A Bilingual Child: The Big Bad Wolf

Big Bad Wolf, Bilingual child

Howlin’ Wolf by Ghetu Daniel (CC-BY-2.0)

We have a new obsession in our house at the moment: Wolves.  More precisely, The Big Bad Wolf.   Or at other times it’s the Lobo Malvado.

I think it started at school when he heard the story of Little Red Riding Hood, or Chapeuzinha Vermelha in Portuguese.  A little later we went to see what I thought was a very disappointing puppet play at the theatre, but Mr T just thought it was amazing.  I mean, it had a Big Bad Wolf in it.  What more could you want?

A week later he found out about The Three Little Pigs and I showed him the Disney version that was old when I was a kid with the famous song ‘Who’s Afraid Of the Big Bad Wolf?’

Now the interesting thing about both of these stories, from a bilingual child’s pont of view, is that they are almost exactly the same in both English and Portuguese.

There are details that are different, for example the in Portuguese The Little Red Riding Hood has some songs like ‘Eu sou o lobo mau’ (‘I am the big bad wolf’)  which is about how the wolf likes to eat children and pigs.

On the other hand, The English story of the Three Little Pigs has the delightful line from the pigs when they are asked to open their doors ‘Not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin,’ to which the wold replies ‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow the house down’.

And as I assume any good bilingual/bicultural child will do, Mr. T has appropriated the best parts of the English and Portuguese versions to make his own unique one.  This means we can start off with Little Red Riding Hood in Portuguese, switch to Three Little Pigs in English, then continue the Three Little Pigs but now in Portuguese and finish off with Little red Riding Hood in English.

Who's afraid of the Big Mod Wolf? by Ginny (CC-BY-SA- 2.0)

Who’s afraid of the Big Mod Wolf? by Ginny (CC-BY-SA- 2.0)

Each time it is slightly different, which is a problem for me as I am usually the big bad wolf in these stories.  It took me ages to figure out at one point, when I thought we were enacting Red Riding Hood, that I had to come down the chimney and burn my bum, just as the wolf does in the Disney version of the Three Little Pigs.  Now I have to sit in some pretend water and then run off howling as I hold my bottom in both hands, no matter which story we are recreating.  At least it is guaranteed to get a laugh and it will only last a week or so before he becomes obsessed with something else.

I think this blending of language, cultures and stories shows his creativity and his willingness not to be held back by not knowing something in one particular language.  It also shows that he really is not afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, or the Lobo Malvado or his daddy landing in a pot of boiling water-butt first.

Further Reading

Due to a lot of work at the moment, I have been going through Lionel Shriver’s ‘The New Republic‘ rather slowly.  It isn’t the fault of the book, which though not the greatest read ever is more than good enough to keep my attention.  The problem is a lack of time and, when I do get some free time I’d rather go to sleep.

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A Bilingual Child: Mythbusted

Robin Hood, Myth, Bilingual Children

He robbed from the rich and gave to the poor? Has to be a myth by Duncan Harris (CC-BY-2.0)

Before Mr.T was born I had the responsibility of researching how we were going to approach language in our family.  Both Mrs Head of the Heard and I wanted to him to speak both English and Portuguese, but we weren’t quite sure how to go about it.

Thankfully the internet was invented to answer such questions and my findings were surprising.  I was told things like it was hard, but worth it.  It was expensive, but worth it.  I would come up against resistance from other people, but ignore them because it was worth it.  Some kids are slow to pick up either language, but keep at it, because it’s worth it.

The main thing I took away from my research was that it was worth it.

Our experience, after 3 1/2 years, is that it most definitely is worth it.  However, most of the rest of problems haven’t presented themselves.

It can be hard

Obviously I have never had any experience bringing up a monolingual child, but I can’t see it being much easier than bringing up a bilingual one.  I speak English to my son, my wife speaks mainly Portuguese and everyone else uses whatever language they feel like, which is usually their first language.

I have had to go online to find/remember nursery songs and we have made a conscious decision to play TV programmes in the original language.  I have also actively sought out opportunities for my son to be exposed to English so that he doesn’t just think it is some weird thing only his dad does (there are lots of other weird things that only his dad does, but that is beside the point).

But hard?  Difficult?

If this is as difficult as raising a child gets then being a parent really is a piece of cake.

Stonehenge, Myths, Bilingual children

Built by Druids so they’d know what time the pubs opened by Qallnx (CC-BY-2.0)

It can be expensive

Again, this isn’t true.

We have an extensive library of children’s books, with about 75% being in English and the rest in Portuguese.  I guess that if we were only using one language at home we could have made a bit of a saving there.  All the DVDs we have in the house were bought in Brazil and are usually in both English and Portuguese, so we haven’t had much of an expense there.  We go back to the UK every 9 months or so, but that is primarily to keep Mr. T in contact with his UK family and learning English is just a happy bi-product.

Compared to some of my friends who are spending a fortune sending their kids to private language schools or to bilingual schools then we are actually saving money.

You can face resistance from family/friends/educators/doctors…

Not once have we come up against anybody who thinks it is a bad idea for our son to be raised speaking English and Portuguese.  His doctor thinks it is great and regularly practises his own English with our son.  The teachers at his school said they had difficulty understanding him at first, but they have worked extra hard to communicate with him, as they have done with other children who come from a bilingual background.  Friends are envious of him either because they know he is going to speak great English or because they know we won’t have to spend a packet teaching him English.

