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

Language Play

English: The game Bananagrams, showing pieces ...

English: The game Bananagrams, showing pieces and banana-shaped carrying container. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How do we learn language?  Why do we learn language?  Once we have learnt language, what do we use it for?

These are all questions I have had to try to answer as a language teacher, and even more so now that I am trying to bring up a bilingual son.  In order to be a language teacher you need to know a t least a bit about the nature of what you are teaching.  In order to be parent who speaks the minority language at home you are obviously going to encounter many language situations on a daily basis.

I became an English teacher about 20 years ago and so I was heavily influenced by the Communicative Approach.  Basically, this approach seeks to answer the above questions by saying it is through the struggle to communicate our needs and wants that we learn language.  Yes, we could just continue to cry at our parents when we want to be fed, but it is far more efficient just to say ‘I want to have my bottle.’

Of course, if that doesn’t work the first time, you can also revert to crying to get what you want.

For a long time this seemed to make a lot of sense.  W edo use language to communicate with others in order to manipulate our surroundings to get what we want.  And if we didn’t have to do this then we might not bother to learn how to use language in the first place.

Then I read a book that totally changed my beliefs about language.  We use language for far more than just communicating our needs.  We also play with language.  In fact, if we take ‘play’ to mean creating something unreal with language, then we might ‘play’ more often than we don’t.

The book was called ‘Language Play, Language Learning‘ by Guy Cook.

Word games, songs, poems are all examples ot language play.  But so are fiction and prayers, crosswords and skipping songs, verbal jousting and punning.

So, for the upcoming blogging carnival for Raising Multilingual Children I would like to hear about the language play activities that you use in a bilingual context.  It can be anything at all, not necessarily with an aim to learn language, but to have fun using and manipulating language.  It could be something you enjoy doing yourself, something your kids like doing or an activity that you do as a family.

Just send me a link with a blog post you have written about playing with your language before midnight GMT of Sunday 24th August and I’ll include it in the carnival.  It could be something you have written especially for the carnival, or something you wrote ages ago.

If you would like more information about what this carnival is all about, please go to The Piri-Piri Lexicon who organises it all.

Music in the Family

English: Sony Walkman WM-B603 audio cassette p...

Sony Walkman:1989 (Wikipedia)

I have a theory about music and the generation growing up today.  I reckon they are exposed to a lot more music that any previous generation because everywhere you go somebody, somewhere is playing something.

When I was a little kid we didn’t have a radio in our car, and then when we got a radio we didn’t have a cassette player so we had to listen to the radio which meant it was usually something crap, full of adverts, some old jovial Irish guy killing me softly with his inane wit, or a mixture of all of the above.  I also remember my first Walkman and my first tape-to-tape stereo.  ‘Yes, son, these things actually existed.’

So, my theory is that the youth of today is blessed to have so much access to whatever music they want to hear whenever they want it.  Hopefully this will mean more and better music in about 20 years, although as somebody who is already approaching the grumpy old man stage, I probably won’t appreciate it.

The Wheels on the Bus

As a family, we like dancing together to most upbeat music, but especially, I am proud to say, The Jam.  Mr. T’s favourite song, though, is The Wheels on the Bus.  He will watch various versions of it on his tablet for hours on end.  He will perform all of the actions, like the baby crying or the wipers swishing backwards and forwards.  He doesn’t know any of the words yet, but he can sing the ‘beep beep’ part when the horn blows all day long.

Musical Instruments

Chitarra acustica Mantra / Acoustic Guitar (Ma...

Much better condition than ours (Wikipedia)

My mother-in-law has a couple of beaten up old acoustic guitars hidden in one of her cupboards and so one day I got them out and started to ‘play’ them.  I haven’t got a clue about how to play the guitar so I just started hitting the strings to see Mr. T’s reaction.  He was awestruck.  Whenever he sees the guitars now we have to sit on the sofa together and sing ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ while smacking the strings to make an unholy racket.

