Question

Our son is 3 years old and we live in England. Since he was born, my partner and I have spoken to him in English and our first language Portuguese. I speak English to him because English and Portuguese are my first languages and his dad speaks mostly Portuguese to him. He goes to full-time nursery (in English). He understands both languages perfectly but he prefers to speak English – a bit awkward when we are back in Portugal and he answers everyone in English. His dad has tried to stick to only speaking Portuguese, but even when in Portugal, our son will only answer in English or use gestures. Any tips for me?

Natalie

 

Answer

Dear Natalie

Children are very pragmatic about their language choice; they will go for whatever is easiest. For a child to speak a language there should be a need and a want for him or her to speak it. Your son is in full time nursery, so is surrounded by English a big part of the day. Because he is also used to you and his father speaking to him in English (as well as Portuguese), his preferred language will be English. When you think of it, there is really no need for him to answer in Portuguese in your everyday lives. Remember, he is only three – in his world, based on his experiences, everyone who speaks Portuguese can also understand him when he speaks English. Thus, this is the language he will use – even in Portugal with someone who does not know English.

You say that his father has tried to speak only Portuguese with him – how long did he try this approach? It can take quite a while to change a language habit, so I wouldn’t expect a quick change. If your partner can persist on talking only Portuguese, I am sure one day he will get a response in Portuguese.

Since you are both fluent in Portuguese, I would also suggest that you dedicate some days of the week, for example during the weekend, when both of you only speak Portuguese – signalling to your son that this is a “Portuguese-only” day. You could also teach him Portuguese rhymes and songs and read a lot of Portuguese stories to him. Show a lot of appreciation as soon as he says or sings even one word in Portuguese. You could also set up some sort of reward chart for him, where he gets stars or smiley faces every time he says something in Portuguese. This is one way to create the want to speak the language for him.

Wish you the best of luck!

Kind regards
Rita

Rita Rosenback

Rita Rosenback

Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages.

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