English is starting to replace Portuguese. What can I do?

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Dear Dr. Gupta,

 

My three-year-old child speaks English everywhere and with my husband at home, and Portuguese with me. I recently noticed that she is adding more and more English words in her conversation with me and forgetting Portuguese words that are common in her world, such as the names of colors and animals.

 

I try to correct her gently by repeating the entire sentence she’d just spoken but entirely in Portuguese, and ask her to repeat it. I’m doing this over and over for the last week. Any other ideas on how to prevent her losing vocabulary?

 

Erica

 

Dear Erica,

 

When children get to the age of three or four they usually want to be like their friends. For bilingual children this often means either rejecting the minority language or gradually moving across to more and more use of the majority language. Sometimes the parents just have to expect this.

 

You ask for ‘other ideas’ on how to prevent her losing Portuguese vocabulary. I am going to tell you that you should stop translating what she says into Portuguese and you should stop making her repeat after you. This will not help her to learn Portuguese and it is likely to damage your relationship.

 

As long as she is happy with it, continue to speak Portuguese, even if she answers in English. Do not correct her for speaking in English. She has observed that everyone around her speaks English—she might be asking herself ‘why do I need Portuguese?’

 

You can also increase her exposure to Portuguese from other people. Seek out some Portuguese-speaking people. Find some events. Are there any playgroups or preschools that support Portuguese? Can she have an opportunity to play with Portuguese-speaking children? Can you travel to a place where Portuguese is spoken? Do you have friends and relatives you can visit or Skype with? Especially—can you track down some people (especially children) who do not speak any English?

 

You will probably have to expect that English will become your daughter’s main language, but you should be able to continue using Portuguese as well. But not by forcing her to speak it. You need to make it relevant to her so that she WANTS to speak it and NEEDS to speak it.

 

Dr. Gupta

For language resources in Portuguese, check out our bilingual children’s language library!

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Anthea Fraser Gupta is a sociolinguist with an interest in how children learn to talk. She was born into a monolingual environment in Middlesbrough, England, but enjoyed learning about languages from an early age. She gained a B.A. in English Linguistic Studies and Archaeology at the University of Newcastle, then went on to do an M.A. in Linguistics. She left Newcastle in 1975 to work in Singapore, where she encountered a society in which multilingualism is usual and expected. In Singapore nearly all children come to nursery school already able to speak 2 or 3 languages. While lecturing in the linguistics of English at the National University of Singapore, she did a doctoral degree at the University of York, looking at the language acquisition over two years of four Singaporean children who were growing up with four languages. In Singapore, she also married a man from a multilingual family from India. She returned to England in 1996 to the School of English at the University of Leeds, where she taught courses on both English language and bilingualism until her retirement in 2010. Anthea has had experience in a range of multilingual and multicultural societies and families. She has published books and articles on English, especially the language use of children in Singapore, and has also produced a novel for children set in Singapore. She is deeply interested in child development and believes that the most important thing in raising a child is to provide love and stimulation, regardless of what language or languages are learned.

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