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