You decided to teach your boys Portuguese. How do you manage your daily life?
Phil: I had this great idea in my head about how much I would speak to my kids in Portuguese, but I haven’t grown up in Brazil so my Portuguese isn’t perfect. My mum is Brazilian, my dad is English, I grew up in England.
At the beginning I found it quite daunting. I was very stressed about it when my boys were younger. I bought lots of books and read as many as I could to them. We would do nursery rhymes together in Portuguese and I would play games with our sons such as counting in Portuguese. But it required a lot of effort. We spoke Portuguese mostly during bedtime and on weekends. We didn’t have any other support at that stage.
Have your boys ever come back to you and said “Dad, speak to us in English”?
Phil: Yes, this has happened. They have said “I don’t want to speak Portuguese.” Now they are alright with it. Everybody could do a bit more but I think it’s ok.
I think I had unrealistic expectations of what I needed to do and I also did a lot more at the start. I used to subscribe to a Brazilian current affairs news outlet to improve my language skills and learn about what’s going on in Brazil. I hadn’t used Portuguese in years and having it on a regular basis has definitively made a huge difference to me, too.
On the Brazilian Saturday School’s influence
Has your change of attitude come with attending the Brazilian Saturday School?
Phil: We go through phases. This week was particularly good, our oldest has been particularly keen, he read a book to his brother in Portuguese at bed time. I find this amazing. A year ago or two ago we had a lot of trouble taking him to class in Brazilian school. He really didn’t want to go, we had to really insist on it. He’s happy now, no problems at all. I can just drop him off to school and he’ll go straight in.
Alina: It’s hard when they go through this refusal stage because you don’t want to force it only to suddenly become a bad thing they hate, but equally you don’t want them to give up.
Phil: There have been very difficult moments for me too when I thought “Oh, it’s been a week or so and I haven’t spoken to them at all in Portuguese. I’m really tired and I don’t want to anymore”. But you find your way back and slowly pick it up again. The Brazilian Saturday school really helps with that, too.
You talk to all kinds of different people and realise: There’s the family where the English mum looks after the children and the dad works, and the children don’t really speak Portuguese at home. There are families where both parents are Brazilian. There are families where neither parent is Brazilian but because the children grew up in Brazil for 4 or 5 years they speak fluent Portuguese. There are so many different people and all face so many different struggles.
It’s a proper school. There’s homework, there are books, they have to learn to write and answer: Name the author, what are the main characters, it asks for adjectives, there are spelling exercises and so on. It’s not very complicated. We are there each week and this is what keeps us going.
How old were your children when you started with Brazilian school?
Alina: We found out about it before we could actually attend. Our older boy started at age 4. Then they changed and introduced a playgroup class, so our youngest started when he was about 2 1/2. The only thing is that it's quite far from us. It's about 35 or 40 minutes by car.
Do you have any other help?
Alina: When I went back to work we wanted a Portuguese speaking nanny and we didn’t really know where to start. Taiz was cleaning our flat for years, she knew the boys, she really loved the idea. She’s a mum herself and looks after our children on Thursdays.
Phil: It's the support network that matters - that it’s not just you on your own.
On our family's histories
How did your mum teach you her language?
Phil: My sister was born before our family came over from Brazil. I was born fairly soon after they arrived in England. When we were very little my mother just spoke Portuguese to both of us but when my sister went to school she couldn’t speak a word of English. I would have been one and a half and wasn’t speaking a word of English either. This is when my parents decided “We need to speak English at home.” At that time people didn’t have the resources and didn’t know any better. And my mum’s English improved as well.
Alina: My mum is from Poland and my grandparents stopped speaking to me in Polish when I started school, too. They didn’t want to confuse me. It’s such a shame that they didn’t realise it’s actually a great thing to speak two languages and contrary to popular belief it certainly won’t confuse people. Sometimes it takes longer but eventually it works.
Phil: My mum still spoke some Portuguese to us at home. When both my sister and I were in school we didn’t want to speak it anymore, which is natural, right? That always happens. I think sadly my mum was put off. She stopped almost completely speaking Portuguese with us. We still went to Brazil and we still had a basic experience of the language even though we didn’t speak it everyday. As I got older I wanted to speak it more.
