Abundant, meaningful, diverse and fun: how input in bilingual contexts should be


In my previous post in the strand Bilingualism Matters I explained my current interest in bilingual development, within the specific context of heritage language development. Drawing on the work of Colin Baker, I suggested that the notions of bilingual ability and bilingual use are appropriate tools for us to try to understand bilingual development.

In this post I will describe the linguistic ability and linguistic use I would like to see in my grandchildren’s Portuguese development. I will argue that input is a key factor towards the development of bilingual ability and use, and will suggest ways of providing input which may have an impact on heritage learners’ bilingual development.


To recap, and to contextualise my ideas a bit more: Portuguese is the heritage language in my family setting, in the context of English as the dominant language. I live in the UK, and so do my grandchildren. They all have a Brazilian father and a British mother; they have varying degrees of exposure of Portuguese within their inner-family contexts. I spend a considerable amount of time with my eldest granddaughter, whom I will refer to Dear Granddaughter (DGD) in this post. She has little or no exposure to Portuguese at home and her heritage language development relies considerably on the time she spends with me and my husband. Below is a transcription of a recent interaction between her (age 2y4m) and me while spending some leisure time in the garden.

DGD: Pretty.
Me: O que que tá bonito? (What’s pretty?)
DGD: Flowers.
Me: O quê? (What?)
DGD: Flowers. Flowers.
Me: A flor? A flor tá o quê? (Pausa) Qual foi a flor que você plantou com a Vovó? (The flower? The flower is what? (Pause) Which flower have you planted with Grandma?)
DGD: Big one, big one.
Me: Qual? (Which one?)
DGD: Noise. Noise
Me: O que que é esse barulho? (What’s this noise?)
DGD: Plane.
Me: É um avião ou um helicóptero? (Is it a plane or a helicopter?)
DGD: Copter. Copter.
Me: Ah é um helicóptero. (Pausa) E o que que é que você tá comendo?(Ah it’s a helicopter. (Pause) And what are you eating?)
DGD: Bana.
Me: Tá gostosa? (Pausa) Nossa que barulho. Quem é que gosta de comer banana? (Is it nice? (Pausa) Wow, what a loud noise. Who likes eating bananas?)
DGD: (Dramatizando um macaco pulando) (Pretending to be a monkey) Ah-ah-uh-uh
Me: O macaquinho? É? (The monkey? Is it?)
DGD: (Faz que sim com a cabeça) (Nods)

As we can see, DGD’s language production is in English: she not only answers my Portuguese questions in English but also starts a new topic (the noise she hears) using English. In terms of comprehension, she understands everything I say in Portuguese, in different lexical domains (food, plant, means of transport, animal) and for different communicative purposes: I ask for repetition, clarification and information in this short interaction and she responds prompty to every question I ask.  

The aims: linguistic ability and linguistic use

So what type of bilingual ability can I envisage at this stage? Certainly not at the level of balanced bilingualism considering the dominant language (English) and the minority language (Portuguese). However, I think it is reasonable not to expect minimal bilingualism either. It is reasonable, I think, to envisage something in between these two types of bilingualism.

Key concepts
balanced bilingualism: a scenario in which a bilingual has roughly similar mastery of two languages. Also known as symmetrical bilingualism.
– minimal bilingualism: a scenario in which a bilingual has minimal competence in a second language, for example a few words and phrases.

In the table below I outline some characteristics of bilingual use I can reasonably expect at this stage. It is important to note that by language use I refer to both production and comprehension.

Heritage language used… In the short term  
When Meal time, playtime, occasional getting to sleep and bath time
Where Grandparents’ house, parks and other places for leisure activity
With/To whom Grandparents and other family members, friends
For what purpose To play games, to sing, to act out, to ask questions, to request something, to clarify information, to express thoughts, feelings and opinion, and so on.

The role of input

Arguably, the complexity of DGD’s linguistic ability and use in the minority language is strongly linked with the input she receives in that language. As seen in the interaction transcribed earlier, it is possible to offer a lot of input, for varied and meaningful and fun purposes, even in a short conversation.

