By Felicia Jennings-Winterle
One Saturday, going from Brooklyn to Manhattan, I sat next to a father and two boys. All along, about 45 minutes, the boys were doing homework in Mandarin. The father was American. It was clear that the mother was Chinese and that for that family bilingualism was a serious matter. But why does an American father invest in Mandarin? The answer may seem obvious but, for some families, the familiar implication of multiculturalism is not yet valued.
Trying to avoid stereotypes, in most multicultural families with whom I have contact it is the mother who has a heritage language to offer and sometimes stays at home with the children. This observation does not necessarily reveal that mothers are more interested and participative, but reveals that there are also fathers who are supporting and enabling the participation of their children in a program directed at teaching and living with the heritage language (HL) and that this engagement makes this a unique experience. Whether he is Brazilian or not, the presence of the father is a differential in class.
The opposite is also, unfortunately, true. I have already seen many cases in which the father refuses to support, enable and / or participate. This creates such a barrier that the child ends up having two worlds, missing the opportunity to be global.
And not just in class. In the family life of a bilingual child, the participation of both parents, in both cultures, is necessary.
If language is culture, the father’s participation should include eating cheese bread, coming to the June party and, more than that, creating a bridge from his multicultural home to that of his parents, the children’s grandparents.
This lack of communication between the families of the father and the mother can generate anxiety on the part of the grandparents, who may fear they can not communicate with their grandchildren, and may even compromise their academic future. Hence the importance of the father’s participation as a supporter of bilingualism at home. William J. O’Connor is American and works as a corporate accountant. Father of two Brazilians, he answered three questions that sum up very well the father’s role in bilingualism.
Why is it important to invest in two languages?
We are raising our sons to be bilingual. At home I only speak English with them and my wife Katia only speaks Portuguese with them. We believe that it is beneficial for our children to be fluent in Portuguese for several reasons: We meet our immediate and extended family and friends from Brazil quite often, either in Brazil or here. It therefore feels very natural for us that our sons should be able to communicate with them and play with their cousins and friends in Portuguese.
Our sons were born and are being raised in America but they also have their Brazilian nationality. Therefore we feel they should know not only the Portuguese language but also its context in the Brazilian culture. There is more to it than just the language aspect. It can also open up a broader spectrum to understand other cultures and traditions, and lead to greater perception and problem-solving skills. A bilingual upbringing may increase a child’s scholastic abilities in many subjects.
From what I’ve observed, you are not fluent in Portuguese, but speak a few words. Why bother speaking them?
I am not fluent, or even conversational, in Portuguese yet. But I am steadily increasing my vocabulary and I can often understand the general context of a conversation or an article. I regularly browse the Brazilian newspapers’ websites and try to read articles from Brazilian magazines in Portuguese. My company is now beginning to expand into the Brazilian market, so a knowledge of Portuguese will help me in my professional life.
How do you see this investment in 10 or 15 years?
We believe that being fluent in both Portuguese and English will help and enrich our sons in their personal, academic, and future professional lives. Fluency in Portuguese can be a bridge to understanding other Latin based languages. We feel that if our sons learn Portuguese well, it could be easier for them to learn the other Romance languages. As one of the emerging market nations, Brazil’s economy is growing and it will certainly play an important role in the worldwide economy in the future. Professionally, they will benefit from knowing Portuguese well and will be able to choose where to study and work in the future.
Felicia researchers Portuguese as a Heritage Language and is the Founder and Educational Director of Brasil em Mente, the organization that maintains this platform.
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