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Laura - Raising Bilingual Twins and a Daughter in Italy

"What's difficult is being patient and not obsessing about their language skills.  It's very easy to beat yourself up over the fact that possibly they are not as good as their friends and putting the fault at the door of their bilingualism.  It's a question of being Patient with a capital P and reminding yourself how lucky they are."

  • Bilingual Kids in Italy

    Centro Yoga Om, Vilanova i la Geltru Image

    What languages is your child exposed to?

    They are exposed to Italian and English.

    Was your child exposed to more than one language from birth? If not, how was the adaptation process?

    Yes....I always spoke to them in English from the day they were born as it never felt natural for me speaking to them in Italian.  However, as they got bigger and often we'd be in mixed language settings (with other people who don't perhaps speak English) I now sometimes find myself speaking to them in Italian so as not to seem rude.

    What is your children’s “attitude” towards their languages? Which language do they prefer and why do you think that is?

    I wouldn't say it's a question of which language they prefer but more a question of which language they have more contact with.  When my eldest daughter was younger (she's now 9) there were words she preferred in one language to another or which seemed to come more easily to her.  She also flits between the languages more naturally than her younger sisters and isn't embarassed at speaking to me in English in front of her friends (something I have heard other people comment on with their children).  She's quite proud of the fact that she speaks English and Italian and 90% of the time (even with her Italian friends around) will speak to me in English.  However between the sisters the language of play is Italian and always has been.

    What is your “strategy” in terms of bilingual education? (OPOL, Minority language at home… ?)

    I don't really have a strategy I'm afraid.  When my eldest daughter was a baby it was something I was quite obsessed about.  I'm an English teacher and was desperately worried that she wouldn't speak in English especially as her first words were in Italian, however she spent a lot of time with me as a toddler and only attended Pre-School (Scuola Materna) on a part-time basis.  Things changed a lot when she went to Elementary School but even now 4 years on she speaks to me predominantly in English.  I read to the children every night in English (and for the last year the elder one reads to me in English) and most of the films they watch are in English.  We are lucky enough to have both Italian Sky TV (I change the language to English) and English satellite TV so when they watch something it's generally in English.  My only other strategy is that I speak to them 95% of the time in English.  I also have English speaking friends here, one of whom has children the same age as mine who I used to spent a lot of time with when the children were younger.  I have friends visiting regularly from the UK and we visit twice a year.  I feel these are also very important factors in their English education.  

    Did your child start speaking later as a result of being spoken to in more than one language? This is much discussed - do you think this is a myth?

    The elder one did start speaking slightly later than her Italian peers and also my friends children in the UK.  On the other hand, my best friend here has a daughter who is slightly older than mine and she spoke extremely early (this friend is in a similar situation to me in that her husband is Italian).  With my twin daughters I had another experience again.  One of them started speaking at about the right age that all the books say they should be speaking but she spoke in Italian and the English started appearing much later but she understood everything I said to her in English and speaks English well.  The other twin who we had to seek OT for spoke later and again only in Italian.  She understood everything I said to her in English but it wasn't until our 3rd summer trip to the UK where we stayed for about 4 weeks that she really started speaking in English but again she spoke quite naturally although with a smaller vocabulary than her English cousins.  I am inclined therefore to feel that this is a bit of a myth.  I also feel it really is a question of how much contact they have with the second language and who is speaking it.  My second children had a lot more contact with Italian.  They went to nursery at the age of 1 whereas my first daughter didn't go until the age of 3 and then only part-time.  

    Do you think your child/ren suffer from a vocabulary shortfall? Does he/she mix languages?

    Unfortunately I think they do suffer from a vocabulary shortfall but I feel it is something which levels out eventually.  I see this with my elder daughter.  Her vocabulary is not as good as either her Italian peers or English peers but it is something which is beginning to level out.  She's quite studious and does well in all of the many tests the Italian Education system revell in and is probably in the top 5 in her class.  She has many friends and converses well with them.  Now, occasionally, she might muddle up a word but it's rare.  So this is something which eventually rights itself but it does take time and not all children are the same.