My sister probably spoke Portuguese better than I did but she hasn’t taught her children any Portuguese or very litte. I think my mum speaks some to my niece but my nephew doesn’t seem very receptive, he doesn’t really want to do it. My niece is picking up some things which I think is good.
Alina: I think seeing our children speak Portuguese has made my sister-in-law realise: “Oh! maybe we should try, too.” But it almost feels a little too late.
Phil: My parents are now much more enthusiastic with our children, which is good. When they spend time together, my mother will speak to them in Portuguese.
Do you think she feels she missed out with her first grand child?
Phil: Yes. I think so.
Alina: Our children also have lots of cousins, who are the same age in Brazil. When we went last year for Easter (2016) it made a huge difference because suddenly our oldest was with peers the same age who don’t speak English and he had to use his Portuguese if he wanted to play with them. The last time before (2014) he was still very unconfident and didn’t really speak it at all. But something changed between being three and being five.
On the importance of trying
Phil: You could say we’re a bit of a mixture. Our children are a quarter Polish, a quarter Scottish, a quarter English, and a quarter Brazilian. They've got a lot. I just want them to have access to parts of their heritage.
Alina: My main motivation is that research now shows that it is actually really beneficial to them to learn two languages. Lots of people learn English so it’s not so important in terms of getting by later in life to learn a different language - especially Portuguese which is not that widely spoken - but research shows that it actually really helps in terms of lots of other things.
How did you find out about the research?
Phil: Through the media. I used to subscribe to a journal called “Mind”. It’s basically a more accessible version of journals from various areas of psychology I found interesting. It’s not just factual child development, it’s Scientific American but it’s psychology. That had various bits on bilingualism in it.
I think for me it was much more the sort of heritage, and culture, and also the experience. Keeping ties, a link to another country. It is also something we can all do together.
Have the two of you had a conversation about how to approach bilingualism?
Phil: Not in a structured way, no. I think you’re trying to do it and then you’re finding things out as you do over time. The more you do it, the more you talk to people, the more you find out about it.
On the advantages of London
How are your friends reacting to this?
Phil: I couldn’t say. They’ve never said “Don’t speak Portuguese”. Our friends aren’t massively multilingual but they’re definitely multi-nationality. A friend of mine has married a Romanian girl and she’s speaking Romanian to their child all the time, but she finds it difficult, too. Other friends have Chinese parents but grew up in the UK. One friend’s mum was from the Philippines and her dad was American. Everybody is very English, but none of them are English-English, they are the minority I think. They all have a multicultural heritage. It’s London. It helps. It makes you feel less apprehensive.
Alina: I think it helps. Our children are going somewhere and it’s totally normal to have parents who are from another country, who know other languages. If we lived in an area where everyone was very English and where everyone spoke English it would be hard and there you’d think it was weird, maybe. Our children see all these other people and hear them! Everywhere you go in London people speak different languages, it’s incredible.
Phil: At school in year one, there’s a boy whose parents both are Brazilian. Another one is from Japan. One is Australian. There’s a Spanish lady. A Greek daughter. I think it’s pretty normal.
How do you feel if someone else is on the street and speaks to their child in say Bulgarian? Or Russian?
Phil: Yes, that’s fine. It’s the same, isn’t it?
On finding your balance
Is there something you wish you had done differently?
Phil: I’ve relaxed over the years. My children don’t have to be perfect. They’re of course going to speak English way above any other language. They can understand Portuguese, they don’t talk back too much.
When we go to Brazil our oldest can ask for whatever he wants - for instance he can ask for a juice in a restaurant. He has all the vocabulary he needs. It wasn’t until Brazil that he started to speak in full sentences. Now we're back in England and it’s back to English again. But I’m not worried about that at all anymore. He will speak, it’s just a matter of time. It’s enough for me to see progress in his language comprehension.
It sounds as if you’ve found your balance.
Phil: I think so. It took a while, though. I’m comfortable with the fact that I was brought up in England that I don’t happen to have Portuguese in my daily life. I speak it well enough to teach my children.
Is that something you’d like to give to other parents? If they asked you for advice, what would you tell them?
Phil: My family in Brazil is the other way around so it’s different but they want their children to learn English. I said just buy some books, all you have to do is read to them at bedtime in English. Just start and that’s probably enough.
I’m not a very consistent person most of the time. But if you do keep things up, you get somewhere with them. Even if it’s a little bit. Every week. It makes a difference.