was born to an Italian mother and Lebanese-Brazilian father and spent her first few years in the US, before moving to Brazil and eventually to Germany. Although she speaks French, Italian and English, Portuguese is her strongest language and she believes that that is no coincidence.
“A person’s ability with a language reflects their connection to it. I believe that people have an unconscious affinity to a language, such as the memory of a good time on vacation, My eldest, for example, had the time of his life in the US, so he prefers English. [So it’s] perhaps a connection to an experience or specific people.”
Paola has two boys: 18 (born in Germany and went to an American school for 2 years) and 11 (born in the US and went to a bilingual school). They’ve lived in Germany the longest so their best language is German but what about their “mother tongue” of Portuguese?
“For me [the phrase] ‘mother tongue’ means where the kids went to school and is the language that they have the most social connection with. That’s why, despite me being their mother, their ‘mother tongue’ is not Portuguese. They make grammatical mistakes. Their passive language is perfect but active not so good. We try to improve it with visits to Brazil, through meeting up with friends of mine that are Brazilian etc., but of course German will always be the strongest.”
A bilingual person does not automatically speak their inherited language perfectly. It still depends on their exposure. All the various language disciplines still need to be worked on just as they are in the classroom. For example, if the interaction between a parent and child is only a verbal one then the child will be proficient in speaking and listening but might struggle to read and write the language.
One thing is for certain: In a society where speaking with an accent can sometimes lead to unfair prejudices, some parents struggle with the question of whether to speak to their children in a language other than the one spoken in the region they live. There is an (unfounded) belief that passing on their native language to the child could actually hinder the child’s integration into society and the family’s overall future in their chosen home country. But the benefits of a bilingual upbringing truly outweigh any initial stumbles in a child’s learning curve, and it’s important that we make clear how important it is that children with the means to be raised in multiple language environments will flourish as adults in the globalized world in which we live today.