Being a Bicultural Family

I’ve received several emails from readers asking about various aspects of having a bicultural, bilingual family, so here’s a peek inside the workings of our two-culture family.

The beginnings:

I always knew that other countries and cultures would be a part of my life–even as a child, this was important to me–but as I became an adult, I couldn’t have predicted how this would take shape. While preparing for graduate study in art history, I spent a few months in Europe, which led to living with my best friend (who was teaching English in the Czech Republic with the Peace Corps), which led to working abroad as an English teacher, which led to returning to the U.S. to study linguistics (and later becoming an ESL instructor), which led to meeting my husband, a student of English from Brazil.

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That brief meeting one morning at an ice-cream shop in the college town of Iowa City was 16 years ago. It was the beginning of a strong relationship that connects two cultures and countries, sometimes with great ease and sometimes with a bit of difficulty. It’s been fun, strange, romantic, unusual, and full of lots of love. I’m proud that we raise our children in the vibrancy of a bicultural family and that we’ve developed our shared love of culture and language into skills that help the immigrant and refugee population here in Sacramento.

Bicultural Family

Cultural identities:

Being from two cultures means that we each bring deep-seated traditions and cultural identities to our relationship with each other and with our kids. For example, we naturally celebrate holidays and sing songs from both countries. My husband, like many Brazilian children, grew up with a soccer ball always within reach, and he passed this on to my older son, who’s now just as comfortable pushing a ball around all day as he is walking. My kids clearly identify with both countries and cultures, but no one would guess that they’re bicultural since they’re perfectly comfortable in their American ways.

Bicultural Family

My Brazilian niece with my son in San Francisco

 

A long way from home:

One of the greatest challenges of marrying someone from a different country is the loss of home for one spouse. To compensate for this, we spend a good deal of time in Brazil every year, and my husband’s family has been visiting us more and more often. Like any couple, we had to decide how our free time and extra money would be used, and early on, I had to honor his need to keep the connection to his family and country. Once I accepted that trips to Brazil would be a top priority, I grew to really appreciate them. I love visiting his family and look forward to going there every year. My kids absolutely love it, too!

Bicultural family

Being in Brazil:

The time that my kids spend in Brazil is important, not just for the quality time with family, but also for the immersion in the language and culture. We divide our time between a rural setting (complete with chickens, tortoises, and a big garden) and the big city lifestyle of São Paulo. This annual trip to Brazil gives our kids the opportunity to experience a different lifestyle and culture first hand.

Bicultural Family Brazil

Being bilingual:

Another challenge for a two-culture family is language, but this is also a huge opportunity. Early on, I realized I needed to learn Portuguese so that I could communicate with my husband’s family. We made the decision to raise our kids to be bilingual, and even though it’s not exactly the easy process that some make it out to be, we’re very happy with the results.

Bicultural Famliy

Both our kids speak Portuguese and English fluently and, like truly bilingual children, switch back and forth between the two languages instantly. This gives my kids a stronger cultural connection to Brazil, allows them to speak with family and new friends when we visit Brazil, and allows my husband to express himself naturally with his children. This goes back to the importance of learning your partner’s language–this situation works because I understand Portuguese and therefore never feel left out.

Due to our backgrounds in linguistics, we’ve felt comfortable setting up the right conditions for raising our kids to be bilingual. If that’s something you’re interested in hearing more about, let me know!

What’s your experience of living between two cultures?

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6 Comments

  • Andi says:

    I don’t have a lot of experience yet, as he’s only 8 months old, but I can already tell how much he enjoys hearing both Spanish and English spoken. He can definitely tell the difference! I am so excited to teach him about Argentina and make it a huge part of his life. My husband is so happy that he can already kick a soccer ball. 🙂
    Andi recently posted..Joaquín’s First Trip To An Aquarium (Part 1)My Profile

    • Jenna says:

      Your family situation is so similar to mine, so I’m glad you chimed in with your experience so far with your son. It’s so great that Joaquin is hearing both languages. Pretty soon he’ll be speaking both! 😀

  • Estelle says:

    Great read! My boyfriend is in the same situation and is trying to learn French to speak to my family in France, who don’t speak any English! How were you able to learn Portuguese? Did you take classes, teach yourself, or did your husband teach you? My mom was able to learn french as she moved to France to be with my dad soon after getting married, but it sounds like you learned in the US. That’s amazing!

    • Jenna says:

      Hi Estelle,

      I learned Portuguese in a few ways. First, I took a year of Portuguese classes at the local university–the classes weren’t very good, but I learned some basics there. I also listened to lots of Brazilian music to get a better ear for the language. I also studied on my own a little bit, but the way that I learned the most was just practicing with my husband’s family. Sometimes his mom comes to visit for a few weeks at a time, and I am forced to speak and listen to Portuguese all the time! Best of luck with your situation–your boyfriend can start with Duolingo (web-based program) to learn some basics. 🙂

  • Sorcha says:

    Jenna, I love your blog! I’m Irish and my boyfriend is Brazilian. We met in Dublin and now I have just moved to São Paulo! It’s so lovely to see that it can and has been done. I’m learning Portuguese now on Duolingo and also really recommend it. Thanks for the lovely posts, keep them coming.

    Sorcha 🙂

    • Jenna says:

      Hi Sorcha,
      So glad to connect! My husband is from Sao Paulo, and we spend some time there every year. My first visit there was 16 years ago! Good luck with settling in there. 🙂 The Brazilian people are some of the friendliest and most fun that I’ve ever met!

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