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Speaking Two Languages – Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I am the mother of two wonderful girls, a toddler and an almost three-year-old. I switch back and forth between speaking English and Portuguese with them since I am originally from Brazil. Lately the older one is insisting that I read certain books to her only in one or the other language. This is even more frustrating for my husband when he does the bedtime routine since he doesn’t speak Portuguese.

What’s going on?

Mamãe/ Mommy

Querida Mamãe,

A child who is exposed to more than one language from the beginning often goes back and forth, even mid-sentence, until around age three. By this time, she will have learned to associate one language with certain people or situations, and the other language with others. Your daughter has learned to associate Portuguese with some of her bedtime books, rather than with you as the reader. It is interesting that she seems unaware that Daddy is limited to English. As is common in very young children, she must believe he has super powers and can do anything.

Since she is not yet three, she may also be exhibiting a common toddler trait of clinging to routines to get through the day. In her mind, one language or the other “goes with” the reading of a particular book. She can’t have peanut butter without the jelly. Likewise toothpaste goes with the toothbrush and the timer. Her ritual of “Good Night Moon” must be read as, “Boa Noite Lua” or the world ceases to have any order for her.

I have personally known several children who successfully split their languages into distinct uses soon after the age of three. Whether their mother used French, Spanish, or American Sign Language, each child easily switched back and forth between Mom’s language and the spoken English of the other people with whom they were conversing.

Your daughter might be willing to accept dividing her picture books into two different shelves -one marked “English” (or “Daddy”) and the other marked “português” (or “Mamãe”). This will provide a concrete expectation that each set of books is always read in the one language, at least for this transition phase in her language development.

You are giving your children a wonderful gift of bilingualism.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.

Chesapeake Children’s Museum is offering Fun with Spanish for children ages 4-7 with a native speaker who lived in Mexico until he was six.  Señor Ruben will share crafts, games, stories, and nature activities, todos en espagnol, on Mondays, 3:30 – 4 pm. Discounts for CCM members and for more than one child from the same family. Register here

The museum is hosting a Sizzling Family Summer Concert featuring Frolic the Fox and Guava Jelly on Saturday, July 24 from 9 am to 2 pm.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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