Wave 108 – My children no longer speak Portuguese. What do I do now?

Brazilian families seek initiatives to value and preserve their native language and avoid loss for future generations.

Translated by Rosemary Baptista

It all starts with an English word in the child’s vocabulary. The Brazilian father or mother listens proudly, after all, many of them had difficulty in developing the new language after moving to Canada. Over time, the phrases become more and more mixed up until Portuguese leaves the scene so that the English language dominates the communication. At that moment fear strikes: is this a path of no return?

Imagem ilustrativa | Dreamstime.com

According to the Study, “The Results of the National Heritage Language Survey: Implications for Teaching, Curriculum Design, and Professional Development (Carreira, M & Kagan, O)”, once school immersion in the primary language of the new country begins, there is a tendency to decrease the use of the inherited language .

Francine Martins felt it up close with her 9-year-old son Nicolas, who was born in Vancouver (BC). Because his father and mother are Brazilian, Nicolas spoke Portuguese when he was little. However, today, he no longer uses his heritage language. “In 2017, we moved to Prince George, British Columbia, where I didn’t know other Brazilians. Since then, I separated and today both Nico’s father and I have relationships with Canadians. Because of this, English became even more prominent”, she says.

Before the move, the boy attended the Curumim Workshop, a non-profit organization in Vancouver, that encourages the use of the Portuguese language and values ​​contact with Brazilian culture. “A friend told me about this project. On Sundays, Nico participated in activities which involved games, stories, music, arts and games with elements of our country’s traditions. There, he also socialized and kept in touch with other children of Brazilian ancestry,” she says.

Oficina Curumim emerged from Brazilian parents who sought to value and preserve their native culture and language

It was only at the end of 2022 that Francine was able to connect with the Brazilian community in her new city, Prince George. To help her son, she didn’t think twice about approaching a Portuguese speaking father whose child attended the same school Nicolas’s. As we talked, I learned that there were a growing number of Brazilians at Prince George and I became part of that group, meeting them, whenever possible. “I really wanted Nico to have other children to talk to in Portuguese, because I know he tries to communicate when he’s alone with Portuguese speakers”, says Francine.

Francine’s story is replica among Brazilians living in other countries. The Curumim Workshop itself emerged in 2012, when some families got together with the intention of doing educational activities in Portuguese with their children. Today, ten years after its foundation, it serves more than one hundred children from 6 months to 12 years old. The meetings take place once a week and the groups are separated into three classes, according to age group. The pedagogical team is made up of seven teachers and 11 classroom assistants volunteers. Expenses are covered through monthly fees paid by participants.

Simone Quessada de Faria Santos has been the initiative’s pedagogical coordinator since the beginning, when she came to Canada with her family. A Pedagogue and psychopedagogue with training in the Portuguese Language of Heritage and Bilingualism, she says that the Workshop provides children with “our culture, our roots and our ancestry”. “The importance given to those who seek us is to preserve their mother tongue and origins and be proud of their Brazilianness, in addition to bringing a sense of community by cultivating ties with other Brazilians”, he says.

It is possible to identify proposals similar to the Curumin Workshop in different provinces of Canada, such as Português Lúdico, in Toronto (ON), and Projeto Lápis de Cor, in Edmonton (AL). There are also professors who work with face-to-face and virtual private classes, as is the case with pedagogue and educational psychologist Marina Tiso, who lives in Vancouver.

Marina says that family involvement is essential in maintaining a language

Marina dá aulas de português como língua materna ou de herança para crianças de diversos países

Professor Marina moved with her family to Canada in 2018 and currently has students in several countries. In addition to offering private lessons, she has developed projects to connect them through language. “One initiative that I propose is the Book Club, in which we get together virtually once a week to read together and do activities related to this reading. I choose copies of Brazilian authors and illustrators, so that the cultural elements are present”.

Of the families that seek Marina, there’s a little bit of everything: from children who speak Portuguese, but think they can’t read, to those who no longer communicate in the heritage language. The pedagogue says that literacy is a unique process, so anyone who knows how to read and write in English will be able to do the same in Portuguese, just adapting grammatical issues. For this, however, she points out that it is important to have vocabulary and repertoire in the language. “On the first day of class one student said that she didn’t know how to read in Portuguese and in the fifth class she said she preferred to read Brazilian books”, she exemplifies.

