Babel Kid

All you have to do is step out onto just about any street in Brussels and you’ll easily hear a few different languages in just a matter of minutes. When you look at the expat community, you won’t have a hard time finding people fluent in 4 or more languages, which personally always leaves me in awe. It was a no-brainer for us, living in such a multicultural hub like Brussels, that our kids were going to be multilingual.

We are a multilingual family. I am native bilingual in English and Portuguese, and I’m becoming fluent in French as well. I understand a few others, both spoken and written, but can’t really speak them. My husband R is native Portuguese, and is fluent in English, French and Spanish, and has limited knowledge of a few more. Right from the start, we settled on the “one parent one language” approach for bringing up our Sprouts to be bilingual. I speak (almost) exclusively in English, R speaks (almost) exclusively in Portuguese. Since we have Portuguese as a common language, and since it’s the one the Sprouts have least access to, we use it as our family language. What this looks like in action is me speaking English to the kids, them speaking English to me and we all speak Portuguese with R. Dinner-table conversation is, for the most part, in Portuguese. Notice there’s no French or Flemish here. That’s because it’s neither of our native languages, and therefore, we’re really not in a place to pass it on correctly. The Sprouts will pick up French, and eventually Flemish, from their environment.

Older Sprout is now just over 3 and a half years old, an age considered to be a real turning point in multilingualism. It’s the age when children are truly able to separate languages, having a big enough working vocabulary in their native tongues. It’s truly wonderful to hear him now, and to see the intentional “work” we have been doing show it’s fruits. It’s also nice to be able to show doubting family and friends that indeed children are capable of learning multiple languages from birth, and no it doesn’t confuse or delay them.

At just over 3 and a half, Sprout 1’s dominant language is clearly (American) English. He is perfectly fluent (for a kid his age, anyway) and capable of having entire conversations without resorting to words in any other language. His accent is clearly American. His second language at the moment is Portuguese. He’s fluent, but many times uses English grammar rules and conjugates some verbs as if they were English. Funny enough, I remember doing this myself as a kid, more out of laziness than anything else really. He also, oddly, has a strong American accent in Portuguese. I can’t really explain why, because I don’t and he learns Portuguese from Dad anyway, but the truth is it’s there. I have to real perception of his level of French. He doesn’t speak it to us, other than a word that slips in here or there. We know he speaks it at school because his teachers say he does and seem to understand him. I’ve overheard him speaking with friends who don’t share one of his other languages as well. Hilariously, he seems to think he can just grab a word in Portuguese and use the French rasping r sounds and call it a French word. He’ll sometimes try with an English word as well. Cracks me up!!! Sometimes he’ll slip in a word in a language other than the one he’s using and crack up saying “did you hear that Mommy? I made a mistake! I sad (blank) instead of (blank)!”. Cracks me up.

I expect his language dominance to change to French over time, although it does sadden me a bit. I’m ever so curious to know what language my sons will be speaking between themselves! I always spoke in English with my sister, even though we only ever spoke Portuguese to our parents.

It’s funny hearing him speak about languages as well, and he likes making up his own. He’s very aware of others speaking different languages, of languages spoken in different countries and even within a country. He frequently asks questions about why so and so speaks such and such language. It’s really something I don’t think he would be so aware of anywhere else. And we don’t even speak that many languages! I know other kids who speak 2 different languages to their parents, have another language their parents speak between themselves which they pick up passively, learn another at crèche, and then yet another in school! Wow!

How about you? I’d love to hear from other multilingual families and how you handle the dynamics of speaking different languages!

Fans of Flanders

This post was originally written for the Fans of Flanders website, where you can find me and many other great contributing bloggers. Go check them out!

6 thoughts on “Babel Kid

  1. As I work in a school where English is the school language and maybe half the children speak another language at home, often 2 languages at home, it’s definitely between 3 and 4 that they start to realize they speak more than one language and can separate out who speaks what at home. The ones who seem most advanced in English are the ones who come to school consistently and whose parents speak their mother tongue languages, the ones who struggle tend to be those who attend infrequently and frustratingly the ones whose parents think they are helping them by speaking non mother tongue English, so they neither master their parents’ mother tongue languages nor English, as they are poorly exposed to both.

  2. It’s so funny that your sprout speaks Portuguese with an American accent. I’m Armenian and speak exclusively Armenian to my son, my husband is French so he speaks French, we speak English with each other since we met in the U.S. My poor 10-month-old bébé so far has only said “dah” 🙂

  3. Great post! My French-speaking partner and I have many questions about raising our (not-yet-in-existence) kids here in Brussels and what languages are appropriate when. It’s great to have different perspectives from parents already going through these processes!

  4. Yes, totally agree with you! I would say the same goes for French! I hear so many people ho are clearly not native speakers speaking French to their kids to “help” them. Heart isin the right place, but unfortunately it’s not much help, is it?

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