Saturday 4 February 2012

Speaking like mummy, and speaking like daddy

Being a good child can sometimes have its drawbacks. My children were good children (still are), who readily followed suit on our home-made OPOLicy, whereby Portuguese and Swedish are mum’s and dad’s default languages, respectively, to be used if there is no reason to use another language.

During the children’s first few years, these were the other ingredients to the language-use recipe that I would like to discuss in this post:
  1. I was a stay-at-home parent. Mum and dad therefore chose to speak Swedish to each other when the children were around, to compensate for the children’s greater daily exposure to Portuguese;
  2. In those years, Portuguese was the children’s sibling language;
  3. The children had only very sporadic contact with other speakers of their (then) two languages, because we kept moving from and to countries where these languages were not used;
  4. The children are, in order of appearance, two girls and one boy.
Because the children were good and because there was nothing amiss with their linguistic development, they naturally spoke Portuguese and Swedish like mum and dad, respectively. That they would do so was predictable, of course, in hindsight. But hindsight is hindsight because you miss the sight when the sight is in plain sight: we parents didn’t predict anything of the kind. Whatever linguistic habits we noticed in our children’s speech were good habits, because the children were speaking our languages and that was all that mattered.

Those users of our languages with whom the children had on-and-off contact, however, did notice a number of things. Namely, the children’s replication, in their speech, of the parents’ respective male and female identities, evident through the parents’ linguistic behaviour. Dad spoke boy-Swedish and mum spoke girl-Portuguese, so we had all three children using female Portuguese and male Swedish, each version of the languages complete with vocabulary, grammatical devices, expletives and prosody. A previous post mentions a forerunner to these language uses by the children, also out of sight at the time.

Here’s one example of what was going on. Both Swedish and Portuguese are gendered languages, where noun words fall into distinct categories which are characterised by grammatical features both of the nouns themselves, and of the words which pattern with them, e.g. adjectives. With Swedish adjectives, we use the same gender for males and females, whereas in Portuguese we use one of the two genders of the language for males, and the other one for females. If a Swedish-speaking child says Jag är snabbt for Jag är snabb (‘I’m fast’), the child is making a grammatical mistake, by using the wrong gender on the adjective. If a Portuguese-speaking boy says of himself that he is rápida for rápido (‘fast’), by using the female-bound gender for the male-bound one on the adjective, he’s projecting a mismatched identity. The thought that he’s (also) making a similar grammatical mistake comes second.

My children had other baffling encounters with gender. We were once cosily watching our brand new animated video of The Little Mermaid, dubbed in Portuguese, and all went hunky-dory until Ursula the octopus made his/her/its appearance. The Portuguese word for ‘octopus’, polvo, well known to the children, belongs to the masculine gender, so its association with a clearly female character resulted in hasty pausing of the viewing delight, to initiate a lively Q+A session about things like (un)sexed beings, (un)gendered languages and, not least, the sex of octopuses and of people named Ursula.

More Q than A, actually. It’s not easy to explain these things, or to attempt to correct child uses of them, in child-digestible language. What do you say? “You are a boy, so you should say that you are rápido, not rápida” or “You are a girl, so stop using dad’s tones of voice”? Talking about language doesn’t make sense to children – and doesn’t make anyone learn how to use a language. To me, my children’s uses became plain evidence that you crack a language through real-life input from real-life people. Our boy had no male-Portuguese models available to him at the time, surrounded as he was by all-female users of the language, and conversely for our girls’ Swedish. In case you’re wondering about what I say in point 1 above, the answer is yes: I also spoke Swedish like dad, at the time.

My children’s budding uses of their languages also made clear, to me, the importance of taking into account a child’s language-learning conditions, where school or clinical assessment becomes relevant. We all tend to judge people by their uses of language, taking those uses as a faithful reflection of what people are, or are developing into, an issue that I will come back to some other day. Inadequate uses of language, however, may well reflect inadequate input, instead of developmental or learning deficiencies.

Speaking of which, if you think that children hold the copyright to glitches, false starts and dead-ends on the road to multilingualism, the next post may have some news for you.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Parental adventures in Multilingual-Land. Wednesday 15th February 2012.


  1. I would like to add that, that in my case, I spoke Portuguese as my native language and English as an acquired language, where my wife spoke, exclusively English, later learning to speak Portuguese.
    As a matter of convenience, for which I am very sorry now, we spoke exclusively English at home. However, my son learned Portuguese, initially by osmosis, by listening and then speaking with my parents who spoke Portuguese as their primary language.
    The interesting observation is that my son when he spoke Portuguese, had acquired my accent from the island of São Miguel, in the Azores, which is very distinct.
    Some years ago, I had a Portuguese food products store in San Diego, California to which many Hawaiians would come to look for the foods that their parents and grandparents had brought to Hawaii around the turn of the twentieth century. Inevitably, the conversation would turn to their family's origin. In many cases the only way to tell, was by asking a simple question. How do you say "chouriço" and "sweet bread". when their response was "chourice" and "massa cevada", I knew they had come from São Miguel.
    My experience is that there are certain sounds that are acquired and even if one does not speak the language fluently, it is plausible to detect the source for the speaker's accent.

  2. Thank you, Madalena, for writing such an interesting blog for people like me, who are interested in the concept of multi-lingualism.

    I am a Swedish mother of two Canadian boys. They speak Swedish with me, English with Dad and French in school. One observation with my boys is that they only learn a more formal way of speaking Swedish, since they learn it from me, who is an adult (at least I am trying to be one most of the time ...;-)). It can be quite comical at times. My son Thor sounds like someone in a movie from the 1940s, when he will say stuff like "tack, snälla lilla söta mamma, det var jättesnällt av dig!".

    I found your blog after being told about it by Gisela Håkansson at Lund University. I will keep reading it since I work hard on teaching my sons Swedish. To get more educated, I blog about multi-lingual research, personal experience, and now also an international project within Swedish Women's Educational Association, where we want to assess Swedish skills of kids to Swedish women abroad.

    I would like your permission to mention your blog on my list of references in my own blog ( A blog is such a great way of communicating with the part of the world who shares your interests.

  3. Ah, Corisco, our shibboleths!! So nice of you to want to share your observations. They make a lot of sense to me: my children have been identified as Lisboners because of my accent and my ways of using our Portuguese language, although they’ve hardly lived in Portugal at all. Isn’t it fascinating what osmosis, as you so well put it, ends up accomplishing??

    And Lena, I’m delighted you find this blog of use to you – please say hi to Gisela for me? SWEA is something else you and I have in common. They made me feel at home when I moved to Singapore, and I’ve both held talks and written for them about multilingualism, in Portugal and in Singapore.
    Do go ahead and link my blog to yours, my pleasure! Blogosphere is indeed a wonderful way of keeping in touch with what matters to us out there. Kram på dig!



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