By Ana Paula G. Mumy, MS, CCC-SLP
When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, as any parent, I did so many things to prepare for our daughter’s arrival, but as a bilingual mom-to-be, I conscientiously prepared for being the primary Portuguese speaker in her life. Even with all of the preparation of reading blogs and books about bilingual parenting, building a library of children’s storybooks in Portuguese, and relearning children’s songs from my childhood, I naively thought it would be easier, that as long as I spoke only Portuguese to my children from birth, they would easily become Portuguese speakers and would naturally choose Portuguese as our language of interaction.
When my son arrived about 1.5 years later, I excitedly thought to myself, “Yay, we’ll have another Portuguese speaker in our home!” The unfortunate reality is that even in the midst of my efforts to keep Portuguese central and constant in our lives, they still favor English, which is my husband’s and our community language. What’s even more bewildering is that for my daughter, who’s older and has more advanced language skills, if I ask her if she’s able to say in Portuguese the English utterance she just made, she can do it most times without any difficulty. So I’m left with the puzzling question, if she clearly has the Portuguese language base, why didn’t she choose Portuguese in the first place when I’m speaking to her in Portuguese?
I never imagined that the majority language giant would be so large, so difficult to overcome. I didn’t realize my competition with him would be so fierce, so constant, so exasperating. Many days I feel like a little insignificant gnome trying to guard this minority language treasure that I hold. The majority language giant is everywhere I look…in all public places we roam—the library, the playground, the grocery store, the mall, play dates with friends, church, the skating rink…simply everywhere! This giant is so present, so powerful that he even attempts to take over in our home on television, on the iPad, on the radio, in storybooks. So here I am, this tiny minority language gnome always seemingly on the losing end; the odds constantly against me in this intense competition for relevance, input, and need. And to make matters worse, I confront the quandary that the majority language giant is equally needful…such a love-hate relationship exists with this giant!
Strategies for the battle
Are you feeling hopeless in the battle with your majority language giant? Well, here’s the good news. Instead of accepting defeat, here are some strategies that you might try. As a trilingual speech-language pathologist, these strategies are geared for children with language disorders, but as a bilingual mother, they work beautifully with typically-developing children learning more than one language because of the scaffolding and structure they provide.
There are many language facilitation strategies in my field, but the ones described below are the ones I employ most often with bilingual children: Narration, Expansions, Recasts, and Choices. Think of the word “nurture” and the acronym abbreviation “NERCh” as you learn and practice use of these strategies. Some of these strategies may overlap or be used simultaneously.
Narrate or talk through and about the things you and your child are doing, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling (keep the five senses in mind!). The goal here is modeling ample vocabulary (number of words and a variety of words used such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) and correct language use (appropriate word order and grammar such as pronoun use, verb usage, prepositional phrases, etc.). Live narration has been described as a verbal “play-by-play” description of what is going on around you.
In summary, narrate all of your parent-child interactions in the home language (i.e. conversing, playing, reading, singing, drawing, cooking, feeding, dressing, bathing, bedtime routine, going out, shopping). It’s easy to just go through these activities without much verbal output, so talk, talk, talk!
You might notice your child will subconsciously begin narrating his/her experiences and happenings, and if you notice them trying to utilize the minority language but struggling, you can employ additional helps such as giving them the first sound or the first syllable of the word, or simply teaching them the word on the spot. One thing I love that my children do is, when they hear me using a word they don’t understand in Portuguese and can’t grasp meaning from the context of our conversation (maybe a word I don’t use often or a new word they’ve never heard), they’ll directly ask me what that word means. I can then directly teach the new vocabulary.
Expand on the words and/or the sentence structure of your child’s utterances. The goal here is to affirm your child’s utterance in the target language while expanding it to model appropriate vocabulary, correct sentence structure, and complete sentences. For example, if my child would say, “Cat eat,” I would affirm the utterance while expanding it, “Yes, the cat is eating his food. It’s yummy!” Or if my child would request something by stating one word with rising intonation to indicate a question, such as “Milk?”, I would formulate the complete question while meeting that request: “Would you like to drink some milk?” or “Do you want milk?” You could also affirm: “Yes, you want milk. Mommy will give you milk.”
The goal here is to recast or present your child’s utterance (which was partially or completely in the majority language) in a changed structure (in the minority language) while maintaining its meaning. For example, if my child would utter a phrase or sentence partially or entirely in English, I would recast that utterance in Portuguese, modeling correct usage where any lexical or grammatical gaps were noted.
Give your child choices when needed to simplify the demand of a response. The goal here is reducing the pressure of a correct response, especially if you know the vocabulary being used is not fully grasped by your child or is not a solid part of his/her everyday repertoire. For example, “Do you want a banana or an apple?” instead of an open-ended question, “What would you like to eat?”
As you use these purposeful strategies as needed, keep your verbal interactions naturalistic (not forced). With practice, you should notice these language building strategies will become a natural part of your interactional style. Keep them in mind as you make day-to-day decisions about interactions, activities, and opportunities for engagement in the minority language and culture.
Minority language use
I am often asked, how do you get your children to respond in the minority language? Do you force them to do it or to repeat themselves in the minority language?
When my children default to the majority language, sometimes I may ask them to repeat the utterance in Portuguese after giving them a model. Occasionally I may say in Portuguese with a puzzled look on my face, “I don’t understand English today.” Most of the time though, I believe the most important thing I do is this: I simply keep speaking the target language. It would be easy to respond in English, and it often takes conscious effort to remain in Portuguese, but in the end, it’s the most productive effort I can make to foster my children’s growth in our bilingual journey.
Finally, let me offer a word of caution for eager bilingual parents: Although language learning is important, it’s not more important than having healthy and loving relationships with our children. Language learning should never be a source of pressure, fear, shame, anxiety, embarrassment, anger, irritation, or disappointment. Language is about communication—interacting, engaging, and connecting with people—so it should be an experience that brings pleasure and joy in relationships.
What your child has to say is more important than how he/she communicates it (i.e. the language he/she uses), so we must always demonstrate that we value their words (thoughts, opinions, conversation) more than their delivery. We, as minority language gnomes, must find fun and creative ways to encourage minority language use in our endless battle with the majority language giant!