Marina’s classes are adapted to the demands of each child, whether related to speaking, writing or reading. But with all families she emphasizes the importance of continuing work at home. “I say that I only give the push, but the family must be determined to do its part in a systematic way. It is not enough just to speak in Portuguese with the children”.

For Silvia, Portuguese is the language through which she expresses her emotions

The reasons for many to seek ways to encourage the preservation of Portuguese with their children include maintaining ties with family members in Brazil, valuing bilingualism as a differential for the child’s development and for future professional opportunities, and the importance given to Brazilian culture .

Silvia Macedo was part of the Board of Directors at Oficina Curumim between 2015 and 2017 and was the one who introduced her to Francine. With two sons, Liam and Klaus, aged 13 and 10 respectively, she adds an important aspect to this list: “Portuguese is my emotional language. I couldn’t express my emotions with my children in English the way I express them in Portuguese, and I wouldn’t want to. I want them to have enough knowledge of my language to understand these nuances, which are the emotions conveyed by the words”.

Marina shares Silvia’s thoughts about the emotional character of this learning process. “It’s not just a question of translation. It is about understanding one’s own heredity. Once, a group of students defined Portuguese as the ‘troublesome’ language. In fact, it should be the language of affection, which expresses our culture, our particularities and emotions. Thus, it is important to include it in the daily routine and activities that evoke this, such as telling childhood stories, in a moment of affectionate reading and so on”, says the teacher.

Graziela insisted on securing a place for her daughter in a daycare managed by another Brazilian

Adelaine (direita) administra um daycare bilíngue em que atende Alice e sua própria filha Rivkah (Foto: arquivo pessoal)

With two daughters – Luiza, 11 years old, and Alice, 2 years old – Graziela and her husband Thiago moved to Prince George in 2022. She says that, before leaving, she looked at many blogs, websites and social media profiles of other Brazilians in Canada. “During these searches I found Adelaine, a Brazilian who was about to open a daycare. I thought it was perfect for us because I wanted Alice to feel understood and that the adaptation, with the immersion in the new language, was not traumatic,” she says. In her daycare, Adelaine Gazzano takes care of Alice and a Canadian child, as well as her own daughter, Rivkah, 2 years old. “When we spoke on social media, I gave Graziela the option of mixing English and Portuguese in her routine. For example, when we work on colors with children, we do activities involving both languages. I also have books available in both languages ​​to read with them,” she explains.

Luiza, Graziela’s eldest daughter, attends public school and is in the sixth grade. “When we arrived, she spoke very little English and was also mortified. So, at home we try to preserve Portuguese, so that the two always feel comfortable expressing themselves with us,” she says.

Among families and specialists involved in the development and maintenance of Portuguese as a mother and heritage language, everyone emphasizes that learning goes beyond the language, with the construction of identity as a central element. “We work so that this learning takes place in a way that provides an affective and positive memory in relation to Portuguese, in addition to bringing the notion of belonging to the origins”, says Simone. “I want my daughters to know about our history, our people, our culture and our roots. After all, this is part of who they are as Brazilians,” concludes Graziela.

Tips on how to help children develop Portuguese at home

• Be committed to the task. The family must make the decision to act actively to practice the language, with established routines and intentional activities;

• Read books in Portuguese with the children. Preferably have a collection at home;

• Having combined routines for the inclusion of Portuguese, such as: doing writing activities in Portuguese – for example, writing letters to send to family members in Brazil –, always reading a Brazilian book or comic book before going to sleep, etc.;

• In case of Brazilian parents, always speak Portuguese at home;

• Bringing the language through an affective universe. This includes rescuing childhood stories in Brazil, peculiar elements of our culture – such as folklore –, teaching Brazilian games and translating songs in the language and singing along;

• Demonstrate affection and pride in your mother tongue. This awakens in the child the desire to develop Portuguese;

• Get to know the material prepared with the support of the Consulate General of Brazil in Miami, which deals with how to maintain and develop Portuguese as a heritage language. Also, it offers a list of myths related to bilingualism and suggestions for those who live outside Brazil.