Mr T’s great-grandfather has an old out of tune piano and one of the best things we can possibly do is spend a few minutes hitting keys at random and listening to the sound that they make.  Both mamãe and vovó can play a passable impersonation of chopsticks and so they play the right hand while Mr. T plays the left hand.  Hardly Mozart, but it’s a start.

Music Classes

Because Mr. T seemed to enjoy music so much we enrolled him in music classes for babies and toddlers once a week.  All they do is shake and hit stuff and dance around a bit (Actually, that is all they are supposed to do.  A lot of the parents seem to think that the class is just for them to zone out so that their pride and joy can just run about the room.) but it gets them into the habit of handling musical instruments.

Bed Time Songs

I had three songs to sing to Mr. T when I wanted him to calm down and go to sleep.  I used to start off with The Wild Rover by the Dubliners, then move into The Gnome by Pink Floyd and, if he was still awake, finish it off with Keep Right On, the anthem for my football team, Birmingham City.  One day, while in the middle of the second song, I realised I was singing to him about drinking, debauchery, drugs and a lifetime of sorrow.

Unfortunately, if I start singing a song nowadays I am told in no uncertain terms to shut up, unless it is the Wheels on the Bus, of course.  This might be because Mr. T doesn’t like the songs I choose to sing, or perhaps it is my terrible voice.

Musical Heritage

Português: O cantor e compositor brasileiro Ch...

Chico Buarque (Wikipedia)

Brazil and Britain both have incredible musical histories.  Some of the most important bands and genres have developed in the two countries, and this means that as a bilingual and bicultural person our son is going to have access to both of these rich heritages.  I just hope he chooses to listen to Chico Buarque or The Stone Roses rather than Gusttavo Lima or One Direction.  Two amazingly musical countries and we both produce absolute nonsense like that.

Music and Language Learning

So far I am not sure what effect all of this music has had on Mr. T’s language skills.  I am sure it will have some effect, but only time will tell what it is.

This post is part of the Raising Multicultural Children Blog Carnival.  This month the carnival is being hosted by Mother Tongues Blog.

Raising Multilingual Kids Blogging Carnival: Hidden Opportunities

Welcome to the July edition of The Raising Multilingual Children’s Blogging Carnival.  This month’s theme was Hidden Opportunities where I asked people to submit blogs based on the unexpected occurrences of bringing up multilingual children.

Opportunities for the Kids

Spanish Playground opens up this month’s carnival with some encouraging news for anyone still struggling to teach two or more languages: she has been there and done that and now has three grown kids.  In her post Teaching my Children Spanish – A Few Observations Now that they Are Older she identifies the advantages they now have, some of which she never ever dreamed of when she started out on the road to bilingual education.

Came to Find – Vim Encontrar is nowadays a grown up bilingual English and Portuguese speaker.  She writes about the day that changed her life and all of the opportunities she has now that she is bilingual.  And just to prove the point, you can read Perks of Being Bilingual in English or Benefícios do Ser Bilíngue in Portuguese.

Over at Kids Yoga Stories we hear how Integrating Spanish and Yoga made for remarkably effective learning opportunities.  Like all the best ideas, it seem that this was devastatingly simple once the connection had been made.

And if you aren’t quite ready to do the downward-facing dog then maybe you can exploit a different strategy to keep your child interested in another language just as Open Hearts Open Minds describes in Hidden Opportunities in Bilingual Parenting.

What Do Multilingualism, Video Games and Sweets Have in Common?  If you want to know the answer you’ll have to read  The European Mama. As you do so you’ll also find that she had to break some rules to find a much more sensible way of eating, playing and using languages.

Expat Since Birth had a family dilemma; how to find the time to fit 5 languages into their busy schedule.  She ignored all professional advice, and her own professional training, to find a new path to being truly multilingual in When you End up Talking Another Language with your Kids.  It seems that breaking the rules is a common experience among many multilingual families

Despite serious health problems, Adventure Bee decided to experiment with realising some of her life’s dreams in her Hidden Opportunities post.  In doing so, she discovered unexplored depths in her daughter’s ability to understand American history and an awareness of what they both need in order to grow and be challenged.

