The uneasy road to bilingualism

Looking back, sometimes I wonder if we really knew what we were doing. Our daughters were 2 years and 8 months old when we packed up and moved to a small village in Umbria. Being honest I don’t think we planned it very well. Yes, we had bought a house, and few weeks before moving, we had sent a lorry load over, containing beds, furniture, toys and even a box of food.  But was that enough? We were moving, not just to a new house, but moving to a place where we knew nobody, had no family living nearby, no work and a house that had no kitchen, a disgusting bathroom and the majority of us couldn’t speak Italian. We arrived on a chilly December morning, walked into the house, looked around and then reality hit home. What are we doing!!!

Thankfully the smiles on our daughters faces were enough to get us through the first few weeks. I spoke no useful Italian, Mia and Cara knew a few words. One good thing we had bought was the BBC language course – MUZZY. Everyday we would sit down together and watch the series, talk about the words used and practise them. While the girls played or slept I would study my Italian, and try and learn a few new words each day.

After a few weeks we were approached by a local lady working in the pizzeria near us, she asked if we had registered the girls at ‘Asilo Nido’ (nursery school for 3-6 years). No we hadn’t, we hadn’t even thought about the schooling process. The next day, the girls were registered and then a few days later we took them in. What a shock, everyone looked at us as if we were aliens, but each day we returned. Mia and Cara wouldn’t leave our sides. Then one day I just said to my husband, Tony, come on let’s go, the girls were crying, I was crying but we left and returned two hours later, to find them sitting on the teacher’s lap still crying. It did get easier, but it was a slow process. Just before Christmas we had a review with the teachers and they were concerned that the girls weren’t speaking Italian to anyone, they would just point at what they wanted and would only speak English to each other. That evening, (I can’t believe I said it), but we told the girls that “if you don’t start talking Italian before Christmas, then Santa won’t bring any presents”.

The next day I picked them up from asilo, to be told that they hadn’t shut up, that was it after six months of sitting and listening and with a final push, they were communicating. The next issue was when they returned home a year later singing English Christmas carols, with an Italian accent. Cara and Mia had explained to us that their English teacher kept shouting at them and they weren’t enjoying that lesson. The following day, we went into school and spoke about the English lessons, it was agreed that the girls wouldn’t go into school on those mornings and I would teach them instead. But from that day on it was also agreed that once they entered the school grounds, they weren’t allowed to speak English, until they left the grounds. So that’s how it started, my parents posted the girls some learning books, which they would do twice a week, to help with their English.

We have always read to the girls and they have grown into bookworms. The next time we encountered an issue was when the girls started at primary school (6-11 years). This time the girls had to attend the English classes in school and my teaching was now allocated to Saturdays. Unfortunately, the English teachers don’t teach to a high level so Mia and Cara were bored again, and getting told off for not concentrating. So off to school we went, this time we asked if the teachers could set the girls something a bit more challenging and interesting to do, because having Mia and Cara teaching the other children the alphabet wasn’t acceptable. Over the next five years, teachers came and went, some good, some bad. Then one teacher arrived, Pino, who for the first term of the year was great. He encouraged the girls more, but then by the second term his inabilities started to show through.

Every summer holiday the children are set homework, due to the long 13 weeks holiday. That is when I would teach more English. We were supposed to buy the recommended summer book, which we did once, but then thought better of it. So I would make up a summer book, with word searches, crosswords, finishing the sentence, find the missing word, spelling tests, along with other workbooks, the girls would read books like ‘Kipper the Dog’, Horrid Henry, The Famous Five.

With the move to secondary school (11-14 years) came a new school, new classmates and different teachers. Even though we spoke with the English teacher several times, she refused to set the girls anything different. This school had some better teachers but the students were worse, the girls were excluded from everything, verbally bullied, yet they didn’t want us to do anything. One teacher even said that the girls were antisocial, and when we pointed out that the other kids were racist, she laughed it off. Fortunately, they were only at this school for three years. The years flew by, and in the final year they had exams for entrance into high school. When they got the results for English they received 9/10 for English, even though they had no errors, had completed both exercises, compared to all the other children completing only one exercise. The teacher refused to rate them higher because she thought it unfair on the other children.

High school arrives (14-19 years), yet another school, new classmates, teachers and new location. Nowadays Mia and Cara go to school by bus, six mornings. On their first week of school, they didn’t tell anyone that they spoke English. When they had an English lesson the following week, the teacher asked if anyone spoke English and the girls replied, with gasps from the other children. Cara and Mia don’t speak with an accent in either language, they have a local dialect and mannerisms. Fortunately, this school is open minded, the teachers encourage Cara and Mia to speak English , translate text and read in English in lessons, they are encouraged to do presentations in English for technology, chemistry, English and Italian. They do have some language shortfalls because they have a smaller vocabulary compared to monolingual children. But their understanding of grammar is at a higher level.

At home we only watch British TV and only speak English, but we socialise with lots of Italian friends and our girls have no English speaking friends they hang out with. The result is the girls are bilingual. We know some children who have been through the same education system and have English speaking parents, yet their children speak Italian with an English accent. Another family we know – 2 children with an Italian mother and English father – and the children can barely put a sentence together in English. In conclusion, all children have different language abilities but much of it boils down to how much time and effort you and your child are prepared to put into it.



Andrea Camerota
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