Today’s Ask an Expert question was sent in by Carly, a mother whose in a difficult situation. With a daughter born in Brazil but now living in the United States, she needs to know how she can prevent her daughter from losing fluency in Portuguese. The problem? Her daughter’s father and the side of the family that spoke Portuguese to her are all back in Brazil and Carly isn’t a native speaker. Let’s see if our expert, Lori, can help!

“Should I speak to my child in a language not my own?”

I have a question that is similar to the June 1st week question – “Should I speak to my child in a language not my own?” however, my situation differs slightly, and so perhaps the answer will be too:  My daughter, Zaya, was born in Brazil a year ago and grew up among her father’s family and community hearing Portuguese.  At home, her father and I spoke mostly English to each other (my native language), and to Zaya, we each spoke our mother tongue. Now, at 13 months, Zaya is living in the United States and her father is still in Brazil. There are very few people in her life who are speaking to her in Portuguese except for the occasional Skype phone calls.  I would like to continue to use Portuguese words while building her vocabulary, since she already knows and responds to them.  I would also like to speak to her in Portuguese, even though it’s not perfect and I’m sure I’m making some mistakes. But I would hate for her to return to Brazil in a year to visit and not understand what her relatives are saying to her.  Do you have any advice?


Hi Carly!

This is such an excellent question, and one that plagues me and other non-native speakers of languages who would like to pass their languages on to their children.

I think the answer to your question: “Should I speak to my child in a language not my own?” warrants the timelessly frustrating response: “it depends.” It depends on your goals. If you are interested in exposing your child to the language, keeping the language fresh, maintaining a connection to the sounds and syntax of the language, then I think sí!, by all means speak to her in Portuguese.

However, your child will likely only develop a similar proficiency to your own, though likely not greater. You can supplement your child’s acquisition of the language (once she gets a little older, perhaps) with online resources like videos, podcasts and other web-based tools in Portuguese. Here are some good examples for kids:

  • MidiSegni – coloring pages, games, activities using basic vocabulary in Portuguese.
  • SoccerLingua – games and fun exercises to learn new phrases in five different languages: English, French, Portuguese, Swedish, and Turkish.
  • ClubPenguin – a fun and safe virtual world in which kids take on the persona of a penguin and travel to different areas to play games and “meet” other penguins.

And the best way for your daughter to speak and understand Portuguese well, is for you to keep your proficiency level high. I also think it’s good for her to see “mamãe” learning Portuguese alongside her daughter! Here are some resources for maintaining your own proficiency:

  • ieLanguages podcasts in Brazilian Portuguese.
  • LyricsGaps music videos with gap activities.
  • BBC Languages – vide-based language-learning tools online.
  • LanguageGuide – visual picture dictionary in Portuguese organized by themes.
  • Hello-Hello – learn English, Spanish, French and Portuguese in an interactive online forum from native speakers.

Boa sorte, Carly!

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