Bilingual children and language development – Interference from the weaker language

In my last post I gave some examples of moments when my bilingual daughter is clearly influenced by grammatical structure and language in her default language (Portuguese) and applies it to her weaker language (English).

There have been a few moments when I have seen this happen the other way around but it seems to result in mental overload and she stops herself.

As our family language journey has been a bit more complicated than merely picking a family language model and sticking to it (more on that here), our reading patterns have also changed.

Early on, when we assumed we would be in Brazil for the long haul, I made a point of picking up as many books in English as possible. Friends kindly sent books when our daughter was born and for birthdays, my family supplied us with hardboard and paper books, and I found some children’s books in an Anglican church in Rio such as ‘Daggy Dogfoot’ (note to self – read ahead, three-year-olds might not need to hear about clubs with nails in them for dispatching the weakest piglets). All in all, as chief speaker and reader in our family, our focus was on English.

Since we made the decision to move to the UK, I’ve become increasingly aware that we have very few books in Portuguese. We’re not in a position to stock up on books here and almost every single children’s book we own was a present and/or a charity shop find.

We have a boxset of Gruffalo mini-books (numbers, colours, opposites and animal actions) which is a firm favourite and handily most of the books are easy to simply read out loud in Portuguese – animal actions is not so easy because a) I don’t know all of the verbs (‘flap like a bird‘) and b) I don’t always agree with the phrase in English (‘wriggle like a snake‘).

The numbers have been the most straightforward because you can’t really go wrong with 1 – 5 in either language. Although the illustration for number five includes a kingfisher which I took a guess at / made up in Portuguese (not advisable) and called it a ‘rei pescador’ [it is actually called ‘martim-pescador’]. ‘Pescador’ in Portuguese is also the word for ‘angler‘ or ‘fisherman‘ (who occasionally have bit parts during our walks) and now sometimes our daughter names the birds in English and calls the kingfisher a ‘fisherman‘ [again direct translation from Language X to Language Y].

What really tripped her up with reading the books in Portuguese was the colours. In English you can describe the illustration by saying “Red: red fox, red ladybirds, red toadstool“. In Portuguese the adjective follows the noun and agrees with the noun in number and gender. So in Portuguese you have to say “Vermelho: raposa vermelha, joaninhas vermelhas, cogumelo vermelho”.

At one point we had just been through the book in English and started again in Portuguese and she started to say “vermelho raposa, vermelho joaninhas…”. I said it in normal Portuguese and she just replied “Eu não consigo. Você lê” (“I can’t do it. You read“).

There are a few instances in Portuguese where you do put the adjective before the noun but I have never heard her attempt to do this in the wrong context. She doesn’t always choose the right ending for the adjective so that it agrees with the noun in number and gender, but I’m not sure when children normally manage that anyway. So in normal speech, while she might not choose the appropriate ending for the adjective, she would still never put it before the noun.

I’m not sure whether her confusion (and her frustration at having done it and probably felt that it was all wrong while she was saying it) was caused by it happening immediately after reading through in English or whether it was just that the book is one we only ever used to read in English or whether it was to do with memory and the effort of retrieving the words and translating them as she went meant she tried to fit them into the grammatical framework of English. Perhaps she was just tired.

I am amazed by how children memorise books. At one point I was wondering whether I should still be pausing at the end of each line of ‘Each Peach Pear Plum’ waiting for her to fill in the final syllable when she clearly showed no intention of doing so, when she said “Eu consigo” (“I can do it“) and recited the whole book to me, in my voice, with all my stresses and exact intonation.

‘Each Peach Pear Plum’ is heavily rhythm and rhyme-based so I haven’t been reading it in Portuguese. But since we started focusing on upping the Portuguese language input I have been reading aloud in Portuguese more.

One of the things working against me is her memory. She is a stickler for correctness – I have no idea where she gets this from – so I cannot afford to make any errors in my reading. At one point, as I was on the penultimate page of ‘Stickman’ and already feeling the tantalising sense of approaching relief, I said ‘chattering‘ instead of ‘clattering‘ and was roundly and accusingly corrected.

When you are literally reading the words written on each page, there is a limited margin for error. When you are effectively simultaneously interpreting the book each time and re-evaluating which word in Portuguese conveys the English sense most accurately, there is far more margin for error and, rest assured, it will be noted.

At one point I was reading out a mini book called ‘Jonah and the Whale’ (or ‘Jonah and the large fish’ depending on how I’m feeling) and I decided that the word ‘mestre’ (‘teacher‘) was a better translation than ‘professor’ (‘classroom teacher / lecturer‘) of the English word ‘teacher‘. I was corrected and had to hide the book for a while. It now seems that ‘mestre’ has been permitted as an acceptable alternative.

I am grateful for increased tolerance. While I understand why a book should be read in exactly the same way every time, I’m also pleased that we have a growing flexibility around stories that can be read aloud in Portuguese, which can only help in terms of language exposure.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Have you noticed any moments of language switching overload in bilingual children? Or has that ever happened to you?

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