In what follows I’ll list some ideas on how to maximise the input conditions to heritage learners, based on what I’ve done recently in my interactions with DGD.

Idea 1: Offer a large amount of input

It goes without saying that input is an important factor in bilingual children’s language. As Annick De Houwer points out in paper published in the International Journal of Bilingualism in 2015, “the more [bilingual] children hear a particular language, the more chance there is that they will actually speak it.”

In other words, quantity matters. Input can come in the form of media such as TV, videos, songs and other technologies, but it should come predominantly through talk. My point here is: we must find ways of talking in the heritage language to the bilingual children. Talking a lot. At different times of the day. In different situations. A couple of tips of how this can be done:

  • Going up and down the stairs, involve the child in counting the steps. This can be done through rhymes as well (e.g. in Portuguese, “Um dois, feijão com arroz / Três, quatro, feijão no prato / etc.”).
  • When playing board games with visual cues (bingo, for example), describe the card drawn without showing it immediately to the child. This way the child will have to make sense of what the vocabulary from its oral form only, and not from watching its corresponding picture.

The target language can be used even if the dominant language is present at the same time. For example, when DGD is watching TV (in English), I try to interact with her as much as possible, by saying, for example:

What I’ve said English translation Communicative purpose
Como é mesmo o nome do primo da Peppa?   What is Peppa’s cousin’s name again? Ask for information
É neste episódio que o Flop faz uma coroa?   Is this the episode when Flop makes a crown? Evoke memory
Olha que flores lindas! Qual flor você prefere?   Look at these lovely flowers! Which one do you like best? Ask for preference
Qual será o desenho que vem depois?   I wonder what cartoon comes next. Make hypothesis

On the days we don’t see each other face to face, I try to make sure we spend some time on the phone, even if it is only for a few minutes. Alternatively I send her some short videos. In these conversations or messages I ask her what she is doing, what she has done during the day, I tell her about my day and so on. In short, my working motto is: make sure DGD hears the heritage language every day. Input should be abundant.

Idea 2: Create meaningful interactions

Research tells us that input quantity is important, but it also suggests that the quality of the input needs to be considered as well. What that means is that we shouldn’t repeat what is said like a parrot, for the sake of meaningless repetition. We shouldn’t ask questions if we’re not genuinely interested in their answers. We shouldn’t label objects around us if there is not a communicative purpose in the labelling. What we should do, instead, is to engage in meaningful conversation.

Take labelling, for example: labelling is an important way of helping children understand the world around them, and to increase their vocabulary, but it has to be done with a purpose, as in the example below.

Scenario: Playing in a sand pit with some of the toys partially covered by sand.

Me: Ah você achou um ancinho? Isso aí é um ancinho? Ah não! Você achou uma pá, uma pá laranja. (Oh you’ve found a rake? Is that a rake? Oh no you’ve found a spade. An orange spade.)

Meaningful interactions may occur in many different ways, surely, and I’ll discuss some other ideas in different posts. I have focussed on labelling/naming objects here because this activity is often described as meaningless in language learning circles. However, I strongly believe that meaning can be constructed even in apparently meaningless events – it is up to us, providers of input of the heritage language, to make sure meaning is created in each interaction. So, remember: input should be meaningful.

Idea 3: Provide language variety

As Gláucia Silva pointed out in her post about heritage languages, something we know about heritage language learners is that their fluency is usually found in familiar, informal registers and not so much in more formal interactions.

Key concept
register: the different ways a speaker uses a different form of the same language depending on contextual features of a communicative event (who speaks to whom, where, for what purpose, in what medium etc.). These differences may involve vocabulary choice, grammatical sophistication, degrees of formality (formal, informal or neutral) and other variables.

One thing we can do, then, at an early stage of heritage language development is to expose these children to a varied range of registers. Story-telling provides the perfect background to bring in this variety: we can choose stories that include interactions in different settings: at home, at work, in leisure activities and so on. Stories with interactions between adults and children, men and women, characters who occupy different hierarchical positions. These interactions will necessarily involve use of different registers in a well-written story.

