. Being honest with yourself and your partner is important so now we know we can cross that off the list.

It does sound like you are more open to a variation of the time and place policy where you dedicate specific times of your day or family gatherings to just speaking Portuguese. This strategy can be very beneficial to some families.

Designating specific times of the day or the week to speak as a family in a language can be a very fruitful exercise. Here are five tips I would encourage you to consider to get the most out of this policy:

Communicate the boundaries.  Make sure that your son is aware of when you will be speaking Portuguese as a family. Your son is only 2 so he should be fairly flexible with the policy change. Take advantage of the fact that he is young to set the right set of expectations for him.  The more he understands when to speak Portuguese specifically to you, the more you will get him to participate!

Be consistent. Once you have set those boundaries, stick to the plan. The last thing you want to do is confuse your child by changing things up on him all the time. You can be flexible at the beginning until you find an approach that works, but after you do try hard to hold yourselves accountable to the plan.

Find optimal times. In your email you suggest shifting to speaking Portuguese during meal times. This may be a great time since you are all together but it may also be a difficult time of the day. How does your son do with food? Is he a picky eater? Are you having to argue with him about eating? Or is he tired around dinner time because it is almost time for bed?

You want to set yourself up for success so you want to make sure those interactions are when he is well rested and you can focus on being intentional about what Portuguese vocabulary you want to infuse into his every day. I often find that meals can be distracting.  The conversations at the table when our kids are little are often shallow because we are focused on so many things.

Leverage playtime. Playing with your child is one of the best things you can do for their overall development. Language is really no exception. If you can dedicate anywhere between 10 to 30 minutes a day playing in Portuguese, you are likely to have some great results.

I can share two great podcast episodes from Bilingual Avenue that provide some useful insights as to how to get the most out of play time with your children. Episode 17 and Episode 89 are loaded with language strategies that you can put into place right away!

Keep working at it.  Parenting in general is full of changes.  Some of those are easier than others.  For some families, switching their language strategy can be a difficult time.  However, it is something you can do if you keep working at it.

You may find that you need to tweak your approach a few times until you find something that feels right for everyone involved. The main thing to remember is that this is a marathon and not a sprint. Keep an open communication with your husband and eventually you will all find your rhythm!

I hope you find these five tips helpful.  I know that the extra exposure to Portuguese will be helpful to your son!

Best of luck on your journey!


UPDATE: Marianna’s answer is now also available as a podcast on Bilingual Avenue!

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Marianna Du Bosq

Marianna Du Bosq

Marianna Du Bosq was born in Caracas, Venezuela where she spent the majority of her childhood as a monolingual speaking only Spanish. Until one day, right before her thirteen birthday, her family moved to the United States and her adventure and passion for language learning began! Her love for languages started with her own experience and grew into a desire for teaching others leading her to spend several years in the classroom teaching dual language learners. She is now facing the most challenging yet rewarding facet of her life, that of a multilingual parent with a mix of English, Spanish and German! Marianna is the blogger and podcast host at Bilingual Avenue where she interviews multilingual parents sharing their best practices along with experts in the field of multilingualism providing actionable tips and strategy. She has a Master’s in Education with an emphasis in Curriculum and Instruction.

1 Comment

  1. Elisa

    Thanks for the tips. I already do most of them (the challenge is to keep on going with the reduced time together) and I will search for the audio books and ask for more videos (my sister does some showing him/us something like the cat, singing, etc. and the kid loves that).
    My boy is now 2y2m and increased sooo much his skills in both languages since I submited the question. We got some visits from my and my husband’s family and my son is really doing great with sorting the languages. He even started to translate sometimes (really funny!). He is also more interested in skype and telephon.
    My mother is staying with us for some weeks and baby sitting in the afternoon. We are kind of speaking mostly portuguese during the meals and it is working nice. My husband also enjoys to speak portuguese on daily basis, let’s see how it goes when she is back home. My kid is learning a lot with her and being gently forced to search for the portuguese word (as he needs to do in the daycare with german).
    We are speacting our 2. baby and although we had to cancel our travel to Brazil (due to zika virus) it is nice that I will not work full time for much longer so I can spend more time with my son (and the baby). I also decided to work at least for some years part time after the baby break and one reason was the language.


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