Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Being Bilingual

Being bilingual is such an awesome privilege! But it's one that most Americans don't really understand. The vast majority of Americans are monolingual, speaking and understanding only one language; English. I was among them, even though I studied German in high school and college. If I had had the opportunity, I would have been able to get by in Germany with my limited knowledge of the language. But it wouldn't have made me comfortable!

After college, I began to study linguistics and a whole new world opened up to me. My next step was to learn a little bit of a language that was very different from any I had ever encountered. I did OK, and I seemed to have a knack for understanding the meaning the other speaker was trying to communicate even though I didn't really understand the words. But I digress...

My husband and I started on our journey to becoming bilingual when we arrived in Brazil in 1974. After two weeks in the country, we moved in with a Brazilian family who spoke only Portuguese. Believe me, that was NOT comfortable. But we knew that the only way to really learn the language was to immerse ourselves in it. It was incredibly taxing and tiring to struggle to understand  and communicate in a language we were just barely learning. But it was one of the best decisions we could ever have made and it put us way ahead in our understanding not only of the language, but also the culture of the people of Brazil.

Fast forward to our children - they had the "misfortune" of living in an American/British missionary community where English was the language of choice. So we had to be proactive in exposing them to Portuguese. We sent them to Portuguese speaking preschool. Our son learned how to mix all of his food into one homogeneous mixture on his plate before he ate but not much Portuguese and he beseeched me daily with his big, round eyes to come back and get him soon. Our daughter who was a little older, went to school kicking and screaming every day, but in spite of that, developed a passionate love for Portuguese, Brazil and everything Brazilian. She also managed to become truly bilingual.

Fast forward again to our third son - he was almost 7 years younger than our middle son and even though by this time we were living in a place that allowed him to have much more interaction and exposure to Portuguese, he was not learning it well. So we debated about putting him into a Brazilian school for 4th grade. I sought John's counsel. He was the one who had pleaded with me not to leave him very long at the preschool. He said, "Mom, I would give an arm and a leg to be able to speak Portuguese well." That sealed it. Off to a Brazilian school for our 4th grader. He learned Portuguese well enough to have pretty flawless pronunciation and took it upon himself to correct ours at every opportunity.

Fast forward yet again to our grandson - our expectation was that he would grow up learning both languages at the same time; English from his mother and Portuguese from his Brazilian father. That expectation was dashed when his father left when our grandson was just beginning to talk. So we now have a 5 year old who needs to learn Portuguese and who isn't the least bit interested in doing so. Now what? We are looking for a way to endow him with the incredible gift of being a bilingual. We're starting to speak Portuguese for at least part of the time during every meal. Since our grandson loves to talk, something is bound to happen.

By the way, our own Portuguese improved dramatically when we invited a young Brazilian woman to come and stay with us for awhile. She came intending to stay for about a month to six weeks and ended up living with us for 4 years instead. Maybe we need to do that again.


  1. I've lived in a couple different countries, and while I've forgotten most of the language, it was the best way to learn.

  2. I can speak two other languages and I love to travel. They come in handy. Portugese, I'd love to learn one day too.

    Chemical Fusion

  3. How wonderful to speak more than one language! The children in our elementary school are learning to speak Spanish because of several children who moved into our community unable to speak any English. The children learned as they helped out.


  4. Alex, I'm curious which countries you've lived in. Yes, immersion in a language, although sometimes painful is also the best way to learn.

    Enid, I hope you do get an opportunity to learn Portuguese. It's a beautiful language.

    Monti, that sounds like a wonderful opportunity for the children on both sides of the language barrier.


Thank you for sharing your thoughts.