    Could you tell us a funny anecdote related to your children’s bilingualism?

    When my elder daughter was at Nursery and then started school she would often confuse the languages so the teachers would sometimes struggle to completely understand or at home she would say things like (What shall we watchiamo tonight) or (Mummy spost yourself).  One of the twins in the UK would speak very slowly and loudly in Italian to the other children when they didn't understand what she was saying.  My elder daughter has also discovered that when she wants to talk about someone in the UK so they don't understand what she is saying she says it very quickly in Italian.  Certain films she likes to watch in certain languages for example;  Mary Poppins only speaks English whereas Peter Pan is Italian!

    What was or still is difficult?

    What's difficult is being patient and not obsessing about their language skills.  It's very easy to beat yourself up over the fact that possibly they are not as good as their friends and putting the fault at the door of their bilingualism.  It's a question of being Patient with a capital P and reminding yourself how lucky they are.

    Do your children get the differences between the languages and cultures?  What do you do to keep them interested in both cultures?

    They do get the difference particularly the elder one.  Perhaps less so the culture than the language.  When they were smaller they often confused which one was English and which one was Italian.  Probably the culture is not so different.  I would say they notice the difference mostly with food and meal times in particular.  Whereas in the UK children might eat sandwiches for one of their meals my elder daughter would say ' Was that an "apperitivo" mummy?  When's dinner?'  It has been very easy to keep them interested in both cultures as where we live the fact that they are bilingual has always been considered something very special.  People at school will often stop and say in front of them how lucky they are to be English and Italian.  They know that I'm a teacher which is something they are quite proud of.  I've even been into the Nursery to sing songs with the children in English which of course my children loved and my elder daughter's primary school teacher has always made a big thing of getting her to help out in English lessons.  We also visit the UK twice a year which has helped enormously as we have a lot of friends there with children.

    Can you think of any resources that helped you or recommend any support groups, websites or social media groups that you have found useful??

    Unfortunately the only resource I have used is the CBEEBIES web site which my children love for stories and games.

    How do you perceive the key benefits of bringing up a child bilingually/multilingually?

    My elder daughter's primary school teacher gave me an article which explains it beautifully.  In short the children think differently.  Whereas when you've been brought up monolingually you see an object and think of the word and then if you speak another language the other word will be there but possibly there is a 1 second delay maybe when a person is biligual or multi-lingual the words are all there simultaneously in your brain.  This in turn opens up your mind to learning in a different way particulary subjects like mathematics.  I think it naturally makes you think outside the box.  I also think in some way the child feels special.  They are aware that they have a skill that not everyone has.

    Are there any disadvantages? Are their challenging aspects with schoolwork for example?

    There can be some disadvantages mainly schoolwork.  Now that my daughter is in her penultimate year of primary school things are becoming more tricky.  Often we have to look up the meanings of certain words in order for me to explain them to her.  Although that can also work well in that my daughter sees that I am learning with her and that even grown ups have to look things up sometimes.  

    What advice would you give parents about to embark on bringing up a child bilingually?

    Go for it.  It helps the child enormously when learning other subjects and can also increase their confidence.  I've seen Italian mums here who are either English teachers themselves or perhaps have lived in the UK or the States for a bit and want to pass their English on to their children and they manage it even though at home maybe the main household language is Italian.  Patience is the key and also not forcing the child to speak to you in one language over another.  Even if they are not speaking to you in the other language purely by speaking to them in that language means they have the opportunity to learn and understand.  Give them access to the language outside of you as the main speaker.  Be it songs, TV, story tapes or other people if possible.  Play games in the other language but above all show them that so many different languages are spoken around the world and how special it is to hear other languages and to speak other languages.

    We live in a small town in the mountains so don't have access to International Schools.  There is a English/Italian speaking nursery but I decided that it was also important for the girls to learn Italian as from the age of 6 they would be being educated in Italian.  Regarding that point however, we have now decided to move to the UK where I will now have the opposite problem of keeping their Italian alive which should be an interesting challenge!!!

    February 2015