Bilingual children and language development – Confusion between first and third person in Portuguese

On the subject of the confusion that must arise between the first person singular and the third person singular for a child acquiring Portuguese  – mentioned in my last post here and back by overwhelming demand – I have some further observations.

Not only do the majority of Brazilians talk about themselves in the third person singular when talking to a child, they also commonly use the third person singular ending when describing the first person plural.

Let me unpack this a bit. When I say the majority of Brazilians refer to themselves in the third person singular when talking to a child I mean in almost every interaction.

So an older but not adult sister will say ‘Dá beijo pra Irmã’ (‘Give a kiss to Sister‘) or ‘Irmã precisar trabalhar agora’ (‘Sister needs to work now‘) when referring to herself wanting a kiss or needing to work. A nurse will explain to a child ‘A Tia precisa olhar na sua boca, pode abrir a boca pra Tia?’ (‘Aunty needs to look in your mouth, can you open your mouth for Aunty?‘) [I am capitalising because I think that the third person usage is similar to assigning a name or title.]

At the same time, while there is a textbook first person plural ‘nós’ form in Portuguese for all verbs (‘we‘ in English), there is also a colloquial form (‘a gente’) which functions as a first person plural but which is conjugated using the third person singular.

For example, ‘we like‘ could be ‘(nós) gostamos’ [where the ‘nós’ is optional and used for emphasis since the ending ‘-amos’ already indicates the subject] or ‘a gente gosta’ in colloquial speech [‘a gente’ must always be specified in this case because without it the subject would be ‘she / he / they singular / it‘].

When I moved to Brazil after getting married and heard non-native speakers using ‘a gente’ (colloquial ‘we‘) I assigned it to the ‘too colloquial / slang-like for me to be able to carry off without seeming totally affected and out of place’ in the same way that it would if I started saying ‘dude / man / bro‘ in English.

Having lived for over four years in environments where colloquial language usage is the norm, I now almost always use the ‘a gente’ form when I want to express the first person plural.

While writing this post I have had a much overdue revelation. I have (until right now) avoided using the ‘nós’ first person plural form because I could never remember how to conjugate the -ER and -IR verb groups in the simple past tense. This memorably led to me tying myself in ever-tightening linguistic knots and switching between formal and informal language with wild abandon while publicly interpreting a preach into Portuguese for the first time.

I have now discovered that there is no change in the verb endings of any group between the  present and simple past tenses for the first person plural! (So ‘falamos’ means both ‘we speak‘ and ‘we spoke‘, ‘comemos’ means both ‘we eat‘ and ‘we ate‘, and ‘abrimos’ means both ‘we open‘ and ‘we opened‘.)

My confusion must have come because I learned and spoke Spanish before I ever spoke Portuguese to the same level and the -ER verb group in Spanish does change between the tenses (confusingly it assumes the same ending as the -IR verb group in the simple past tense – so ‘comemos’ means ‘we eat‘ and ‘comimos’ means ‘we ate‘).

I’m very pleased to have found this out as it means I will not need to employ any more insufficient coping mechanisms to deal with this in speech.

Once again the long way round to show that the third person singular verb ending is probably the mostly commonly heard verb ending for small people since it is used for ‘she / he / they / it‘ and also ‘we‘ in colloquial usage and in place of ‘I‘ when talking to the child. Other children of the same age do not refer to themselves in the third person. They use the first person singular. But in times of pandemic, contact with children of the same age is very low and contact with third-person-using family members is disproportionately high.

So, while everyone around her is referring to themselves in the third person, our daughter is still expected to refer to herself in the first person and gets corrected every time she does so. Which seems a little unfair.

I am hoping to redress the balance a bit by trying to remember to use the first person more when I speak to her and I’ll be attempting to practise my first person plural endings now too.

Since she has also been saying ‘com eu’ (‘with I‘) instead of ‘comigo’ (‘with me‘) for some time now, we’ll keep working on that. She would never have heard this in Portuguese (and it may be a direct translation from English as ‘eu’ means ‘I‘ but is also used in contexts where it would be translated as ‘me‘ in English), but it is clearly her attempt to express the meaning without hearing anyone else really use ‘comigo’ (‘with me‘) because they are using ‘com Mamãe / Irmã / Vovó / Tia’ (‘with Mummy / Sister / Grandma / Aunty‘) instead. I hadn’t made the link before but now I can see that her language usage is completely understandable and shows how she has been using language components for problem-solving.

I would love to hear your thoughts! Have you had to unravel some language complications? Or face up to some grammatical confusion as a second language learner?

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