Helping children develop their American and native cultural identities together.

Shared from Sinews: How can I convince my husband to speak to our son in his native language?

Posted by bububooks on August 31, 2009

We at bububooks wanted to share some insight into raising bilingual children, debunk myths and offer tips.  This article comes from http://www.bilingualreaders.com.

My husband is Portuguese, but we live in Spain. My husband says that it feels unnatural for him to speak to our seven month old son Marco in Portuguese, although he plans to speak Portuguese to him when he is old enough to speak back. I’m always telling my husband it will be too late by then. How can I convince him to speak to our son in Portuguese now? What are the technical reasons why it is so important for Marco to hear both languages from the beginning?
–María, Bilbao, Spain

Dear María:

When you feel comfortable speaking to your child in one language, it can be difficult to switch gears and speak to him in another language. Forcing this type of change can even cause emotional difficulties, since it is already hard enough to learn to be a parent, establish emotional ties with your child, etc. This is especially true when your baby’s communication skills are still rudimentary. I would encourage you not to worry too much because IT IS NEVER TOO LATE TO LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE.

At this point it seems like I support your husband’s decision, right? The truth is I’m not radically opposed to him waiting until your son is older to speak to him in his native language or even never speaking to him in Portuguese at all if that would somehow damage his relationship with his child. BUT…there would have to be a very good reason for him not to do so.

The following is a list of common myths which are NOT good reasons for your husband to avoid speaking to your son in his native language:

Myth 1: Portuguese would not be useful for my child, since it’s not as “prestigious” as languages such as English, German or French. Portuguese and its variants are spoken by millions of people worldwide (Brazil, Africa, etc.), and sometimes learning a less “popular” language can provide unexpected academic and career advantages for your child. Who knows if Brazil, like China, may one day become an important trade location for multinational companies?

Myth 2: If my child learns both Spanish and Portuguese at the same time, this choice may prevent him from learning other important world languages like English. On the contrary, speaking two languages from the time he is small will help your child learn a third language later in life.

Myth 3: All of my efforts to communicate with my son are in vain until he learns to speak. If that were the case, why should we speak to our children in any language if they don’t understand us?

I would like to help you both make the best possible decision for your family by giving you a few reasons why your son would benefit from hearing both languages as soon as possible:

Language development begins when the fetus begins to hear. Babies can hear you from the very beginning, even when they’re in their mother’s womb. This process is passive at first, then it becomes more active as the child grows.
A four month old baby is perfectly capable of distinguishing between the sounds and musicality of both his languages and reacts in a different way to each one.
Four month olds are also able to learn (by imitating) the movements their parents’ mouths make when speaking with them. According to recent studies, they can even distinguish between facial movements of those who are speaking with them when presented with visual recordings with no sound.
When a baby begins to babble, he is producing only those sounds included in the phonetic repertoire of the languages he hears at home. He generally produces the easiest sounds first and the more complicated ones later.
One of the first steps in learning a language is to distinguish its musicality and phonetics. It has also been demonstrated that the earlier a child learns a second language, the easier it will be for him to speak without a foreign accent in that language.

Even if these arguments do convince your husband, he may still need some help deciding how to make the transition from one language to another. Here are few suggestions:

A visit from a Portuguese family member or a vacation in Portugal would be a great help. When we hear others around us speaking in a language, it feels more natural for us to speak to our child in that language. In this context, the change may not feel as forced.
It may be easier to make this transition when your husband is alone with your son in a relaxed environment such as bath time, when telling him a bedtime story or singing him a lullaby. The presence of a person he is not used to speaking Portuguese around may make the transition more uncomfortable or artificial.
Sometimes reading a book in the native language can be a more practical first step. In this way your husband would only have to read what is written. The text could also inspire him to add his own comments or discuss the story with your son. Babies as young as nine months old already love to help turn the pages and look at the illustrations. Reading bilingual books is especially helpful, as each of you can read the text in your own language, which will help your son to associate two different words with the same illustration and actions.
Playing some of the same games our parents played with us as children can also be helpful. Each culture has its own games, so have fun playing with your son!

Sometimes making these small changes can make the transition from one language to another easier. It also allows us to experiment before deciding whether or not we are capable of making this change, and just how fast or slow we want things to go.

María, I’m afraid this change won’t be immediate or forced, but I wish you both the best of luck with finding the right path for your bilingual family.

All the best,
Dr. Orlanda Varela

Dr. Orlanda Varela is a Child Psychiatrist and the Coordinator of the educational project for Bilingual Families at SINEWS Multilingual Therapy Institute in Madrid. SINEWS organizes bilingualism workshops for parents in Madrid, as well as personalized speech therapy sessions to bilingual families with specific language development problems. For more information, please visit sinews.es.


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