Expat parenting in Curitiba


Part of the thing about raising a kid to be bilingual is that it often involves at least one of the parents living in a different country.  So not only are there the normal problems (and opportunities?) associated with raising a family, but there are also language and cultural problems for the parent or parents.

In my case I am the parent who is dealing with all the excitement of living in a different place.  Over the next few weeks I am going to be writing a little bit about what it is like to be a foreign parent living in Curitiba, in the south of Brazil.  There will be a few rants as I give vent to some stuff that really gets on my nerves, but hopefully I will also be able to reflect on the positive side of living in this city.

Before I get in to all that, it might be worthwhile giving a bit of my background to try to put things into context.

I first came to Curitiba about 14 years ago to teach English at a small school called Liberty.  Prior to that, I had taught English in both Poland and Taiwan.  Towards the end of my contract here I met a girl who, many years later, I ended up marrying.  Between meeting her and marrying her we lived in the UK and Curitiba.  She also had a spell of nearly 2 years working for the OAS in Washington D.C.  During that time I also managed to pass my Trinity College Diploma in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages and get an MA in Linguistics from The University of Birmingham.

When we got married we decided to live in Curitiba, but soon after she got a job in Rio de Janeiro and we spent almost 5 years there, working and partying and generally having a good time.  At least I had a good time because my wife hated the heat and chaotic nature of Rio.

When my wife got pregnant we decided it would be much better to come to live in Curitiba for free babysitting and because the cost of living is so much cheaper than in Rio.  There is also a belief that Curitiba is safer than Rio, although I am not sure I agree with this idea.

So, about 18 months ago we came back to Curitiba and then the little bundle of joy that is Thomas arrived. And then my life changed irrevocably, and I won’t say if it changed for the better or worse.

We’re Not Sleepy

We're not sleepy2

Image: Amazon.co.uk

On the OUP site for this book it says that it is appropriate for kids from the ages of 2-5.  Thomas is still only 18 months old, and this probably explains why he likes the book, but doesn’t love it yet.

It is written by Joanne Partis as a counting book.  The three kittens can’t sleep and so their mother sends them out to count sheep.  In order to do this, though, they have to search the whole farm where they live.  First of all they find one shaggy sheepdog, then two munching cows until finally they fall asleep surrounded by 10 sheep.  Although they don’t find the sheep, on each page there is a sheep that his hiding somewhere.

The book is beautifully drawn and it is this that attracts Thomas.  The content is still a bit old for him as he isn’t counting yet, and he seems to be unaware that he has to find the sheep on each page.  He is, though, more than happy to sit with me while I read it to him and make all of the noises for the animals.  I think that, in a few months, it will be one of his favourites.

Smile, Crocodile Smile

Smile Crocodile

Image: Amazon.co.uk

This book has been knocking around Thomas’ room for quite a while now without actually being read.  It is a pity, because as soon as it was opened it became a hit.  It is written by An Vrombaut and published by Oxford University Press.  It is a very simple concept; Clarabella the crocodile has to brush her teeth all day long while all of her friends are off playing and having a good time.  By the time she has finished brushing and brushing and brushing her teeth, it’s time to go to bed again, until her friends come up with a surprise plan to help Clarabella out.

The colours used in this book grabbed Tomas’ attention, and the characters are very well drawn.  The pages with Clarabella particularly fascinate Thomas.  There is also an attention to detail that seems to be important for small kids as they try to look at everything on the page. In this case, Thomas always seems drawn to Clarabella’s teeth and the image of her in the small mirror.

The sentences are just the right length for a kid of 18 months, and there is some playful use of sounds so that Thomas likes to hear the story.  The book is just the right length as well; not too short to be read in no time, but no too long for Thomas to get bored or fidgety.

According to the author’s site, she has done lots of animation work for the BBC and Disney Junior, as well as a number of other books.  The next time I am back in the UK I will certainly try to find another one of her books.

Baby Touch: Snuggle Book

Snuggle Book

Image: Amazon.co.uk

I don’t know where we got this book from.  I have a feeling my brother bought it on one of his forays into charity bookshops.  Wherever it came from though, from the age of about 2-9 months, this was Thomas’ favourite book.

It is a Ladybird cloth book with something like cellophane inside so that when you touch the pages it makes a noise.  This was an immediate attraction for Thomas.  Each page has one big bright picture on it with the a short two-word description e.g. orange teddy or woolly sheep.  Every two pages there is the image has a different material to provide a tactile experience.  Thomas’ favourite page was the woolly sheep because the body of the sheep is made up of wool.