Look what I got! Spanglishbaby.com

In The Day my Daughter Learned it Pays to be Bilingual  a very proud mum from SpanglishBaby tells a great story about the day it dawned on her daughter that there are distinct upsides to being bilingual.  Parents know that being having more than one language increases your worth in the job market, but not all kids know that.

When you are your partner are monolingual you have to actively hunt down as many opportunities as possible in order to give your child the best possible chance of growing up multilingual.  That is exactly what SoulTravelers3 had to do and in this post, Bilingual Baby – Learning Spanish as a Second Language, she gives the benefit of her experience and shows just how possible it is.  If you are short for time, you could just check out her video for how it is done: Teach Your Child Spanish – Multilingual Kid.

Choosing a name for your new child is always an important decision, especially so if you are trying to reflect more than one culture.  The name All Done Monkey chose for her son has turned out to have more importance than most as you can read in The Boy who Couldn’t Say his Own Name.

Opportunities for the Parents

Of course, it isn’t just the children who can make the most of those hidden opportunities.  MotherTongues: Wear Words, Celebrate Cultures explains how she has benefitted from having a multilingual daughter in her article called Learning Another Language After Turning 40.  She might be a bit slower than her daughter, but she’ll get there eventually.

It can sometimes be hard to tell if all the effort we are putting in to include other languages in our families is actually working or not.  In Culture Parent describes an experience when she could answer the question Is all the Hard Work of Bilingualism Paying off? in the affirmative.

The Art of Home Education reports on a lesson that she has learnt through home schooling.  It seems from Learning to Let Go of my Learned Beliefs and Trust on his Curiosity that, just like many of us, it seems to be a lesson she has to learn over and over again.

Bilingual Monkeys

At the zoo with the Bilingual Monkeys

From Bilingual Monkeys we hear a wonderful story of creativity and how all bilingual parents need to be able to ‘think outside the swan planter’ in order to find as many opportunities for language development as possible.  Bilingual Monkeys was one of the first sites I came across when I first started to read about multilingual families and I have learned so much from it that it is now an honour to be able to host Outside the Box: Creative Solutions to Challenges Raising Bilingual Children.

LadydeeLG has got a tremendous amount out of raising her son to be speak Spanish and English.  As well as a bilingual child she has set herself ambitious goals and been successful in meeting them.  You can find out how she accomplished this in You Never Know Where a Blog Will Take you.

A Blogger and a Father looks at the bigger picture for some of the reasons he would like his kids to speak his native language in Why Raise Bilingual Kids.  While he starts off thinking about the advantages for his children, we also get to see potential global improvements and eventually how it connects the father to his younger self.

It1s never too early to start volunteering. babylingual.blogspot.com

It’s never too early to start volunteering. babylingual.blogspot.com

When Babylingual started volunteering at her local library she had no idea where it would lead her to.  Nowadays she has at least four jobs (two of which are paid), discovered new passions and provides invaluable support to the community.  In her words, her only regret is that I Just Wish I Had Started Volunteering Sooner!

We started off this carnival with a report on what it is like when you have raised your multilingual kids.  We (almost) finish with Dads The Way I Like It who is at the other end of the journey: right at the beginning.  I’d like to wish him good luck as he and his wife find out that having a bilingual child can help them integrate even more into the local community in Being a Bilingual Parent.

And last, and probably least, is my own effort.  Our son was introduced to cars by his vovo (granddad) and this quickly turned into an obsession.  Take me Riding in the Car Car describes how what  could have easily become very tiresome has actually turned out to be a wonderful learning opportunity.

