Are you bilingual? Trilingual? Multilingual? What difference has speaking another language, or not, made in your life? In today’s globalized world, there is a growing awareness of cultural and linguistic differences and similarities.
Reynaldo Macías, from the University of Phoenix, Arizona, explains that “nations across the globe are becoming more linguistically diverse as a result of the transnational migration of peoples. Others are experiencing an increase in their language diversity as a result of differential growths of their populations, resurgence of language and ethnic nationalism, language revitalization movements, and the official recognition and promotion of multiple languages.” Regardless of the reason, the fact is that more and more people are becoming aware of linguistic diversity and the impact that it has in society.
Approximately two months ago, I moved with my family to Florianópolis in search of better quality of life. As many people in great metropolitan centers, we longed for a slower pace and more time to actually enjoy life. Our children had always attended international schools in Brasília and São Paulo and they were quite used to having friends from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds. However, it was a great surprise when our daughter came home after the first day of school and she said, “I have met a new best friend. He speaks English!” The school we chose for our children is quite small and that was one of the many reasons we found it so appealing. We never expected that it would provide our children with a similar diverse cultural experience, such as the one they were used to having.
I am fortunate enough to be able to pick up my children from school every day and because of that I have the opportunity to observe their interactions with their peers. It is quite amazing to observe children playing freely, talking, negotiating meaning, and doing all of that in more than one language. Children have the ability to make differences interesting, rather than exclusive. They have the natural ability to communicate freely, using whatever code they know, and to make themselves understood.
So why do I find myself worrying about my children’s language development? Because they have had the remarkable opportunity to be educated in two languages simultaneously and, although I am aware of the varying sizes, shapes, and colors of bilingualism, I believe that the better they can communicate, in any language, the more active they might become in our society.
It is widely known among the field of linguistics that language skills transfer from language to language. That means that whatever understandings people have of language, as a whole, will be transferred and applied, as appropriate, to different codes (English, Portuguese, French, etc) used to communicate. It is also known that children who have a strong understanding of their native language will acquire a second language more easily.
As parents of children who were being taught literacy in a language other than the one we spoke at home, we always felt tremendously responsible for providing them with rich language experiences outside of school, especially in the first years of preschool, when they were not receiving any instruction in their native language whatsoever. Songs, read-alouds and long dinner conversations were always a part of our daily routine. We were constantly searching for opportunities to immerse our children in a variety of cultural experiences, from watching a performance at a local bookstore storytelling session to exploring the different exhibits at Museu da Língua Portuguesa in downtown São Paulo. The more we do together, the more we have to talk about and, little by little, our children have been building meaning and understanding the world around them better.
Raising bilingual children is no easy task and parents all over the world have similar concerns as to what should be done to ensure their children’s natural linguistic development. I hope that we can use this space to share some ideas about language and children, speakers of Portuguese English, Spanish, or whatever language it may be. I invite you to send in questions or comments so we can start a conversation. I am very much looking forward to it.