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!

A multilingual Sprout

This post is part of the Bilingual for Fun Carnival, hosted by Bilingual For Fun.

Shortly after Sprout started walking about a month ago, he also started to actually say some words. He has been saying “mama” for quite a while, although I’m not exactly sure he’s referring to me or just asking for comfort… He clearly says “papá” in Portuguese. Other words he says are “bye-bye” (said “baba” and referring to going out, not to people leaving) “ball” (“ba”) and “dá” (as in “gimme”, although he sometimes uses a similar sound to point “there”). He has said “tiger” (“tiga”) once referring to his favourite stuffed animal, and I’m glad I had a witness because otherwise I would’ve thought I dreamt it! Clearly he’s staring to speak English. Which is normal because he spends most of the day with me. However he does understand both fairly equal. In funny way sometimes! Like when daddy asks him to get his “sapatos” (shoes) to go out, he always gets daddy’s, but when I say get your shoes, he’ll bring his!

I’ve been asked many times what we are doing regarding languages. Both me and R are Portuguese, although I was born and lived in the US until I was 12 and am bilingual. It’s only natural we speak Portuguese to each other, although I must admit I mix in quite a lot of English, especially since Alex was born. Our arrangement consists basically of one parent, one language. I only speak English to Alex (although I have a hard time doing so around Portuguese speakers because I feel I’m being rude!) and Rod only speaks Portuguese. We both speak Portuguese to each other. Outside the home, he has contact mostly with English (both by native and non-native speakers) and French. I never worried much about him picking up all these languages. That’s one of the good thing about living in Brussels – it’s so multicultural. A real melting pot where it is quite common (especially among expats) to see couples with different cultures and languages with their children who speak various languages from an early age. Being bilingual myself, I know firsthand how it is to grow up with more than one language. I’m fluent in both, although at varying levels. For instance, I feel my English never really “grew up” once I moved to Portugal. On the other hand, I feel I can only express certain ideas adequately in English. I never considered writing this blog in Portuguese (although I did consider doing both). I think in both languages and I can switch easily between them. However, I also know my Portuguese wouldn’t be nearly as good had I not lived and studied in Portugal.

I’m really curious to see Sprouts language develop. Will he have my American accent? Will he have a French accent? I also wonder where he’ll grow up. We plan on staying here for the forseeable future, but not sure if that will be for life.
Considering the amount of parenting books I’ve read (I really should post about them!) it’s amazing I haven’t read anything about multilingualism. I’m thinking about getting this book. I’ve heard very good things about it. I’ve also looked for information on and I’ve also been reading the blogging Carnivals on bilingualism. There seems to be more information out for bilingual children than for children with 3 or more languages, but I’ll keep looking! Please drop a comment if you have any good resources.