And thanks to…

I would just like to thank everyone who took the time to submit posts to this carnival.  I have had a great time reading through all of them and I strongly recommend you all have a go and hosting one in the future.  Big thanks go to Piri-Piri Lexicon for organising the whole carnival and for giving me a the politest possible kick in the pants to get myself sorted out.

blogcarnival2This is the latest installment of the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival, re-created by Piri-Piri Lexicon.  For more information on the carnival, including  how to get involved, visit the carnival’s main page. You can find past editions of the carnival here:

All Done Monkey – Travel and Multilingualism

The Piri-Piri Lexicon – General Theme

Multilingual Mama – Looking Back  

Take me Riding in the Car, Car

Chrysler PT Cruiser

Not a Chrysler PT Cruiser, but a vovo car (Wikipedia)

When Mr. T was still quite small his vovo took him out to sit in the front seat of his car and pretend to drive it.  We didn’t think anything of it at the time, and to be honest we were glad of a bit of peace and quiet as we had been at a family get-together at a restaurant and Mr. T was beginning to get a bit cranky.  Little did we know the consequences that this small act would have.

An Obsession Grows

The immediate result was for Mr. T to develop an obsession with cars.  At first he wanted to be able to sit in the driver’s seat in our car, his vovó’s car, vovo’s car and just about any car that he ver saw.  This meant that friends and relatives bought him toy cars and clothes with cars on them, which in turn fuelled his obsession.

When we went to the UK for the first time my brother put Mr. T on his lap and sat in the driver’s seat of his white van, and so started a new path: naming cars.  A van of any description is a ‘Noel car’, a 4×4 is a vovó car, a silver Sandero is usually a ‘mamãe car’, but sometimes a ‘daddy car’.  When he sees a bus on the street he shouts ‘tchau tchau Mimi car’, or he enthusiastically waves at every ‘tru’ or truck.

Learning Opportunities

Lightning McQueen

Cars 1 & 2 recorded and ready to go (Wikipedia)

We thought that was going to be about it.  The next couple of years would be filled with playing with cars and watching Lightning McQueen over and over again.  But then we realised that this obsession was actually leading to him learning all manner of other things.

As soon as he learned the word ‘bee’ for ‘big’ he used it to describe trucks.  Whenever he sees a blue tractor he shouts out ‘blue tractor’ and if a car is anything but spotlessly clean he will tell anyone who can hear that it is ‘dirty’ with such a disappointed voice that I almost want to go and clean it myself.

He has developed a fine motor skills by trying to ‘park’ his cars in just the right place.  He has developed metaphors by saying that the car is ‘doi‘ (hurt) when he has crashed it into a toy bus.

The truck is too big for the car wash.  Or is the car wash too small for the truck?

The truck is too big for the car wash. Or is the car wash too small for the truck?

He has developed concepts such as ‘on’, ‘in’, ‘under’, ‘too big’ and ‘too small’ by playing with his cars and experimenting with different positions.

His obsession has also fuelled his imagination.  For a long time he has asked us to draw cars or planes or the odd bus.  One day I drew a driver and asked him who was driving and then I said it was Mr. T.  Ever since that day if we don’t draw a driver he attempts to draw one and then he tells us who is driving.  If the windows are empty on the bus he will get a crayon and make a mark to represent passengers and then tell us who each of the passengers is; mamãe, vovó, daddy…

One of the first ways I got him to say ‘please‘ was when he wanted me to make a model of a car from play dough.  Now, whenever he wants anything, he is sure to say please.

A Lesson Learned

What started out as a simple way to get a few minutes to chat with friends without a moody baby first turned into a tiresome obsession but has since become a gateway to learning so much about the world.  Not only has our son learned a lot, but I also learned to encourage his interests, no matter what they might be, because there is always something that can be learned from and through them.

Car Song by Woodie Guthrie


This post was written for the July edition of the Raising Multilingual Kids Blog Carnival, which I was privileged to host and will be published on July 29th.  The theme for July was ‘Hidden Opportunities.’

For more information about this carnival, including how to become a part of the next one, please go to The Piri-Piri Lexicon .  You can find past editions of the carnival here:

All Done Monkey – Travel and Multilingualism

The Piri-Piri Lexicon – General Theme

Multilingual Mama – Looking Back

Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival: July Edition

I am very proud to announce that I will be hosting the July edition of the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival.  The carnival is an excellent opportunity for anyone associated with bringing up bilingual and multilingual families to share ideas and experiences.  If you would like more information about the carnival in general, including past editions, please go to the Piri-Piri Lexicon.

