Our language journey as a third-culture family

I’ve written previously about how language fascinates me and how amazing I find it to witness my daughter acquire two languages as she grows up. You can read about that here. She’s now three and three months.

I’ll give a bit of background about our language journey as a third-culture family.

[I’m using the term third-culture family as an extension of the idea of the third-culture kid (TCK), defined by the Urban Dictionary as “A person who’s personal “culture” is a fusion of two or more cultures to which s/he was exposed during childhood”. Our family is neither one culture nor the other although we are currently living in my husband’s country of origin and will soon be moving to mine.]

I am British and English is my first language. My husband is Brazilian and his first language is Portuguese. I studied Portuguese in the UK as part of my degree course in my 20s and completed a five month residential Discipleship Training School in Brazil which was taught entirely in Portuguese (and is where we met) in my 30s. [I mention this because I find the concept of fluency means totally different things to different people so perhaps a concrete example is a more helpful indication of level of fluency.] My husband spoke no English when we first met so we only ever spoke to one another in Portuguese.

I moved to Brazil when we got married and we imagined then that we would settle in Brazil and be there for the rest of our lives. So when I was pregnant with our daughter I started talking to her almost exclusively in English because it was the minority language, although my husband and I would still talk to each other almost entirely in Portuguese and our community language was Portuguese.

When our daughter was nine months old my dad was diagnosed with cancer and we flew to the UK and spent five months with my family. At that point, I think I switched to speaking to our daughter mainly in Portuguese when we were by ourselves, and in English when we were around English-speaking family and friends. My side of the family are all intuitively communicative with small children (I say intuitively but actually I think that my mum actively trained us to encourage children to communicate) so I was aware that if I wasn’t intentional about speaking in Portuguese, as the most present caregiver, then my daughter would lose her Portuguese language input.

We flew back to Brazil and my husband and I made the decision to start the process of applying for a spouse visa for him so that we could settle in the UK in order to be closer to my parents. So that meant that Portuguese was once again our community language, Portuguese our family language for the most part and English the minority language.

However, my husband had been studying English on and off with some taught classes and some learning on his own and passing the IELTS A1 English test is one of the visa requirements so we spent a few months focusing on English in our home. By this point our daughter was talking more in English than in Portuguese, watching cartoons mainly in English and when we talked to her in Portuguese she would reply in English. So after my husband took his English test we switched to speaking Portuguese at home again.

I would say that maybe 70 percent (perhaps as much as 80 percent) of the time my daughter speaks in Portuguese. She still watches cartoons in English but I try to find the Brazilian Portuguese equivalent if it’s available. Most of our books are in English but I sometimes read those to her in Portuguese.

It is probably unusual that as the non-native speaker, I should be the one to insist on keeping Portuguese an active part of our daughter’s life, but I know how easy it is to lose language and I want to minimise that for her if I can.

The pandemic has held up our visa preparations and we haven’t made it to the UK yet, but when we do my plan is to continue with Portuguese as a home language as much as possible. I realise that we will face challenges when English becomes a community language again, but I hope that having been immersed in Portuguese while we’ve been able to will help her in the future.

At the moment Portuguese is her default language and I would be naive to imagine that this will continue when we are living in the UK with English as the majority language, her at nursery and school, and my husband continuing to study English. I am already grieving my own inevitable loss of language in Portuguese when we move but that’s another story!

I realise that our language journey as a third-culture family goes against all the professional advice on picking one approach to raising bilingual children and then sticking to it. But so far our little one seems to be gaining language at a rapid rate so we’ll just keep on keeping on and see what happens.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Were you raised in a third culture? How have you navigated majority and minority language acquisition with your children?

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