Having a Bi-Lingual Home Isn’t as Simple as I Thought

(This is an older blog post that I’m migrating from my old blog)

I lived in Brazil for two years.  I was serving as a missionary for my church.  While I was there I learned a lot of different things.  One of those things was the Portuguese language.  I was very determined to learn to speak like a native.

I worked at it, practiced constantly, listened intently, and learned quickly.  Towards the end of my mission some people were unsure if I was a native or not.  Between my tan skin and accent they weren’t sure if I was Brazilian or not.  I took that as a compliment.  I had worked hard to speak well and had found over the course of my time there that I had an affinity for picking up and mimicking dialects.

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Brazilian Flag.  “Order and Progress”

When I was working with my companion from Minas Gerais I started speaking like a Mineiro.  When I was with my Pernambucano companion I started speaking like one too.

All in all, I came home to the United States with a great sense of pride in my accomplishments and a slight Brazilian accent when I spoke English.  There were a few months after getting home that I had to translate from Portuguese to English in my head because the Portuguese phrase came to mind instead of English.  By the way, it’s a really strange experience to struggle to transition back to your native language, just sayin’.

I continue to try to keep up with my Brazilian friends, and I try to keep up with the language.  I try anyway, even if my success rate is really low.

My wife and I had talked here and there about raising our kids as bi-lingual.  She would speak English, I would speak Portuguese.  It was a fun thing to think about, but I don’t think that either of us had seriously thought it through, we had just passively thought “ooh, that would be cool”.

My oldest brother and his wife decided that they would teach their kids to be tri-lingual.  My brother speaks Portuguese, his wife speaks German, and everyone else speaks English.  They’ve done a great job of teaching their daughter all three languages as she’s grown up.  And we decided it would be a great idea for us to do the same with our son. . . . Turns out it’s a lot harder than I thought.

I was hoping that I would just speak in Portuguese to him and he would pick it up and everything would be great. It has proven to be a much larger task than I had imagined.

One of the reasons for the difficulty is that I haven’t spoken Portuguese as much as I have wanted to in the 6+ years since I’ve been back from Brazil.  I’m a little bit rusty, to say the least.  There are things that I don’t remember how to say, and there are some things that I struggle to translate into Portuguese.

Sometimes you just want to say “Hey there buddy!”, but the equivalent translation just doesn’t seem to convey what you’re trying to say.  I think that most people in my situation are ok with having second-rate Portuguese, after all it is a second language.  But for some reason bad Portuguese makes me feel ashamed.

Me in a small town near Rio Grande da Serra

I left my mission feeling that I had mastered conversational Portuguese.  I understood most everything that people said, or that was written.  I was learning words quickly, had a great grasp of the grammar, and could express myself clearly.  I felt that I had accomplished something great.  And now it’s fading.

Every time I speak in Portuguese I’m reminded of how much of the skill I’ve lost.  I’m reminded at how much I’ve forgotten, and how infantile my Portuguese is now as compared to when I was in Brazil.  When I try to speak Portuguese to my son I’m actually a little embarrassed with myself.  I’m ashamed that I haven’t kept up on such an important skill.  I worked two years on that skill for goodness sakes!  Now I’ve gone and let it get all rusty.

I still would like to speak Portuguese to my son, but I’m starting to realize that it’s going to take more than just deciding to do so.  I’m going to need to actually practice again, speak with natives again and reset my brain.

I’m also going to need to accept that my Portuguese isn’t what it used to be and either accept my poor language skills and potentially teach my son a lot of incorrect colloquialisms, or I can get back into the game start re-learning some Portuguese!

I think that I shall be doing the latter, and I hope that my Brazilian friends are bothered with me calling them for language study time.

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