This feels confusing
Our daughter started her education in Luxembourg speaking Portuguese, French, German, Luxembourgish, and English
She spoke five languages at the age of three? Wow!
Yes, but she mixed all her languages and it made it hard to communicate with her. As first time parents we were very worried about this. She was not speaking a single language properly, she used them all in the same sentence. At times even we didn’t know what she was trying to say because we don’t speak either German or Luxembourgish and weren’t sure if what she was mumbling could be interpreted as French. That was at times frustrating for both her and us.
If she would have spoken a sentence in French, a sentence in Portuguese, a sentence in German, would that have reassured you?
I think it would because the problem was not linguistic but communicative. Mothers always understand what their children say and when they are small we have to translate to other people what our kids mean. But with this meddling, at times both my husband and I were not getting her. That worried us a lot. So, yes, I would have preferred her to separate her languages.
What did you do about it if you were confused by her speaking and mixing five languages?
Back then we decided we’d simplify and if we were to stay in Luxembourg we’d start speaking French to her at home. Our circle of friends and some family members were in favour of this approach too. At the time it felt like it was the only option available under the circumstances.
Why French and not Portuguese? Aren’t there many different languages at school level in Luxembourg?
Yes, but not Portuguese. The compulsory education in Luxembourg starts at the age of four. If I remember correctly, the early years are taught in Luxembourgish, in primary the main language of instruction is French, around secondary German is introduced, whilst at the same time Luxembourgish is phased out again. They truly live in a multilingual world.
We intended to stay for many years and thought French would have helped our daughter progress at school. It would have also given us a common language to interact with one another and lead to greater social acceptance.
But things changed and in January 2016 we moved to London which settled the matter. Our daughter was three and a half years old when our focus shifted to English.
English quickly became her strongest language and when other people besides me and my husband started understanding our daughter I felt so relieved. “Thank God she is normal” I thought. I have to admit I was quite worried about this.
Worried about her language...?
.... worried about her development. That she could have some speech delay. You know with your first kid you feel like you don't know anything and the “entire world” has an opinion.
Of course I can reason and tell myself that every child develops at a different speed and reaches different milestones at different moments. But this doesn’t help when you start thinking: “Maybe I should do something. Maybe it was a mistake going abroad because now she's going to be delayed in her language development compared to her cousins. Maybe I’m doing us a misfortune with this after all.”
My daughter speaks Portuguese with a kind of British accent, which unfortunately sounds similar to a Portuguese kid with a speech impairment and doesn’t help our case either. Feeling the pressure I asked a speech therapist in the UK to assess her. I felt scared and insecure.
What was their assessment?
She calmed me down saying that nothing was wrong with my daughter’s speech. She simply had never lived in Portugal and so obviously her language couldn’t be compared to that of her peers back home. Our daughter had no speech impairment, on the contrary, she was learning English very fast. This helped us gain the right perspective.
Looking back I realise my experiences in both Luxembourg and London have changed me a lot. I have to admit I used to be one of the people who didn’t understand why Portuguese immigrant’s children sometimes didn’t speak Portuguese at all. Only now do I realise I was unfair to them. It is hard work and we each have to strike our own balance between speaking our mother tongue well and speaking the language of our host country fluently. Which should you prioritise? There is no easy answer.
Even we are losing our good Portuguese. Sometimes we don't remember the right words in our mother tongue. We are starting to mix languages. In the middle of a Portuguese conversation I might behave just like my daughter and say a word in English! I never thought this would happen to me before.
Starting a new life
When we went back to visit my daughter’s old nursery in Luxembourg I was a little bit nervous about her reaction, but to my utmost surprise she seemed completely unphased. She even chatted with her former teacher in French, using a few basic words with a new found British accent, but had unfortunately lost almost all of her other languages.
Isn't that in some ways reassuring though, that she goes through phases, that languages and their dominance over one another can change?
Yes it is. What I'm observing now that she's getting older is that over time she is acquiring a greater vocabulary. Her default today is English and when she doesn't know how to say something in Portuguese she switches to it, but as you said, this could change again.
If your daughter stops speaking Portuguese would that be an issue for you?
Of course we would be sad but I don’t think she will lose it now that she speaks Portuguese. Her first language is English, no doubt, but her second is Portuguese. She understands everything, she loves Portugal, she's always asking me to go there on vacation. But after a few days down South she starts saying "Mummy, it's enough. I want to go home" and when I ask "Where's your home sweetie?" she replies: "In London, mummy." This is why, if we keep moving around, I think I will keep her in a British school. She’s only five but has developed her own sense of identity.
Find more insight into Christina’s life on our Instagram account.
To “forget” words in your mother tongue is common and is called language attrition.
Muddling languages in one sentence is called code-switching, well-documented and with its own wikipedia entry. As Christina’s speech and language therapist pointed out to her, this is neither a sign of confusion nor inability, it’s simply sometimes part of the process. Here are five reason's people code switch from adults' perspective.