What’s your mother tongue? Mine’s English, and it is probably called ‘mother tongue’ at least in part because traditionally the main care giver would have been your mother or another woman, and you would have received most of your initial language development on the knee of your mother.
But what happens when your father speaks a different language? Do you have a father tongue? It sounds very strange to talk about a father tongue, but that is exactly the situation I, and millions of other fathers, face.
Let me explain.
I was born in the UK but I am married to a Brazilian and we live in Curitiba in the south of Brazil. Obviously, my son’s mother tongue is going to be Portuguese; it is the language of his mother, his extended family here in Brazil and the main language he hears in the community.
I understand Portuguese and I can function pretty well speaking it. But English is still my first language and I would like my son to grow up speaking both languages.
We have been on this bilingual path for a little over two years now so here are some of the things I have learned about how to teach a father tongue.
Our son’s first word was an English one which gave me a thrill because it showed I was doing something right. At the moment I am keeping a record of the words he uses and it is about 40% Portuguese, 40% English and 20% his own inventions. I am doing this in order to keep a record for him and us in future years.
I am not doing it as some sort of competition to see which language is winning at any point in time. I am normally a competitive person, but this is a long term project and the only winner can be my son when he is fluent in both languages.
Communication and Teamwork are Vital
Something that I have discovered over the last two years is that I can’t do this alone. I need my wife to understand that we need to make space for English. I have had to talk my in-laws about the reasons for me speaking English to my son in front of them and persuade them to accept our plans. We have had to talk to his nursery school to let them know that when he says ‘blue car’ he meant ‘carro azul’.
It hasn’t happened to us yet, but I know it will one day. There will come a time when our son doesn’t want to speak English because he is embarrassed in front of his friends, or because it doesn’t seem to be worth the hassle or just as a way of rebelling me against me. I hope I am going to be able to handle this situation with patience and understanding. Allow for communication with my son to see if there is some area for compromise, but ultimately I am going to have to keep on speaking English and gently encouraging my son to do the same as well.
Because he’s worth it
It has been a lot of hard work and also cost quite a bit of money so far, and this work and expense are only going to increase over time. I believe it is worth every second and every penny. There are health, educational, economic and cultural benefits to being bilingual. It also means he’ll be able to understand and groan at my terrible jokes. All of this effort now will pay off for the rest if our son’s life.
And that, after all, is all any parent, mother or father, wants to do for their children.
About Stephen Greene
Stephen is an English teacher, teacher trainer and materials developer in Curitiba, Brazil. He blogs about his experiences if living in Brazil and bringing up a bilingual family at Head of the Heard. When he’s not hoping against hope that England can win the World Cup in Brazil he can be found on Twitter @HoftheH and is a recent convert to Google +
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