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Growing Up Bilingual

By: Callie Schaden |

My experience with learning a new language as a young adult has made me curious about the differences between learning a second language versus being raised bilingual, so I thought it would be interesting hear some thoughts from two friends who grew up bilingual.

Philip was born in the United States to Brazilian parents who moved here shortly before he was born. He grew up going back and forth between the US and Brazil, but the culture in his house here in Indiana is still “all Brazilian”. He tells me that his family lives here exactly the way they lived in Brazil, especially when it comes to the meals prepared in his house. When I asked for examples he told me I just needed to do some research on traditional Brazilian food!

He grew up speaking both English and Portuguese, but considers Portuguese to be his first language because he distinctly remembers communicating less in English as a toddler. Philip’s household doesn’t speak exclusively Portuguese or English—not even within sentences! He says that the words just flow naturally and a mix of the languages is usually what comes out! Although both languages are very natural to him, Philip explained to me that he feels English comes more easily now because 90% of his daily interactions are in English. He speaks English at work and his college classes are in English. Even in his circle of Brazilian friends, the languages are mixed together like they are at home. Additionally, Philip studied English grammar in school but he never had any formal education in Portuguese so although he’s fluent in both languages, he feels like he has a much better technical understanding of English. “My parents correct our Portuguese grammar sometimes,” he says about himself and his two younger siblings.

Philip hesitates to call himself trilingual but he is nearly fluent in Spanish as well. His mom studied the language in school so she spoke a little bit of it to him when he was younger, but Philip credits his Spanish-speaking abilities to the similarities it shares with Portuguese. “I just kinda picked it up,” he says.

My friend Victoria is the opposite—she grew up speaking English and Spanish and eventually picked up on Portuguese. Her mom moved from El Salvador to Massachusetts shortly before Victoria was born, and the Salvadoran culture has a strong influence on their household, especially the meals they cook and the traditions they keep. At home, the majority of their conversations are in Spanish as her parents are not fluent in English, although they understand when Victoria forgets a word in Spanish and substitutes it with the English word. Her experience with being raised bilingual is slightly different than Philip’s because she went to a bilingual elementary school where half of her classes were in English and the other half were in Spanish. Because of this, Victoria had technical training in both languages, although she feels that she better understands the technical aspects of English simply because she personally finds it easier than Spanish grammar.

When I asked Victoria if she felt that one of the languages came more easily to her, she also said English. “I know more words to things in English than I know with Spanish, and that may be because I grew up with other bilingual friends who preferred to speak English within the group and Spanish to the adults”. She says that she often begins to express strong emotions in Spanish, but they tend to turn to English very quickly. She also knows a lot of Portuguese, and she gave the same reason as Philip. Because of the many similarities shared by Spanish and Portuguese, she felt that this third language was very easy to pick up on. However, Victoria tells me that she has not spoken much Portuguese in the past year, and because of that she has lost some of those skills.

Philip and Victoria have gained similar language skills, but have unique experiences growing up bilingual. They’ve never met, but if they did, they could communicate with each other in three different languages!

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Callie Schaden is currently an English and Spanish student at Cedarville University. She grew up in a small town in Ohio and has expanded her horizons in El Salvador and Valencia, Spain, two places which have given her a love for the Spanish language and a desire to continue learning outside of her native tongue.

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