A Bilingual Child: Communication Strategies and the Wrong Language

A bilingual child responds in the 'wrong' language and uses lots of communication strategiesI read a very instructive post recently by Multilingual Living called ‘4 reasons why a bilingual child answers in the “wrong” language.’

My almost-4-year-old son replies to me in the ‘wrong’ language.  By ‘wrong language’ I mean that I speak to him in English and he usually replies in Portuguese.  I think the main reason for this is that he knows I understand him so it is easier for him to use the language he encounters 99% of the time.

I am not particularly worried about this.  Before Mr T was even born we decided on what our language plans were going to be.  One of the principles we came up with was that our child should be free to use whatever language he/she wanted to use.  The aim was communication, not communication in a specific language.  We didn’t want to force our child to speak a particular language as we thought this might lead to resentment.  Instead, we hope that through constant exposure the two languages would be picked up normally.

He seems to have a great passive knowledge of English, as he seems to understand pretty much everything I say to him.  This patient approach is also starting to provide some success as he has been producing more English with me in the last few weeks, even if it is stock phrases like, ‘I’m the boss in this house!’ and ‘I’m not tired!’

He is exposed to quite a bit of English.  He obviously hears me speaking all the time, and when his mamãe and I are speaking in his presence we usually use English as well.  We try to make sure that any TV he watches is in English, and most of the songs we listen to are also in English.  Finally, there is his family in the UK that speaks English to him.

And this UK family is perhaps the key yo the whole thing.  They speak very little, if any, Portuguese so when he is with them he has a choice.  Either make the effort to speak English, find a different way of communicating, or simply not be understood.

When we were in the UK over Christmas and New Year, his mamãe and I went to Edinburgh for a few days, leaving Mr T in the capable hands of my parents.  We were slightly worried about how they were going to communicate, but regular Skype calls home reassured us that there were no huge problems.  Mr T was able to find a way of communicating his needs.  Sometimes, this was by taking his time to think about an English word. At other times it took a bit more creativity, like jumping up and down and holding his crotch to show my dad he needed to go to the toilet.

He has even started to do this with me now.  The other day he wanted to know how to say ‘siga‘ in English.  I pretended that I didn’t understand, hoping that I could get him to remember it in English himself.  Instead he acted it out with one hand following another.

It is these communication strategies that I find amazing.  A desire to get your meaning across, couple with a knack for using whatever tool is at your disposal is surely an important life skill that will serve him well in the future, whatever that might be.


Image Credit

Chess by Sasha the Okay Photographer CC BY 2.0

Communication Strategies

As any good second language learner knows, sometimes you either don’t know or can’t find the word you need in order to communicate what you want.  In this case you have to find an alternative way of getting your message across.

Before T was born I was of course aware that babies and infants could do exactly the same thing, only I was under the mistaken impression that their communication strategy was based on crying.  When T was very young we quickly learned to interpret the different types of cry that he had; one for a dirty nappy, one for being hungry, one for being scared and so on.

He has also learned different types of communication strategy that I was never aware of.  If he wants to watch TV he opens the palm of his left hand draws a circle on it with the index finger of his right hand.  If we are going outside he reminds me that he needs a hat by pointing at his head.  This is not to be mistaken for telling me has hit his head when he uses the palm of his hand and gently pats the area that he has hit.

He has learnt to point at the thing he is interested in, and even pull me or his mother by the hand towards the thing that he wants.  This was recently illustrated when he was hungry and pulled me off the sofa, directed me to the kitchen and pointed at his high chair.

He can nod or shake his head when we ask him questions.  He also uses different intonation patterns to show that he is thinking about something, is frustrated or just happy.

When he wants acknowledgement that he has done a good thing, he claps his hands an waits for us to join in or tell him what a clever boy he is.

These different ways of getting the message across are invaluable for him.  I think they are even more useful for a kid learning two languages at the same time.  I can envisage a context whereby he is in England in the not too distant future trying to ask for something from my parents, but he only knows the Portuguese word.  He is going to have to find a way around the communication block if he is to get what hewants.

I would like to know if anybody else hs noticed any other communication strategies that babies and infants use that perhaps I have missed.  Please leave a comment if you have.

Our Strategy

Our strategy is roughly based on One Person One Language (OPOL).  However, I think I would ammend it be One Person One Language Most Of The Time.

We have a situation where I speak the minority language (English) while my wife will speak the majority language (Portuguese).  However, English has a positive status in Brazil and around the world so while it is in theory the minority lanaguage I am not anticipating  all of the problems that are often associated with such languages.

When I am with my son I will speak English.

When my wife is with him, she will speak Portuguese.

When the three of us are together we will speak mainly English, but with some Portuguese thrown in.

When we are with Brazilian friends and family we will speak mainly Portuguese, but I will also speak English when it doesn’t cause problems with other listeners.  A lot of our friends and family speak English so there will be lots of opportunities for me to speak English in the presence of others.

When we are with English speaking friends and family, for example in the UK, we will speak mainly English but with some Portuguese thrown in.

Our main aim is for our son not to feel compelled to speak any particular language, but to give him the freedom to choose.  I want him to be comfortable speaking, first and foremost, and I think that, given time, this will lead to him being comfortable to speak in the language that is appropriate for the given context.

However, this is still very early days and I am aware that I am probably being very naive.  I am sure this strategy will need looking at and re-working in the coming years.  If anybody else has any input or ideas regarding our plans, I would be grateful to hear them.