Saturday, March 22, 2008

Lucas' Second Language



My stepson Ruan was watching Porco Rosso the other day. I had put it on in English for Lucas, as I usually do, but he'd fallen asleep. Ruan opted to watch the ending. From the kitchen where I was washing dishes I realized that Ruan was listening to it in the original Japanese. And then a couple minutes later in French.

It doesn't really matter what language he watches it in, he doesn't speak any of them, and almost no imported DVDs have a Portuguese soundtrack. A surprise exception was a boxed set of Muppet movies I bought- two of the three have a Portuguese option!

Lucas, on the other hand, does speak English. And understands a lot more of it. However, in a turn I never would have imagined ten years ago when I contemplated having kids in the vaguest way possible, my son is learning English as his second language. I find this strangely saddening, but it also inspired me to make the kind of determined effort to teach him English that led me to learn Portuguese at thirty - before I planned to move here.

Somebody, an American actually, heard me speaking to Lucas as a baby in Portuguese. She informed me that in order for him to become fluent in English, I needed to speak to him in English, and English only. Not only that- I needed to insist that he speak to me in English as well- otherwise, he'd learn to understand English but wouldn't be able to speak it. I believe my mother is actually proof of this theory- she spoke Swedish with her mother, and thus both understands and speaks Swedish. Her father spoke German to her and her sisters and they would answer him in English. My mom understands German pretty well, but apparently (from what I've been told) doesn't speak it terribly well.

Which brings me back to my little boy. I took the advice to heart. I took the first part of it so much to heart that now I automatically speak to all small children in English if I'm not paying attention. The second part has been more difficult- I haven't wanted to drive the poor little kid (and myself) crazy by pretending I don't understand him if he spoke to me in Portuguese. So I'm doing that half bit by bit and he's starting to catch on. I started with his requests (demands) for things like water:

"Papai, quero agua!"

"Lucas, can you say 'Papai, I want...'"

"Papai, I want... "

"What?"

"Agua!"

"How do you say that in English? 'Papai, I want...' "

"I want..."

"What?"

"Water!" ('watow' is actually what he says)

"Okay! You want water, you got it!"

I don't mind being Papai at all, although I do feel an odd longing ('saudades' is the brilliant Portuguese word I want to use) for the 'Dad' I didn't become. An old friend of mine told me, when we were having this same conversation, that he tried to get his first kid to call him 'Papa' but it didn't stick. He was Dad. Still is.

'Papai' is fine, 'Markie' is not. Most people here call me 'Markie' when they don't call me 'Marco' (like my father in law) or 'Max.' These names are fine, but some people want to call me 'Mike' (Mikey) or 'Michael' which drives me completely up the wall- I don't know why.

Brazilians have a really hard time ending a word with a consonant, so they add a vowel to the end of words like my name. They are generally not even aware that they do this, and trying to correct them is really hard because they don't hear it. Ruan's Brazilian born English teacher made this same mistake. "What's your name?" is a phrase most Brazilians have memorized, but it comes out "What's your namie?" I've tried correcting them, but they get so perplexed that I generally don't bother anymore. So now I, who has never been Markie to anyone but my mom, am now doomed to live with this childish diminutive for as long as I live here. Generally I introduce myself as 'Marcos' now.

There's a funny exception to the above rule, but I really should save it for another post.

I digress, as usual. I'm supposed to digress. I let myself digress. But then you, dear reader, lose interest and click away, so back to the topic at hand.

"Markie, Markie!"

"Papai!" I say.

"Papai!" says Lucas.

I had to stop responding to 'Markie' to get him not to call me that. I think he started doing it mostly because of Ruan, who calls me Markie, and Lucas naturally copies everything his big brother does.

Oh yeah, that was a digression too- I was writing about teaching him English.

Lucas has picked up lots of English words, and sometimes pops out with them when I least expect it. "Lucas you're making a big mess!" I say with some frequency, and then one day he points to a mess he made and says: "Papai, oh- mess!" or "Papai- cockroach!" This never fails to make me swell with pride and get all emotional.

He's also started to answer me in English unprompted, although pretty minimally.

"Lucas, are you hungry?"

"Yes."

or-

"Who did that?"

"You!"

"Me?"

"You!!"

More often the English words work their way into a Portuguese phrase:

"Papai, voçê vai pro office?"

"Yes, I'm going to the office."

But what I've really been waiting for him to do is to start putting together English phrases by himself. He finally did this about a month ago, and his first English phrase was:

"You broke!"

There hasn't been much more since then in the way of phrase building. In fact, I think Lucas' language skills are lagging a bit behind his peers, at least in Portuguese, which distresses me. When he tries to tell a story it's completely unintelligible. I am hoping that this is because of the multilingual bombardment he's receiving and that when he works it out he'll be a linguistic powerhouse. People have anecdotally supported this theory. I read somewhere, probably at nytimes.com, that learning a second language causes profound changes in the brain, especially at a young age. The article went on to say that even learning a language at 30 rewires things upstairs, and I can attest to that. My first language has gotten rattled and if I'm not paying attention I use Portuguese constructions or even slip a Portuguese word in where it doesn't belong.

As for his comprehension, there's no question that that is growing considerably as well. Yesterday I said to him:

"Lucas, do you know who's coming to visit next week?"

and he answered:

"Grammy."

2 comments:

AkuTyger said...

Completely normal. Actually, Ju did not start using English with me all the time until he was about 2 years and 4 months, after we spent a month in the States. He's still not really fluent, but the chunks he produces get more intelligible all the time, as you have no doubt read on my blog. He knows I am "Mommy" and that I am also "mamae" although he rarely calls me that. A friend of ours who has a son the same age consequently has become "Mae" to him because he hears his friend calling his mom that.

markuza said...

Yeah, sounds like Ju is leaps and bounds beyond where Lucas is at... man would I love to spend a month with him in the States! sigh... someday.