A Bilingual Child: What’s in a name?

The names a bilingual child has for his father

When I was a young kid (as I got older it might have changed somewhat) I had just the one name for my dad: ‘Dad’.  I didn’t call him ‘daddy’ or ‘father’ or ‘pa’ or anything else.  Just dad.

My son, on the other hand, calls me lots of different names.  This might seem obvious and perfectly explicable if he were calling me one name in English and one name in Portuguese, but he has far more than just two names for me.

When he was learning to speak I was ‘daddy’.  He would be speaking his broken Portuguese and call me daddy and it would make people smile.  It was cute and I was proud to be the only daddy in the city.

Then he went off to day care and he quickly realised he had to refer to me as ‘papai’ if he wanted all the other kids and teachers to know who he was talking about.  Although I was a little disappointed I knew that this was all right and proper and the way it should be.  This is often shortened to just ‘pai’.

While I was initially happy to be called ‘daddy’, I would have preferred to be called ‘dad’.  I didn’t say anything or push it because it is up to Mr T what he wanted to call me.  ‘Daddy’ for me, is trying a bit too hard to be cute, with tones of upper-middle classness (I am English and these things still matter) and very Francis Urquhart (the original BBC series, not the American interloper).

We spent a few consecutive weekends with a British friend of mine who also lives here in Curitiba and has a son who is a few years older that Thomas and speaks perfect English.  This kid uses ‘dad’ just the way I did and, one evening, Mr T started calling me ‘dad’.  I was quite happy about this and hoped that the evolution of my name would now stop.  I had one in Portuguese and one in English.  That was enough.

Apparently not.

Since about the age of 3, Mr T has been interested in names.  I think this initially started because he liked to write the first letters of people’s names, but it continued because my name sounds funny in Portuguese.  His vovó has a function in her car that enables you to tell the on-board computer who to call.  But this on-board computer can’t speak English so if you say my name properly she doesn’t understand.  Instead you have to say it in a Portuguese style which comes out as ‘Stefan Greeny’.

To this day, this is one of the funniest things Mr T has ever heard.  He delights in calling me the computer version of my name, followed by howls of laughter.

He also uses my proper name of ‘Stephen’.  If he wants something, or decides I have done something wrong, he uses either ‘Stephen’ or ‘Stephen Greene’.  There is something very disconcerting about being woken up at 3 in the morning by your 4-year-old shouting out your real name at the top of his voice.

And finally, the latest incarnation of my name: Johnny.

This is the one I like the least because it has never been part of my identity.  My middle name in John and, after a weekend away in Sao Paulo with is mother, he came back calling me Johnny.  I have no idea why this should be, but apparently it’s funny and so, for the last few weeks, this name has been used whenever he wants to make a joke.  While it gives me the chance to channel my inner Jack Nicholson it is lost on Mr T who hopefully won’t see the film for a good while yet.

So the names I have so far include: Daddy, papai, pai, dad, Stephen ‘Stefan’ and Johnny.  Who knows what he is going to call me when he is a teenager?


What we Did on Our Summer Holidays

While most people reading this have been suffering from a wet and cold winter in the northern hemisphere, we in the south have been enjoying our summer.  On Boxing Day our family did the traditional Curitibano thing and left the city to go and enjoy the sunshine at the beach.

And boy, did we get a lot of sunshine.

New Year’s Eve clocked up 40° C, but it felt even hotter.  We also had another couple of days that were just as hot, before it all ended in the last three days with torrential downpours and floods.

Just your typical Brazilian summer, then.

But as well as just having a good time we, or at least our 2-and-a-half-year-old son, learnt quite a bit as well.

What’s in a name?

Up until now, Mr T has never used his name.  He has been aware of his name for a long time and would usually respond to it if you shouted it loud enough and for long enough, but whenever you asked him to tell you his name he just said ‘Me’.  He also uses ‘me’ whenever he wants to refer to himself, for example ‘Daddy, me no nar nar now.’  (‘Daddy, I’m not going to sleep now.’)

But a few days ago, after a lot of encouragement and persuasion, he finally said his name.  He hasn’t quite got the pronunciation right yet, but it was quite a milestone for all of us.

Other vocabulary

Monkey Neighbours

Monkey neighbours

As well as learning to say his name he learnt the word ‘beach’ and its Portuguese equivalent ‘praia‘.