While I will eventual give away a lot of the books that Thomas had when he was a baby, this is one book that will be staying with us to remind us of the early days.  He used to just sit with it for what seemed like hours, obsessed with the noise, the colours and feel of the pages.  I am convinced that one of the reasons he is so comfortable around book nowadays is the positive experience he got from this book in his first few months.  It also gave us one of my favourite photos of him.


Ups and Downs

ArrowImage: jscreationzs / freedigitalphotos.net


Thomas and I were talking on Skype to my parents back in the UK the other day when they mentioned something that I had noticed in passing before.  Although he doesn’t have many words and he babbles a lot, it sounds as if you know what he is trying to say.

When teaching my English language students, one of the things that often comes up is the importance of intonation.  I give them made up statistic of how most of what we communicate is through our intonation rather than the actual words.  I say made up because I don’t know if there are any actual real statistics around, but it is very important.  I give a few examples of how intonation can change the meaning and most of the time my students are receptive to the importance of intonation when learning English.

This is probably because Portuguese and English intonation patterns are similar.  There are obvious differences; the use of the auxiliary in questions allows English to have both rising and falling intonation patterns; when people want to congratulate you on your birthday they sound bored to me because the intonation pattern they use would be more appropriate for a list in English.  The differences, though, are noticeable simple because they are so rare.

I think this is also the reason why it sounds as if Thomas is speaking, even though he is just babbling.  The intonation and the rhythm of his baby talk are similar to English or Portuguese.  If my made up statistic has any relevance at all, this is also what enables him to communicate despite not having many words.

One thing that he seems to be able to communicate perfectly well in this way is his complete and utter disdain for me when I am messing around with him.  I often do stupid things to get him to laugh and most of the time it works.  If it doesn’t work then I just get a ‘Oh daddy!’ which lets me know how ridiculous I am.

I would love to know if this is just me making things up, or if other people have noticed that their child sounds like he’s talking, even though he isn’t.

Communication Strategies

As any good second language learner knows, sometimes you either don’t know or can’t find the word you need in order to communicate what you want.  In this case you have to find an alternative way of getting your message across.

Before T was born I was of course aware that babies and infants could do exactly the same thing, only I was under the mistaken impression that their communication strategy was based on crying.  When T was very young we quickly learned to interpret the different types of cry that he had; one for a dirty nappy, one for being hungry, one for being scared and so on.

He has also learned different types of communication strategy that I was never aware of.  If he wants to watch TV he opens the palm of his left hand draws a circle on it with the index finger of his right hand.  If we are going outside he reminds me that he needs a hat by pointing at his head.  This is not to be mistaken for telling me has hit his head when he uses the palm of his hand and gently pats the area that he has hit.

He has learnt to point at the thing he is interested in, and even pull me or his mother by the hand towards the thing that he wants.  This was recently illustrated when he was hungry and pulled me off the sofa, directed me to the kitchen and pointed at his high chair.

He can nod or shake his head when we ask him questions.  He also uses different intonation patterns to show that he is thinking about something, is frustrated or just happy.

When he wants acknowledgement that he has done a good thing, he claps his hands an waits for us to join in or tell him what a clever boy he is.

These different ways of getting the message across are invaluable for him.  I think they are even more useful for a kid learning two languages at the same time.  I can envisage a context whereby he is in England in the not too distant future trying to ask for something from my parents, but he only knows the Portuguese word.  He is going to have to find a way around the communication block if he is to get what hewants.

I would like to know if anybody else hs noticed any other communication strategies that babies and infants use that perhaps I have missed.  Please leave a comment if you have.

Listen and Repeat

In the world of second language learning there is quite a debate at the moment about the use of drills for language learning.  For the uninitiated, a drill is basically an exercise in which the learner repeats the target language a number of times.  There can be a number of objectives for using a drill, but the most common are either associated with a behaviourist approach to language learning (repeat something often enough and it will become internalised behaviour), or just giving the student to get the chance to wrap his or her tongue around a new set of words and sounds.

I must admit to using drills with my students occasionally.  It has therefore been interesting to see how T has used the equivalent of drills in his language development.  He has got to the point where he will sometimes hear a word that I have said and repeat it.  If I say it again, he will repeat it again.  This can go on for up to a dozen times before he gets bored of it.

One such example is the word ‘tractor’.  I think I have mentioned before how T seems to have become obsessed with cars.  Well, ages ago a friend bought a book with lots of little cars that are attached to the pages by velcro.  This lets the child pull the cars out, pay with them and try to put them back in the right place.  For months T was not interested in this book, but it has suddenly become of his favourites.