This month’s theme is ‘Hidden Opportunities’.  Have you set out to teach your kids something, and ended up teaching them a totally different lesson?  Have you accidentally learnt more than you taught?  Did you go on a boring errand but ended up encountering something that more than made up for the drudgery?  I’d like to hear what Hidden Opportunities you have discovered on your path to bringing up bilingual or multilingual kids.  It could be something huge and life-changing, or small and insignificant, it makes no difference.  Any and all tales of the unexpected are welcome.

Please send me your entries by Thursday 25th of July for inclusion.  The carnival will be published on the following Monday, 29th July.

If you have any doubts or queries please leave  a message in the comments section below.  Alternatively, you can email me at stephen@headoftheheard.com

Related Articles

June Edition – All Done Monkey

May Edition – Piri-Piri Lexicon

April Edition – Multilingual Mama

I’ll Have Peppa Pig for Lunch, Please

Peppa Pig


Despite being one of the greatest people ever to walk this earth, I am still human.  And as such I have been known to make the odd mistake.  As a parent I seem to be making more mistakes than normal, but, like I said, I am only a mere human, despite appearances.  In this post I will talk about one of the mistakes I have made as part of the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival.

Our son is now approaching 21 months old and we are currently dealing with a mistake that I first made about 15 months ago.  In order to keep my parents involved with their first, and so far only, grandchild, when Thomas was first able to sit up straight and started to eat proper food I decided to call them on Skype so that they could see him.  It turned out that there were a number of advantages to doing this; Thomas was captive and so couldn’t crawl away; my parents could talk to him, sing songs to him and coo over him as if he was really in the room; Thomas seemed to like interacting with them while he was eating and would often offer them his food.

We didn’t do this all of the time.  We would often have a weekend breakfast together when Thomas would have some mashed up fruit, I would have some corn flakes and his nana would eat her toast.  It was all very satisfying and felt like a proper family breakfast, just a few thousand miles apart.

It got to the point where if Thomas saw the laptop in the kitchen as he was eating breakfast he would call out for nana (he still can’t say granddad) until I fired it up and called her.  Once she was on the screen everything was fine.

One day I turned the computer on and the problems started.  Nana wasn’t online.  But Thomas was still calling for her and was not all that interested in his food.  What was I going to do?  The computer was on, I had a recalcitrant child who was brewing up a tantrum.  There seemed only one answer.  I put Peppa Pig on youtube and the resulting silence was only interrupted by giggles and the sound of food being eaten or dropped on the floor.

Fast forward a year and whenever Thomas isn’t starving he calls out ‘Pee, Pee!’ for his favourite pig.  We sing songs to him, dance for him, once I even got the newspaper and kept turning the pages over in front of him.  All of these strategies work for a couple of minutes, but eventually it is back to ‘Pee, Pee!’  We shouldn’t do it.  We know it is bad for all concerned. We know we are storing up problems for the future.  But right now it is easier just to put Daddy Pig and Mommy Pig on youtube and revel in the few minutes’ quiet that ensues.

In terms of his language skills it hasn’t really done much for him.  He now uses ‘pee pee’ for pig and he tries to grunt, but it comes out as more of a sniff.  He also use ‘pee pee’ for the colour ‘pink’, which means he now has two colour words, and both are in English so far (the other being blue).  He understands most of the other colours in both English and Portuguese, but these are the only two he can produce.

So what have I learned from this?  Well now I phone my parents on Skype on my phone and they watch Thomas playing with his toys.  He tends to ignore them quite a bit, but they still see him growing up and developing.  I’ve also learned that maybe, just maybe, I am not as great as I once thought I was.

Related articles

This post was inspired by the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival which is organised by thepiripirilexicon.com

This months carnival is being hosted by mulitilingualmama.com and should be available from April 29th.  Head over there to find lots of other blog posts, all on the theme of ‘Looking Back.’