Strategies in favor of Portuguese as a Heritage Language



By Luciana Lessa Rodrigues, PhD*
Translated by Julio Soares de Carvalho

The number of Brazilians that move to another country is ever growing. In the midst of many challenges, doubts and difficulties that come with this change, a very salient question is raised: What can be done so that the children that are born or grow up in countries of other languages can maintain Portuguese as a Heritage Language? How is this process different from the one through which children that live in Brazil with their families learn Portuguese?

It is well known that it is essential to the acquisition of a language that the child recognizes the practical or emotional importance of its use. In the case of children raised in a monolingual environment, this seems to happen naturally. That’s the case of Brazilians that grow up speaking Portuguese when a child is immersed in an environment where one language is present at all times.

In this context, the “necessity” to become a Portuguese speaker is a factor offered by the environment in which the child lives, and the interactions are directed almost all the time with Portuguese as an instrument.

The situation is different in the case of Brazilian parents that move to another country where most of the social interactions are done in its majority language. In order to succeed as a bilingual family, it’s necessary to develop some strategies to create an environment that incorporates Portuguese in a way that it builds desire for the children to feel as part of this language.

What should be the basis for the development of these strategies?
The activities that involve Portuguese should be integrated into the routine and interactions of the daily life, and be pleasant and meaningful (KING and MACKEY, 2007, p. 97).

What is the importance of each one of these aspects (social, emotional and cultural) for the success of teaching Portuguese as a Heritage Language?
The very concept of language already talks about the importance of the social aspect for its acquisition: “it is the social part of language, exterior to the individual, that, by itself, cannot create or modify it; it doesn’t exist without a sort of contract established between the members of the community” (SAUSSURE, 1970, p. 22).

How to integrate your child in a social group that involves Portuguese?

There are many ways to make this possible, and it all depends on the existence of resources where you live. If possible, enroll your child in a community alfabetizaçãoschool that teaches Portuguese. The frequent contact with other kids who have the same doubts (like “why do I need to speak this language no one else speaks?”) and the immersion in an environment in which Portuguese is the language to learn, interact, play, and sing will favor immensely the development of this language.

In case there isn’t a school where you live, try to find (or form) a group of parents that have the same intent of fostering Portuguese as a Heritage Language. Finding people with the same challenges, goals, and doubts can help your family to structure how Portuguese can be a part of your child’s life.

em casaYour own house can be seen as this group that speaks Portuguese, even if it’s the language of only one of the parents. In this context, the connection also has an emotional aspect, since Portuguese is the language through which mother and/or father raise their children, demonstrate care, love, concern, and impose limits. Therefore, Portuguese is the channel of communication between mom/dad and child in each day-to-day activity, as well as with the rest of the family.

Although face to face interaction is the method that favors language acquisition the most, conversations using video (instead of audio only) are efficient ways to establish a link between the child living abroad and the family in Brazil exactly because they reproduce the presence of those people with which they are talking to.

Planning trips to Brazil with some frequency is an excellent way to establish a real and direct bond between your child and Portuguese. In addition to strengthening the emotional aspect, being it a trip in which your child sees family members, trips can add experiences and valorization of the culture that your child can get to know through Portuguese.


-Vary your repertoire: Be aware of words and expressions that your child might already know and use, while trying to vary your own linguistic repertoire so that they can have more expressions in their communication;

-Ask open questions: Try to make questions that demand more than a yes or no answer. An option is to start with questions with more limited answers and then, expand the subject. For example, when you ask how their day at school went, you can ask them to say two or three good things that happened that day;

-Give him time to answer: Allow 5 – 10 seconds so that your child can answer a question. This will give him time to think and avoid that 1) he settles with the fact that, if he does not respond, you will continue speaking; and b) that he gets anxious if he does not answer right away and loses his turn;

-Read to them: Whenever possible, read children’s books or even news about what is going on in Brazil from the popular culture or texts that contain subjects of their interest. Keep them engaged in Portuguese in a fun and Interesting way. Reading will provide not only a wider repertoire, but also knowledge about the Brazilian culture.


Luciana Lessa is a Doctor in Linguistics, a faculty member at Georgia State University and part of important discussion groups concerned with language acquisition. She is the author of the column “Speaking”, here at this platform, and co-director of the Study Group and Continuing Education of Educators of Portuguese as a Heritage Language.

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