One of the cars is a tractor, so I asked him what it was and he said ‘abuda‘, as he usually does.  I said ‘tractor’ and, to my astonishment, he repeated it perfectly.  I was surprised because I thought the consonant cluster in the middle might be too difficult.  I thought it might just be a one-ff, so I said it again.  Once more T repeated it perfectly.  He did so another 5 or 6 times before turning his attention to other cars in the book.  Unfortunately, he was no longer interested in the names for the digger, ambulance, fire engine and so on.

Later that day I was on Skype with my brother and decided to see if T would show off what he could learn.  After an initial reluctance he did come up with the word, again with perfect pronunciation.  In the evening I showed my wife, but he was of course having none of it by now.

Since then, I have tried to repeat the exercise on a number of occasions.  Sometimes he isn’t interested and sometimes he repeats it.  There has been, though, a subtle change.  The consonant cluster in the middle has changed so that the /t/ sound is often missing and the word sounds more like ‘tracor’.  I am not quite sure why this has happened but my bet is that he is no longer paying much attention to what I am actually saying and instead is just saying what he thinks is the best word.

This tells me a lot about using drills with my adult students.  One of the main criticisms of drills is that they can get very boring very quickly.  If a drill doesn’t grab the student’s attention then they are likely to not say it properly and this defeats the object of the drill completely.

Word Games

From what I have read from various people on the web about bringing up bilingual children it seems that one very important aspect is to make sure the child enjoys what they are doing and has fun while picking up the two languages.  This also chimes with the way I try to teach English as a foreign language to my students.  While I don’t always play games with my students they at least need to enjoy the experience and not just see the whole thing as boring work.

I think I played my first word game with my son last night, and he certainly seemed to enjoy it.  It was just the two of us messing around together and he suddenly stopped and said ‘mamãe’ (‘mommy’).  I said ‘no’ and shook my head because she was at work.  He immediately repeated ‘mamãe’ and I immediately said ‘no’.  He again said ‘mamãe’ and I told him ‘no’.  This went on for about a minute or so, but by the end he was smiling as he said ‘mamãe’ as if he knew what I was going to say and was expecting it.

I know that this isn’t exactly Scrabble or anything, but it gave me a great sense of achievement and I hope it gave my son a fun time and a great experience.  I am already looking forward to more.

No, não, know, Noel…

One utterance with so many different meanings.  No, não (no in Portuguese), no (a preposition in Portuguese meaning ‘in’), know, Noel (my brother’s name).  I realise that in the adult world some of these have slightly different pronunciations, but it the baby world of T, they are all the same.

I am never quite sure which one he wants to say, but he says them a lot.  I am fairy comfortable with ‘no’ as he will usually shake his head at the same time just to emphasise the fact.  ‘Noel’ is used for any van or lorry, especially if it is white.  (When we were in the UK last month my brother would often take our son to sit in the driving seat of his white van.  It became something of an obsession and so every time he sees a white van he shouts out ‘Noel’.)

I am fairly sure T doesn’t use the word ‘know’ yet, but when he uses the schwa (as I mentioned in a prevous post) before before the word it can sound like he is saying ‘I know’.  Likewise, I don’t think he is aware of the use of a preposition in Portuguese.

He seems to like the word so much that he will just repeat it to himself over and over again, for minutes on end.  I love it when he does something like this as he seems to get so much enjoyment out of playing with the sounds and just experiencein them on his tongue.

‘A’ – prefix, article, random sound?

We are getting more and more chatter by the day now.  Most of it is random, meaningless (at least to us it is) sounds.  One thing we have noticed, though, is the use of ‘a’ before words.  Instead of just saying ‘mamãe’ for ‘mommy’ he seems to often say ‘a mamãe’.  He will often also say ‘a daddy’ and ‘a ball’.  The same is true for his made up word for car ‘a buda’.

The pronunciation of this sound is rather like the schwa  and so can sometimes seem to disappear if you aren’t listening for it.

There has been a bit of discussion about what this sound represents.  One theory is that it is an article: both English and Portuguese use ‘a’ as an article, in English it is the indefinite article and in Portuguese it is a definite article for feminine words.  Personally I don’t think he would have noticed this usage yet, especially as in both loamguages the ‘a’ is so weak that I don’t think he would have noticed it being used as an article.

Another theory is that he is using it as a prefix.  Quite what the prefix might be for, though, is anybody’s guess.

The finaly theory we have come up with, and my personal favourite, is that he likes to have some sort of vowel sound to start a word or utterance.  It might be that he finds it strange to start with a consonant and so use the ‘a’ or schwa sound before using a consonant.

The thing is, we are never going to know why he is really using this sound, but it makes for a good argument.