He learnt to say ‘bicho which is a Portuguese word that can be used to talk about any animal, but especially small creepy crawly ones.  If this creepy crawly animal doesn’t actually crawl but instead flies, Mr. T now calls is a ‘bee’.  This is another example of him having to fine tune his understanding of words in the future.

Another animal that he named was ‘monkey’ because we saw some a couple of times in the garden next door to the house we rented.  He is more likely to, make the noise of  a monkey, but he did say the word a couple of times.

Water freedom

Mr. T has been going to swimming classes for the last 18 months or so.  When he started he was the youngest in the class, but later this month he is due to graduate to the next level when he will be entering the pool without his mamãe.  This means that he is very comfortable in the water, but has always had to hold on to someone as he can’t, by any stretch of the imagination, actually swim yet.

Outdoor pool

Small, but beautiful when it’s 40°!

For Christmas we got him a buoyancy vest that he can wear in the water to make sure his head doesn’t go under for more than a few seconds.  This was the best present we got him as it meant he had total freedom in the pool at the back of the house we rented.  Obviously, there was somebody with him at all times (one of the things he learnt in his class was to sit on the side of the pool and call for somebody to help him enter the water) but he was able to move around on his own by kicking his legs.  He spent hours in that pool.

Potty training

And last, but certainly not least, we have started potty training.  We have had quite a bit of success so far, although there have also been more than a couple of accidents.  And this process has meant a few other items of vocabulary have also been incorporated into his vocabulary.

Further Reading

I finally found the time to finish reading ‘Magus’ by John Fowles.  It really wasn’t what I was expecting at all, but I am glad that I read it.  The story is about an English man in the 1950’s who finds himself teaching on a Greek island because he can’t figure what else he wants to do.  The book is about the nature of reality and what it means to have freedom.  At least I think that is what it was about as the plot has so many twists and sleights of hand that it was at times a bit difficult to follow.

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How We Chose Our Son’s Name

Names not to be forgotten

Names not to be forgotten

We had a number of criteria when choosing our son’s name.  To make it slightly more complicated we chose not to know his sex until he was born.  Here in Brazil this is almost unheard of and actually led to a couple of barbed comments from certain people.

We spent a long time discussing various names, and most of the ones we came up with we discarded for some of the reasons below.

Two languages, one name

We wanted a name that would work in both English and Portuguese.  It didn’t have to have exactly the same pronunciation, but we wanted people in either culture to read the name and recognise it.  This meant that a lot of traditional Irish names were out of the running because Brazilians would have no idea how to pronounce it.  I can remember what it was like at school for other kids who had exotic names and some of the teachers would make a right meal out of saying them, to giggles from all of the other students.  I didn’t particularly want anything like this to happen to my son.

Not overtly-religious

We live in a very Christian country but my wife is not particularly religous and I am positivly anti-religion.  I didn’t want to have a name that would always be asociated with the Bible, so names like Christian or Pedro/Peter were out.


There are some names that just sound wrong.  Here in Brazil Arthur is quite a common name, but whenever I hear it I just imagine it being said in Cockney accent on Eastenders (recently this image has been waning a bit).  I like the name Douglas, after Douglas Adams, but even I have to admit that it sounds really bad in Portuguese.

No family and friends

Neither of us wanted a name that was already taken by somebody else in our close families, or that one of our friends had given to their kids.  It shows a lack of imagination and can get very confusing, nevermind the fact that our son might have to live up (or down) to the original person.  I like the name Alex, but that is my father-in-law’s name.  We both like the name Jack, but I have a friend with a son of the same name, and a cousin.

In the end, about the only name we could agree on was Thomas, but we still waited until he was born to decide for sure.  It is a religous name, as Thomas was one of the 12 disciples, but at least he had the good sense to ask for evidence.  The name works in both languages, with only a slight difference in word stress.  There are a number of positive connotations for me when I hear the name; Thomas Beckett, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Edison, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Payne (my favourite) and Thomas Morem, although I hate Tom Cruise and I am not sure about Thomas Aquinas, which is the name of my old school.  And finally, I can’t think of any close relatives or friends’ kids who have the same name.

If we had had a girl then it would have been a lot more complicated as we couldn’t really decide on anything.  If we have another child (and that is a big if at the moment) the name choosing will be even more problematic as we don’t have anything that we agree on anymore.

Related articles

That’s Not My Name: thepiripirilexicon.com

Naming Our (Future) Bilingual Baby: spanglishbaby.com

How To Name A Child When You’re An Expat: The European Mama