By Ana Rubenstein
Almost every day, somebody will ask me how I taught my first language – Portuguese – to my children while living in the U.S. I always answer to them that I didn’t. So how are they bilingual? Well, from the day they were born, I spoke to them exclusively in Portuguese inside the house and everywhere we went. Now, at the ages of 4 and 5, my little ones can speak English and Portuguese with fluency and no accent. Pretty impressive but not as simple as it might seem.
Raising bilingual children can be challenging and I am afraid that is why many Brazilians and other foreign families living in the U.S. are not able to do it. Some people still believe that children can be confused by learning two languages at the same time, have difficulties when attending an American school and learning how to read and write. Based on my experience, I believe young children have the “superpower” of learning different languages more quickly and easily than any adult can ever be able to experience or understand. For this very reason, I always encourage parents living abroad to teach their first language to their children just like I have been doing for the last 5 years. By the way, I never judge them when they don’t, but I always wish they can change their minds.
If and when they do though, they will need persistence, courage, and some support from their community. Speaking your first language with your kids around English-speakers only – sometimes your husband, in-laws, and friends – can be uncomfortable at first. In my case, it became easier as the time passed by, and as I shared with everyone how important it was to me to teach Portuguese to my kids. Another thing that made a difference for us is that my husband was always supported even when he felt “left out” of conversations. By the way, leaving somebody “left out” is part of my daily routine and I just accepted it. There is always somebody who will not understand us, but we can always translate some of the words and parts of our conversation.
Also, there is always somebody who will react negatively when they hear people communicating in another language that is not English. I heard comments such as “wait until the kids go to school and just refuse to speak in Portuguese with you”, or requests such as “Can you speak in English with your children when you are around me?” Throughout the years I became immune to those reactions and even the awkwardness I felt sometimes at playgrounds, playdates and public spaces were replaced with a sense of pride for being able to communicate with my children in Portuguese, the language I grew up speaking. For my disappointment, from time to time, my kids try to speak in English with me and I believe they will keep trying forever. As they grow, they keep learning more and more vocabulary especially at school and I am their only source of Portuguese. Not a fair game. What has been working is for me to “pretend” I don’t understand what they say unless they speak Portuguese and to use every opportunity to teach them words they don’t know yet in the language I chose for us to speak to each other.
They might not realize that now, but my first language is the most special gift I can ever give to them. It is a gift that reveals the roots, the culture and the essence of their mother. I like to believe that I am teaching them more than a language. I want them to learn that being “different” from their English-speaking friends and parents is not good or bad, but it is something pretty special. I hope that my children and the entire community can learn from our family and other foreign families in the U.S. that having an accent is more than mispronouncing some words. It is a sign of courage and resilience. My accent will always reveal part of a story that I am proud to share with my children and whoever wants to hear it. I was 27 years old when I moved from Brazil to the U.S. with a basic English level and God knows how much I struggled to communicate and be understood. My English journey includes the successful completion of college-level classes in this country, earning a school teacher certificate in Florida, and the creation of this motherhood blog that I proudly write in my second language.
Among all my accomplishments in life though, I believe that raising bilingual children was and is one of my biggest ones. Yes, my kids speak English and Portuguese, but you know what really matters? They carry a little seed I planted in their hearts that I hope it will grow to be a big tree of love for diversity, different cultures, languages, and accents. I hope this big tree will help them to connect to any human being from any part of this big world without language barriers.