It is important to point out, though, that language variety occurs not only regarding register, but also regarding dialects and accent, for example.

Key concepts
dialect: a language variety related to a person’s geographical or social background. Examples of dialects include American vs British English; Carioca (from Rio de Janeiro) vs Paulista (from São Paulo) Portuguese; different varieties of Brazilian Portuguese used by different social groups in Brazil.
– accent: the way different language varieties are pronounced

These aspects can be brought in through story-telling as well. If you have access to a group of people who come from different geographic regions (thus who use different words for the same fruit, for example, and/or have different accents), who represent different age groups and genders, then involve them in story-telling practices with your little ones. The key concept here is therefore language variety: input should provide this variety.

Idea 4: Sing traditional songs

I know this is a truism, but it’s worth repeating: songs are a fantastic form of input for young children in their language development. Songs provide an excellent way of helping heritage learners familiarise themselves with the phonological repertoire of the heritage language (including, but not restricted to, phonemes, intonation and stress).

Key concepts
Phonemes are the minimal units in a language that distinguish words. For example, /s/ (in sink) and /θ/ (in think) are phonemes in English; /ɔ/ in vovó and /o/ in vovô are phonemes in Portuguese.
– Intonation relates to the up and down movements our voice makes when speaking the way different language varieties are pronounced.
Stress relates to the sounds that are emphasised in words and sentences.

Songs also provide a wide repertoire of vocabulary, including nonsense words, idiomatic expressions and other aspects related to lexis. By singing to or with the child frequently, or even by playing songs in the heritage language in the background during another play activity, we will be ensuring that input is provided.

At present my granddaughters’ favourite traditional song in Portuguese is “Caranguejo não é peixe”.

Ora palma, palma, palma / Ora pé, pé, pé / Ora roda, roda, roda / Caranguejo peixe é / Caranguejo não é peixe / Caranguejo peixe é / Caranguejo só é peixe na enchente da maré.

There’s a lot to like about this song in terms of the input it provides. There’s plenty of use of the /r/ sound (in ora and caranguejo), which is similar to the flap in American English (for example, in water) but doesn’t exist in British English. There’s a very marked rhythm, typical of the syllabic pattern of Brazilian Portuguese. There’s meaningful repetition, with the combination of repeated words and accompanying gestures (palma/clapping; /stomping; roda/spinning around). My granddaughters love singing and dramatizing the actions. DGD tends to call it “The crab song” (yes, in English) but I’m happy enough that she enjoys listening to it so much. For her, that’s fun input.

The ideas presented in this post will be developed in my next post on the strand Bilingualism Matters: in that post I plan to share some theoretical and practical ideas about what can be done in order to encourage the production of the heritage language when dealing with children the same age as DGD. In other words, whereas I’ve focussed on input here, next time I will look at output.

6 thoughts on “Abundant, meaningful, diverse and fun: how input in bilingual contexts should be”

  1. Denise, obrigada por mais uma excelente postagem! Reforço e assino embaixo: é muito importante fornecer input dos mais variados tipos possíveis. Ler para a criança na LH, proporcionar oportunidades para que ela interaja com outros falantes, conversar de maneira significativa–como você diz, quanto mais, melhor. Continue incentivando o seu público! 🙂

    • Obrigada pelo feedback e pensamentos adicionais. Sua presença aqui no blogue é muito bem-vinda! Fico contente em saber que minhas ideias sobre bilinguismo no contexto de desenvolvimento de língua de herança estão se desenvolvendo no caminho certo.

    • Que bom receber um comentário seu aqui, Ruberval! Estou mergulhada nessa vivência – com muitos pensamentos, o tempo todo, mas pouco tempo pra escrever sobre eles durante este ano de pandemia. Pelo menos até agora. Espero retomar as postagens sobre o assunto em breve. Adoraria trocar mais ideias! Abraços.


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