Raising a Bilingual Family while Moving between Countries – Struggles, Joys and Regrets - ExpatJoy

ExpatJoy - Passionate Global Living with Sandra Bissell


Raising a Bilingual Family while Moving between Countries – Struggles, Joys and Regrets

Do you know that more than half of the world’s population is bilingual?

Bilingual families are those whose members use two or more languages (or dialects) for communication.

In our home, we speak mainly Portuguese and English. At occasions, when my husband and I don’t want to be understood by those around us, we speak “our secret” Japanese. Recently, with two of our kids learning French, dad also gets to practice his high school language from time to time.

By living surrounded by multilingual families, I think we are a typical household when it comes to languages. Countries such as Belgium and Switzerland have three and four official languages respectively. A quick look at Wikipedia shows us that there are at least another five countries that have multiple official languages, and that list doesn’t include the many countries that have dialects, regional and non-official languages being used by their citizens to communicate.

Due to globalization, languages and cultures are traveling far and wide. Even countries with only one main language, such as the United States, are undergoing dramatic changes in their population makeup. The latest report from Census Bureau reveals that at least 350 languages are being spoken in American homes.

I’m sure you have heard some of the many benefits of language acquisition.

By being able to speak more than one language, we increase our ability to have better work opportunities, understand different cultures, make international friends, score better on standardized tests and even boost our brain powers and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

Quite an impressive benefits list!

Still, when I became a mother, the only advantage I wanted was to be able to communicate with my children in my mother tongue.

There is a level of communication that only happens when you speak the same language and understand the other person’s culture – and I wanted that for my family.

My husband and I were motivated to raise bilingual children, although we lived in a mainly monolingual American community at the time. Both of us already spoke a few languages, and Brett that is my husband had started to learn Portuguese.

So, when our boys arrived, we read books on raising bilingual kids and talked to friends, who like us, were bringing up the next bilingual generations.


– NO to Naysayers: we had a goal to raise a bilingual family, had done our research and knew it was totally doable. So, when someone approached us to say that our kids would be confused, that they would be delayed in speaking, or even, that our kids’ speech was different and had problems, we politely listened and totally disregarded their comments. Even, in moments when experts (doctors and speech therapists) told us to slow down in one of the languages because one of our kid’s slight speech impairment, we charged ahead. It’s important to know what outcome your family wants from the beginning, and understand how it can be done. This way you can prevail on your bilingual journey when you encounter adversity.

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-NO to Myths about Bilingualism: “learning two or more languages will delay language acquisition” or “bilingual kids will mix up their languages” are just two of the many myths about raising a bilingual child. Professor Emeritus, Neuchâtel University in Switzerland and author Francois Grosjean writes about some of the myths about bilingualism and here is his list.

-NO to Believing that Kids are like Sponges: children and adults for that matter don’t learn a language just by living in a language rich environment. Language learning can be a fun and enriching activity, and also needs structure and consistency to be effective.


– I started speaking to the kids in Portuguese early on. (They were still in my belly!)

– I tried to speak only in Portuguese to them. It didn’t work! It was hard on me and the kids to only speak in Portuguese when English speakers surrounded us. Indeed, as young as toddlers, and during primary and part of middle school, my children avoided speaking in Portuguese with me when we were out of the house. This situation changed dramatically, and I will explain how later on this post.

– I read in Portuguese to the kids. As the main caregiver, I also read English books and included some Spanish ones to our reading times. The latter books were more readily available at the local bookstore. Our books in Portuguese were scarce, as they had to be brought from Brazil or borrowed from friends.

– Read comics books. This approach proved to be an excellent way to teach culture and increase vocabulary.

– Took our kids to language-based play dates. This didn’t work very well for us, either. As parents, we imagined that Brazilian kids would only speak in Portuguese to each other. While, American kids would prefer to speak in English. We learned quickly, that kids just want to communicate. So, usually they chose their dominant language, regardless of their other language abilities.

– Enrolled kids in language schools and hired tutors whenever possible.

– Provided home studying materials to them. One system that worked well for us was the Kumon Native Language Program in Portuguese.  Since our kids attended American or international schools their whole lives, Portuguese is our children’ second-language, and by using Kumon plus language classes we have been able to continuously teach them my mother tongue. Our teenage daughter is successfully using the Kumon method to improve her Portuguese during here high school career, in Switzerland and now in the United States.

– Created an environment where Portuguese was available. In addition to speaking Portuguese to the kids, we also visited friends and family, both in our country of residence and on trips to Brazil.

– We did the reverse when we lived in Brazil. And brought the kids for vacation time to the United States. This way they could learn the culture and feel at home in this country as well. By attending summer and pre-college camps, visiting family and friends, we were able to prepare them for life here during college years.

– Listened to Brazilian music constantly. Sometimes as back background music and other time to create fun moments.  By choosing catchy songs to sing during car rides, in the course of the kids’ early years, we had lots of fun and practice listening and pronunciation. As for American music, school, friends and the media did the job for us.

Our preference was to have our kids speak Portuguese as their second language.

However, when life presented us with the opportunity to live in Japan. We took it! We knew that bilinguals learn a third and subsequent languages with more ease.

So, off to Japan we went.

During our time in that country, our children went to an international school and were taught in English. They also had Japanese language classes. At home, I spoke in Portuguese to them. Since our kids were very young, and we stayed in Japan less than two years, they didn’t learn the language. However, they created a love for various aspects of Japanese culture. And recently, my middle son expressed regret for not taking Japanese studying more seriously during those years.

As life would have it, we eventually got our wish of raising our kids speaking English and Portuguese in Brazil. Our three children are now true bilinguals.

Do you remember that my children didn’t want to speak in Portuguese to me when they were little? This has changed now! These days, when we are in the United States, my kids prefer to speak only in Portuguese to me. And, when we are in Brazil, they only speak in English.

Although I have no data to explain my kids’ new behavior – never speaking to their mother in the local language – I’m starting to think that this type of situation happens with many bilingual families, and would love to hear your experience.

As for regrets, I have many, but these regrets are definitely outnumbered by the benefits my kids acquired by their bilingual upbringing.

In the span of over 20 years, our personal journey raising a bilingual family has taken us across the globe and unified us. As it happens with many bilingual families our experience has created a special bond between us.

Finally, I’d like to share this cute video about another family going through the journey of raising a bilingual family.

This post was first published in 2016 and now with Portuguese translates is being re-posted.

Hugs & Kisses

Sandra Bissell

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My name is Sandra Bissell.
I have been blessed with the opportunity to live as an expatriate for more than 2 decades.

Some of my passions are people, my family, good conversations, traveling, ethnic food, dancing and Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian-Martial-Art-Dance.

Originally from the countryside of São Paulo state, in Brazil, I have enjoyed life in Kanagawa and Aichi prefectures, in Japan, Boston and San Diego cities, in the United States, São Paulo, Brazil, as an expatriate in my own country, Zurich – Switzerland and most recently Stamford, Connecticut, back to the United States.

As you may guess, I feel the most comfortable within the international community.
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