October 1


Teaching our child to be bilingual

By Rick

October 1, 2014

teaching our child to beMy little principessa turned one year-old recently, and this is a great time for being a parent. She’s discovering the world, learning to walk, and saying her first words.  It would not be an understatement to say that hearing her call me, “Da-da” for the first time was the best moment of my life so far.  However, it comes with a little anxiety, too.  She’s learning English and Italian at the same time, and I can’t help but feel a little guilty about intentionally causing all this confusion in her developing brain.  I tell her “shoe,” and Jessica tells her, “scarpa.”  Poor thing.

My wife and I have both been language teachers, so you’d think that teaching our child to be bilingual would be an easy task.  The obvious fact is, it’s not the same thing teaching a language to an infant as it is to an adult.  In some ways, it’s easier…at least for our “student,” who has no blocks and no preconceived notions of grammar rules or pronunciation.  For the teachers, however, how do you “explain” something to a little person who has none of your linguistic reference points?

teaching two languages to our daughter
She’s changing the passwords on all my bank accounts.

Of course, I can’t remember back to when I was learning English as my first language, but I do remember when I first started learning Italian about 7-8 years ago.  After a few useless lessons at the community college, I did a very smart thing and bought a software program.  The reason I mention this is because a good software program mimics the way we acquired our first language by using a combination of verbal and visual cues to connect the physical world to the corresponding words.  (They all work in about the same way, but the one I currently use is Rocket Languages because I like the interface and the price is better than that more “famous” brand.)

So that’s what we’re doing in teaching our child to be bilingual: building vocabulary by showing her an object and then telling her the word.  Right now her 12-word vocabulary consists of about 8 Italian nouns and 4 English ones.  Sooner or later, the verbs start to emerge without even trying.  (“Walk to Daddy! Or: “Mangia la pappa!”)  And now we’re slowly introducing short sentences to start building her overall communication ability.  At least I am starting slow—Jessica has already begun to teach her the opening canto to The Divine Comedy.  Funny thing is, I think she’s actually getting it.

my bilingual baby
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita…

Let’s also remember that speaking a second language is not exactly the same thing as being bilingual.  I speak Italian, but it will always be a second language, unnatural to me.  English will always be the default language of my thoughts, dreams, and colorful expletives, no matter how long I stay in Italy.  I can say that I speak two languages, but I can’t claim to be bilingual.  A subtle but important difference.

When a child grows up speaking both languages in the house, they are able to switch back and forth effortlessly; within the same conversation and even the same sentence without thinking or making mistakes.  They’ll have the full repertoire of idiomatic expressions and no detectable accents.  Some scientists claim that, in theory, the child will unconsciously select one as their primary language.  But even if this is true, the listener will not be able to identify which one it is.

Case in point, when our daughter says “mamma,” she pronounces the double M very distinctly, just like an Italian would.  In English (and Spanish) the word is written and pronounced with only one M, “mama,” and I still make this mistake occasionally.  Demetra does not.

Perhaps you detect a note of panic in my tone.  Well, you’re right.  I know that my days are numbered when I can claim to speak better Italian than my daughter.  I’ve gone back to the software and to my university text books in the hopes of perfecting my usage of the passato remoto verb form before Demetra beats me to it.  Especially since she’s Sicilian, and they use this form over the passato prossimo almost exclusively.  Which leads me to another point….

U Sicilianu

Then there’s the third language in our house: Sicilian.  This summer we spent about six weeks with Jessica’s family in Sicily.  And while they all speak perfect Italian, they can’t help slipping in the occasional word or phrase of Sicilian when the situation calls for something more nuanced and precise than exists in the standard language.  I tried my best to pick up some of it, but I have a hard enough time with Italian.

Demetra already says, “bedda,” instead of “bella,” although that’s probably due more to her limited pronunciation skills at just 13 months old; “D” is much easier than “L” for her at this point.  But I envision the day when this language, Sicilian, will be “their” language, a secret code shared between mother and daughter when they don’t want daddy to know what they’re talking about—such as the credit card bill.  Minchia!

Full Immersion

So as I mentioned earlier, the second best way to learn Italian is with a good software program.  But of course there’s no substitution for full immersion.  I recently came across a language course in Molise that caught my attention.  At first, it caught my attention because it’s in Molise, which is where my great-grandparents came from.  As I looked into it further, it struck me as a beautiful way to combine a holiday with language learning.  They offer cooking classes, visits to artisan workshops, and all the other activities designed to deepen your knowledge of the culture, as well as the language.  Indeed, you can’t really call it immersion if you’re stuck in a classroom all day.

The place is called Learning and Living Italian, and it’s tucked into the medieval village of Agnone, equidistant from Rome and Naples (about 3 hours).  In summer, the town “swells” from its winter population of 5,000 to almost 10,000 when family members flock home to the cooler air of the mountains.  Quiet, secluded, the perfect place to settle in and absorb your surroundings.

Agnone in Molise
Agnone in Molise

Now, I haven’t visited the school yet—although they invited me to come for the sagra in my grandparents’ village next summer.  I have, however, been to Molise, I can I can promise you that this is about as far off the beaten path as you can get.  People always want to find “the authentic Italy,” or “the hidden Italy,” or discover non-touristy areas.  Well, in this part of Molise, you’ll be forced to speak Italian because other than your teachers, you’re not going to find a lot of people who can speak English.  Full immersion, that’s what you signed up for, right? It’s not only the best way to learn Italian, it’s also the most fun.

In the meantime, check out my quick and dirty email course to get you started on your language learning journey. Ciao!

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About the author

Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

  • There is the one problem. When a child goes to school often doesn’t want to speak another lanuage any more. All children speak Italian…

    • Good point…children what to “fit in” with the others. They don’t want to be different at that age. But our hope is that if we keep using both languages at home, she’ll be bilingual whether she wants to or not!

    • We had an experience which may shed additional little light on this issue. My wife and I both spoke 100% portuguese to our youngest child from birth because (from experience gained with our other 3), we knew that English would be acquired effortlessly from the world around them (while living in the USA). She was doing well with portuguese until the first day she went to pre-school. She tried to speak portuguese to her teachers and fellow students, but got puzzled looks when she did. She did the only natural thing and switched to the “other” language, English. She saw that it worked and stuck with it. From that moment on, she understood portuguese, but didn’t try to speak it even at home. This behavior may be more rooted in her specific personality than any general rule about bilingual kids, but I thought it was interesting enough to share.

  • I AM raising my children bilingual, well at least I am trying to. And since I am not a native English speaker, it’s sometimes hard to stick to English.

    The older one, who’s now three and a half, can understand both Italian and English, he does not speak fluently yet. English I mean. I just spoke English to him while his dad spoke italian. I don’t think you have to ‘teach’ them anything, you just speak to them. They’ll use both verbal and non verbal signs to develope an understanding strategy, and they’ll be able to do that in more than one language just because they live in a bilingual family. No need of babytalk, or ‘bambinese’, and just be yourself. Talk to them in your own language, be natural, read to her both italian and english books, to show her how beautiful it is to enjoy stories (and moments together, keep different bookshelves for each language, she’ll ask the “right parent” much before being able to read a book’s title.

    Everything is going to be smoother than you think.

    • Thanks for the encouragement Alessia. Yes, it sounds like the best we can do is NOT interfere with their language acquisition. And yet, it’s the hardest thing sometimes. 🙂

  • Interesting Rick, my family are from Molise too. I learned both English and Italian as a baby – I spoke Italian to my mum and English to my dad. I am a bit rusty on the Italian these days and have often thought about an immersion course to help me get back to my pre-self conscious days, so this was really useful!

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