Language Change

English: Repartition map of the languages over...

Languages move and change around the world (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although I assumed that this blog would be all about how Thomas’ language changes over time, it has become apparent recently how the process of him learning two languages is having an effect on the language of other people who are close to him.  I am going to write about three people: his mother, myself and his Brazilian grandmother.  It’s pretty obvious why I am going to write about me and my wife as we are the primary caregivers.  However, for the last few months we have been living with my mother-in-law as we build our own house, so she has become much closer to Thomas than otherwise might have been the case.


Being the only truly fluent bilingual person in the house, I don’t think Thomas’ bilingual adventure has had too much of an efect on his mother.  There are, of course, the normal changes in that her intonation changes when she is talking to him, she uses more child-like vocabulary, simplifies her grammar and often repeats herself, but this is common to most parents.  She does this in both languages and doesn’t seem to have altered her language outside any interactions with Thomas.


While she would never describe herself as fluent, Thomas’ grandmother speaks fairly good English and can understand most of what people say to her.  She has been very supportive of our endeavours to use two languages at home and the fact that she has more than a working knowledge of English is reassuring to me because I don’t feel I am pushing her away when I speak English.

She has been using English words a lot more since Thomas has been in her house.  She will say a sentence in Portuguese, but use the word ‘daddy’ instead of ‘papai’.  She also tends to use the English names of cartood characters because we try to watch them in English rather than Portuguese to increase the amount of time that Thomas is exposed to English.  The fact that she is watching programmes in English, often without any subtitles must also be having an effect on her listening skills.

Sometimes Thomas asks his vovó to read a book in English.  At these times, rather than read English with her Brazilian accent, she chooses to read a sort of translation.  I say sort of because there are times when she can’t translate it and so makes it up according to the pictures.  I am not sure if this would be accepted by academics and OPOL extremists, but I think it is great.


I have found myself code switching more than I thought I would.  If I am not paying attention to what I am saying I find sentences like ‘Would you like some agua?’ or ‘Did you see the au au?’ just slipping out of my mouth.  Although Thomas understand the English words ‘water’ and ‘dog/woof woof’ they just don’t come naturally to me because he doesn’t use them himself.

There are also times when I decide to use a Portuguese word on purpose because I want to make sur ehe has understood.  I sometimes ask him ‘Do you want to papar?’ when it should be ‘Do you want something to eat?’, or I use ‘nanar’ instead of ‘sleep’ when I am pretending to go to sleep so that he can wake me up.  I think this might have something to do with accommodation but I am not entirely comfortable that it is in his best interests in the long term.  I do it because it is useful at the time and I am hoping that so long as I am aware of it and don’t let it get out of hand then it won’t become too much of an issue.

The other effects on me have been the need to learn a lot of vocabulary associated with babies that I am not sure I even knew in English.  I have also had a lot more chance to talk to random people on the street as they all want to tell me how cute Thomas looks.

Have you noticed any changes in your own language use when bringing up bilingual kids?
Related Articles

Code Switching: Can it Affect your Child? –

Examples of code-switching among young adults – youtube

What is code switching and why do bilinguals do it? –


10 thoughts on “Language Change

  1. My daughter actually called my Mamae for a while after we came back from 6 weeks in Brazil. I loved it. She occasionally says it now but mostly uses ‘meine Mama’ or Maman.

    • Hi Annabelle,

      It is amazing how quickly young children can change their language without even realising it. I had cousins who would go to Ireland every summer for two weeks and come back with the broadest Irish accent possible.

  2. How I envy vovo, what a nice relaxed way to improve your language skills instead of the pressure of a classroom.

    But I am a bit confused I thought to eat was comer and to sleep was dormer – please explain

    • You are right, natural language usage will always trup the classroom.

      You are also right about ‘comer’ and ‘dormir’ meaning ‘eat’ and ‘sleep’. As far as I can figure out, the words ‘papar’ and ‘nanar’ are used with kids, a bit like when we say ‘doggie’ for a dog. You wouldn’t usually say to an adult ‘I saw a man out walking his doggie’, just like you wouldn’t normally use the words ‘papar’ or ‘nanar’ with an adult. I may be wrong about this, but it is what I understand about the words at the moment.

  3. You forgot about Mimi! A few week ago her understanding of English was none existent and now she not only understands but uses “blue”, “daddy”, “car” and “dirty”.

  4. I definitely find myself bouncing back and forth between French and English with my kids. And increasing the amount I speak French, hoping to give them more of that. I also find myself combining languages in one sentence just as you described, and saying something in one language then repeating it in the other.

    • Thank you very much for your comment.

      It is good to read this because recently the stuff i have been reading suggests that switching between languages is not the best strategy to follow. For me, though, it feels like a very natural thing to do. Have you noticed any problems arising because of this?

      • I wouldn’t call them problems – our daughter combines the two languages at times, but I think that’s pretty normal. She’s actually begun to speak more French since I began using more French with her. Often when I switch to French, she does too. Anecdotally, I’d say it’s working out for the better for us!

      • That’s great to hear. A lot of the time you read something about how you should do this and you shouldn’t do the other and it all seems very clear. But when you talk to people there is a lot more subtlety.

        Thanks for answering my question.

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