Does knowing English change the way we speak Portuguese?

On some myths regarding bilingualism

Mara Guimarães · Mara P. Guimarães has a Ph.D. in Linguistics and researches how languages interact in the bilingual mind.

“Is that really how we say that in Portuguese?” – if you’ve been a speaker of English for some time now, you probably have had the feeling something you said doesn’t really work in your own language.

This happens because, despite appearances, a bilingual speaker does not equal two monolingual people in one mind (the definition of “bilingual” includes Brazilians who learned English in the country and have never lived abroad).

Portuguese and English interact and remain available in the speaker’s mind all the time and, eventually, the language we are not using shows up in disguise when we are having a conversation: Portuguese may seem like English at times, and vice versa.

The disguise I mentioned is, in fact, a result of what we call representational sharing: several studies in bilingualism in the last decades suggest that the information about the bilingual’s two languages are shared in the speaker’s mind, not separate. This body of work also suggests that syntactic information (information about the way we structure sentences) are abstract in nature and are not exclusive to one language or the other. In practical terms, imagine you must tell someone what is happening in the image below:

You could describe what you see by saying “the dog bit the boy,” or you could say “the man was bit by the dog,” for example. Although these are two appropriate ways to describe the event in the image, the difference between these two sentences is what we call voice alternation: the first sentence is in the active voice, while the second is in the passive. Under our current understanding of oral language production, your decision between using one form or the other is most likely made before you decide whether to use Portuguese or English: you decide between the active and the passive before choosing one or the other language.

An important aspect of languages that influences this first choice of structure is the frequency distribution, which shows how often and in what contexts a structure occurs in a language. In 2016, two professors of English Linguistics at UFMG, Brazil, analyzed corpora of speech transcriptions of Brazilians and Americans and noticed that the latter, English speakers, produce almost twice as many sentences in the passive in relation to the former, Brazilian Portuguese speakers.

Then comes the question: if syntactic information is shared between Portuguese and English, and the frequency of occurrence of a syntactic structure influences a speaker’s choice, does the Portuguese-English bilingual use the passive more than a Brazilian Portuguese monolingual?

Two experiments were conducted in an attempt to answer this question. First, we needed to know whether the difference in the frequency distribution of the passive found in 2016 was rooted in any sort of comprehension issues Brazilian Portuguese speakers may have with the passive. We investigated this issue using a task called acceptability judgment, where participants read sentences and rate them from 1 to 5 (or 1 to 7) based solely on their own impressions: completely unacceptable sentences receive a score of 1, completely acceptable sentences receive a score of 5 (or 7), and sentences in between receive scores from 2 to 4. This experiment showed that Brazilian Portuguese speakers, bilinguals and monolinguals alike, comprehend the passive voice as well as they do the active voice. Therefore, comprehension was not the reason for the difference in productivity levels of the passive.

Comprehension issues out of the way, we needed to know whether bilinguals used the passive in Portuguese more than monolinguals. We conducted an experiment based on a picture description task, very similar to the one you were invited to perform above. The participants saw 24 images that could be described using either the active or the passive
voices, and they were instructed to describe these images out loud. Results were very clear: bilinguals produced a significantly higher number of descriptions using the passive voice, in relation to monolinguals, suggesting that syntactic information from English influence oral production in Brazilian Portuguese. Remember the feeling we mentioned in the beginning? It could be happening because, in a given context, you have (non-deliberately) chosen a sentence form that is more commonly used in English and used it in BP.

The results of this study are important for two main reasons. First, we offer evidence in favor of bilingual representational sharing, given that oral production by bilinguals greatly differed from that of monolinguals concerning the use of the passive voice in BP as a consequence of the shared syntactic information from English.

Second, observing these bilingualism effects among Brazilians who learned English in Brazil strengthens the premise that bilingualism phenomena are not limited to bilinguals who learned both languages simultaneously or who live where the official language is their second language.

Moving away from this limited definition of bilingualism is important not only to accurately define the profile of bilingual Brazilians, but also to make well-founded analysis of Brazilian Portuguese. The more we know about its speakers, the more we know about the language.