And when he calls me ‘Daddy’ at school all the mom’s and teachers think it is just the cutest thing ever.

Now, I understand that English is a prestige language and so this could have an impact on other people’s ideas.  However, I know quite a few people from language communities that have less prestige who are also bringing their kids up to be multilingual and not one of them has told me about friction with their friends, relatives or health/education professionals.

Zeus, Mths, Bilingua Children

One of many godly myths by Tilemahos Efthimiadis (CC-BY-2.0)

Some children are slow in picking up both languages

Ok, so there might be a grain of truth in this one, but merely a grain.  Our son is only 3 1/2 so it is still too early to say, but about a year ago we had a few minor worries that his language wasn’t progressing as well as other kids.  We have a good friend who has a son 3 weeks younger than ours, and we were shocked one day when we visited and he was coming out with fully formed sentences, whereas our son could mutter a few words, if that.

But then, all of a sudden, Mr. T’s language started to blossom.  He is still a little behind the average of his peers in Portuguese, but not by much.  He is catching up every day and we no longer have even the merest hint of a worry.  And he understands everything in English, which none of his peers can, so I am pretty confident he is going to end up knowing both languages perfectly.

Of course, there is a chance that he was slightly behind the other kids because this is a totally normal thing.  Children pick up languages at different rates whether they are monolingual or multilingual.  We’ll just never know the reason for our son.

Our Experience

The important thing to remember with this, though, is that it is just our experience.  If we were to try to do this in another country, or even another city in Brazil, we might have more problems.  If I wasn’t a language teaching professional it might have been more worrisome.  If we didn’t have access to Skype and the internet we might not have had so much free contact with grandparents.  If we had been teaching a language other than English we might have had more difficulty finding opportunities for exposure in the minority language.  However, for us, so far, it has been all good.

This post is part of the November edition of the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival.  You can find more information about this excellent project, as well as finding past editions of the carnival, at Piri Piri Lexicon

A Bilingual Child: Living With a Parrot

Living with a bilingual parrot

Pieces of eight – DeusXFloridaCC-BY-2.0

When I was a kid we had a variety of different animals around the house.  It was never exactly a menagerie, but at one time or another we had some fish, a couple of vicious budgies, dogs and a couple of stray cats who moved in and made themselves at home.  I loved our dogs, but I didn’t really have a lot of time for the other animals, especially the budgies who would bite your finger off as soon as look at you.

At the moment we don’t have any animals, but we are planning to get a dog in the New Year when we move into our house.  (Just make sure you don’t tell Mr. T as he will get far too excited about it.)

While it is sad not having any animals to share our lives with, our son has been doing his best to make up for it by either roleplaying animals or getting me to pretend to be an animal.  Hs favourite is a dog, hence the plan to get one early next year.  Sometimes, Mr. T will be a dog and bark (Brazilian dogs say ‘au au‘ not ‘woof woof’) jump up and down and try to lick people.

After a while he will decide I have to become a dog and he becomes Tio Ivan.  Tio Ivan, or Uncle Ivan, is actually Mr T’s great-uncle, but the thing is that he has two dogs: Golden Retrievers called Arthur and Mel.  I have to be Arthur and I am not allowed to jump, I have to get my stomach tickled and run after balls.  It’s all great fun for Mr. T, but it doesn’t do my knees much good.

Other animals that we have to pretend to be have included horses (can you guess who has to do all of the running?), crocodiles, sharks and bats.

Mr. T’s best impression, though, is of a parrot.  As every fan of pirate films knows, parrots are great at repeating what you say, even if they don’t understand what is being said.  Mr. T has taken to listening to conversation in either Portuguese or English and then trying to mimic the last few words of each phrase.  If you look at him while he is doing this he puts on a shy smile and hides his face.  But as soon as you look away and continue with the conversation he returns to parroting the conversation.

I had a vicious budgie when I was a kid

Watch out! He’ll have your whole hand off! – Dwayne MaddenCC-BY-2.0

We laugh at this and call him a parrot which sometimes he likes and other times he denies.  It’s all good fun and has started to become a family tradition.

I have been encouraging him of late by slowing down some of my sentences and repeating them so that he can hear them better.  I think it helps him learn vocabulary in both languages as he tries to say words, even if he doesn’t yet understand all of the meanings.

More importantly than this, though, is the effect it has on the rhythm and the intonation of the two languages.  Portuguese and English share a lot of similarities, especially if compared to a non-European language like Chinese.  However, there are important differences and copying the way we are saying sentences, despite not getting all of the words correct, will only help him to develop, identify and control the differences between our family languages.

So we might not have a dog (yet), any fish or stray cats, but I’d take our human parrot over a psychotic budgie any day of the week.

Further Reading

I had a bit of a problem on Monday evening when I finished ‘Insurrection‘ by Robin Young because I thought I didn’t have anything left in the house to read.  I looked through my bookshelf in a state of near-panic when I found ‘The New Republic‘ by Lionel Shriver.  I got it for Christmas last year and just never botherd to start it because it is a hard back and they are very heavy to cart around in my bag all day.  So far it has been a decent book about a disillioned coporate lawyer who jacks it all in to become a journalist and ends up covering a terrorist organisation in a make-believe European country just to the south of Portugal.