Sunday, 2 January 2011

Raising multi-lingual children in Sao Paulo

I'm a terrible chinese person but a perfect example of chinese kids growing up in western culture. I was born in New Zealand, to Chinese-Malaysian parents, and moved to Hong Kong when I was 10 years old. I wasn't able to enrol in a local school as my cantonese was non-existent so joined one of the British schools instead. Much to my parents dismay, learning cantonese or mandarin was not my focus as a teenager (!) and me and my sisters were bribed into having private tuition every Saturday morning.
My mother still continues to speak to to us in cantonese and I can understand about 80% but for some reason, I just can't form sentences in my head so it all just comes out in english no matter how hard I try!
I have spent my adult life regretting not making the most of learning cantonese or mandarin, when they were both readily available to me. I wish my parents were harder on me!! Now that we are living in Brazil we are really make a concerted effort to learn brazilian portuguese. We even use our basic vocabulary at home as well as in our every day life (only a few in Tim's office can speak English and our nanny only speak Portuguese) to try and ingrain ourselves in this language, and culture, as quickly as possible.
But now that Sophie is on the cusp of starting to speak it has started to raise the question of, with regards to languages, how do we approach her language development. Do we send her to a Portuguese only school or a bi-lingual school? Should we only speak english at home? Should my mother speak cantonese with her (since I don't use it)? Is it to her advantage to be exposed to lots of different languages?
I found this article on the Myths of Multilingual Families which was interesting. I think it depends on a variety of different factors... where you are living, for example, here in Brazil barely anyone speaks english so we would have to make a special effort at home. As much as I want her to learn brazilian portuguese, I would not want her to lose out on her english either. If she went to an english school here I could very easily see her losing her brazilian portuguese as her communication at school and at home (80% of her life) would be in english.
I would be really interested to hear from other families, particularly here in Sao Paulo or Brazil, about their approach on raising their children in different languages.


  1. I am also concerned about language, as well as education, for my child here in Sao Paulo. My husband is Brazilian and I am American. We moved to Sao Paulo about 6 months ago. I had my daughter, who turned 3 in November, at a "bilingual" school, in which the teachers spoke "English." But she, who has an excellent grasp of the English language, just came home speaking bad English and no Portuguese. I have friends whose children go to the American school (Graded) whose English I can't even understand. The British school (St. Paul's) is a bit better, but I hear from friends that despite the high tuition, the education is terrible. My solution is to spend the next few months finding her a good Brazilian school. She'll at least speak proper Portuguese, and she'll speak English at home and with family when we visit.
    We have a number of international friends who take the approach that one parents speaks one language, and the other the second language, and they learn English, or the home country language, at school. I've gotten consistent feedback that this is the best approach, if you want your daughter to speak English, Cantonese and Brazilian Portuguese.
    Good luck!
    Born Again Brazilian

  2. Thanks for your helpful comments!

    Because we are learning Portuguese we practice with each other and also to include our nanny (who only speaks Portuguese) but for the sake of her English I think we need to be consistent and just stick to it at home! She is only 18 months at the moment so we have a bit more time to look for a school.

  3. I agree on the above about if you want her to learn Portuguese well, have her learn it at school. However many of my friends who were foreign school educated did eventually lose it. My husband and I have decided to split the family. I will speak English (as I can't speak Portuguese), and my husband will speak Portuguese, our nanny speaks both Japanese and Portuguese, and I really would prefer if Japanese were spoken, then he can also speak it with my side of the family... of course my kid's 8 months so I'm jumping the proverbial gun.

  4. I know others who have taken this approach. I've also heard about doing one language a day - so choosing 4 days for english only in the house, and 3 days for Portuguese only.

    I know that our kids will work it out eventually... btw, it's never too early to think about it, it feels like Sophie was 8 months old just the other day!

  5. My daughter is nearly 3. I am American, husband is Italian. We three live in Rio.

    I speak strictly in English even though I am fluent in Italian and French (daughter was born in France).

    Husband (aka daddy) speaks strictly Italian (both to me and to our daughter).

    Daughter attends a Brazilian creche.

    So she gets 3 languages every day.

    She never stops talking (is hyper verbal for her age), and speaks mainly in English, though we believe she understands Italian and Portuguese.

    She speaks and understands English most likely because I have been the main influence in her life since Day 1 (as a SAHM). I involved her in storytimes, music, and books and constantly narrated our days together, explaining everything we're doing, etc. even when she was too young to speak.

    I do worry that she is not speaking Italian or Portuguese. She seems to understand both, but she mainly speaks in English. And when she doesn't understand something, she turns to me for translation/explanation.

    We plan to stick to our strategy in order to remain consistent, but surely she needs more interaction in Italian in order to be fluent in her daddy's native language.

    I do fear that it may be too late and that she will be far more fluent in English than in Italian, as I am a SAHM and daddy is out of the house every day for 14 hours for work and only sees our daughter on the weekend.

  6. Hi jean - thanks for your notes. I think, right now, I'm finding it hard to decide what to do because that would mean being consistent and disciplined (a characteristic I'm sadly without...). Does your daughter switch easily to Portuguese at her creche or does she answer her teachers back in English since, as you say, it's her main language?

    When did she start speaking? I know Sophie is going to be a little delayed in speaking because we are mixing it up at the moment but I can see how desperate she is to start - and the frustration also comes out in biting and hitting at the moment.