Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Bilingual children and the value of languages

An essential element to succeed in the transmission of a language to a child is the value of the language to the child, that is, the benefits the child perceives the language brings, the people and cultures to which it provides access.

When we are trying to teach our offspring a language that is not the one spoken in the country where we live, ideally the child should see this "other" language as a tool to access an interesting part of her life, and not just as "a language that mom (or dad) speaks". When exposed to more than one language, children understand very quickly the value of each of them and decide whether the effort of using each individual language is worthwhile or not. As they always do what is easier, if English covers all situations in which they are interested there will be no incentive to speak another language. 

Then somehow we need to show our children that Portuguese has a special value, and that there are many benefits in knowing how to speak it. But how can we do this?

The first important point is that, in order to be effective, the process of enhancing the value of a language has to become part of the family routine from an early age, and must be continuous throughout childhood and part of adolescence. 

The task is often easier when both parents are Brazilian. However, that alone does not guarantee that the child will want to keep speaking Portuguese after starting school if he/she builds up a social circle composed only of people who speak the language of the country of residence. When they reach a certain age, some children refuse to continue speaking the language used at home, even if used by both parents, because they feel that makes them different from others. This usually occurs when the home language has not been sufficiently valued.

Increasing the value of language in general

Ideally, there should be a linguistically-rich environment at home, with good music, books and many opportunities for the parents to sit and talk at length with the child. You should read a lot to your child – this will help develop his/her vocabulary, comprehension skills, general knowledge and creativity. 

Research shows that a linguistically-rich home environment makes it much easier for children to learn to read, even if they learn to read in another language. This means that if the books, conversations, etc., to which you expose your child at home are in Portuguese, and your child starts learning to read in English at school, the linguistic experience in Portuguese will be a positive factor for literacy in English. This was exactly our experience. If the child values communication in general, he/she will be more interested and capable of developing activities related to language, whether in English, Portuguese or any other language.

Some practical suggestions to increase the value of the Portuguese language

Remember that here we are dealing with strategies for a child to become interested in the Portuguese language, not for him/her to learn it. The two things are a little difficult to separate, because in general learning occurs naturally during the process of enhancement of value, but the question here is: what should I do so my child will want to speak Portuguese? How can I show him/her that the language has a special value?

A very powerful tool to increase the value of Portuguese is Brazilian television, so much so that I plan to write about this point alone in a future post. Anyway, and even if some experts don't like the idea, films and cartoons in Portuguese do help, not only to learn the language, but also to increase its value. For example, if the cartoon that your child loves is only shown in Portuguese, or if his/her favourite character speaks Portuguese in films, there is a great incentive for the child to develop an interest in the language.
Contact with relatives and friends in Brazil is absolutely essential, from an early age. The language should be associated with people the child likes and the more people the better. Encourage grandparents, uncles and other relatives to speak only Portuguese to your child, even if they speak the language of your country of residence. Receive Brazilian guests and ask them to speak only Portuguese to you and your child. Use skype or other form of video-link to make sure your child speaks constantly with relatives and friends in Brazil. Communication with the family in Norway was the driving force behind our daughter's motivation to learn Norwegian, because her Norwegian grandmother, uncles and aunts don't speak English.

As the language should be associated with people the child likes, if you need to hire a nanny, ideally you should hire a Brazilian, and give clear instructions for her to speak only Portuguese to your child.

Travel to Brazil with your child whenever you can and stay as long as possible. If your child is still of pre-school age and you have flexibility and are able to travel during low season, you may be able to find good offers and buy air tickets for a reduced price. Before my daughter started school we usually travelled to Brazil twice a year. It is extremely important for the child to experience that "other world" where absolutely everything happens in Portuguese. This will also shape your child's multicultural competence and strengthen the links with the family in Brazil.

Portuguese language clubs and groups of Brazilian parents abroad also have a very important role in the process of enhancing the value of the language, as explained in detail in another post. If you don't have a group near where you live, try to get to know Brazilians in your region, so your child can have contact with others who also live in your country of residence and speak Portuguese.

Look for ways for your child to have contact with Brazilian culture in your city. London offers a variety of opportunities: steakhouses, samba and capoeira workshops, exhibitions and concerts of Brazilian artists, etc. Participate in promotions organized by the Brazilian community.


The strategies suggested above apply primarily to younger children, but parents should remain vigilant and keep stimulating children during adolescence, a time when the process of enhancing the value of a language should yield fruits, because many teenagers tend to refuse to speak a language learned during childhood. Do not lower your guard! The best tactic at this stage, in addition to continuing to visit Brazil often, is to encourage your child to have a lot of contact with people of the same age who live in Brazil. Communication via the Internet, sharing music, videos and other news from their respective countries are great ways to sustain children’s interest in Brazilian culture and lifestyle – and thereby sustain their interest in the Portuguese language.

Copyright © Claudia Storvik, 2010. All rights reserved.

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