As a British Woman married to an Italian, I’m often asked why we decided to embark on raising our children bilingually. For some, it’s obvious that you would attempt to do this.
Others think there’s no need to learn a second language at all, partially because one of our languages is English.
We always knew we would pass our languages and cultures on to our children. After all, teaching your child a language is not all about words. You convey your true self in your native language. Your personality shines through. It’s harder to achieve this in a second language. Often you are less vivacious or funny as it’s difficult to be as comfortable in the second language as you are your mother tongue.
One of the real gifts of language for your children though is not only the words but that you open their minds to new ideas, beliefs, and perspectives. You discover why people act the way they do, what customs they have and how they give the things in their life meaning.
You also begin to notice that they are very much like you, they just do things differently. This could not be more important at this troublesome moment in our history.
Where to start:
Before you begin, it's important to think about what level of fluency you would like your child to have in the future. To be fully bilingual you should speak two languages fluently with little perceivable accent.
This is quite difficult to achieve, it is not really necessary to converse properly abroad and takes a lot of work from the parents, over a long period. By this, I mean years not months.
So how would you like your child to use the language you desire? Is it to work abroad in the future if they wish? To chat to Grandparents? To get by on holidays?
All of these take a different amount of commitment from all of you and it’s worth taking into consideration first.
Next to consider is which method you would like to use? We use OPOL (One Parent, One Language). I only speak to my children in English and they only speak to their Father in Italian. This method gets rid of any confusion and creates a structure which children find comforting. Even though they are now aware we both speak the two languages they prefer to stick to these rules.
Another method to consider is Time and Place. This is useful if the second language is not as familiar to you. Maybe you grew up with it but barely lived in that country. Or you would like your child to take on a third language. If your child is older and doesn’t want to use an extra language all the time. To follow this you choose a time or place where you will always use that language.
It could be the school run, car journeys, at the dinner table. Sometimes this is a great way to start as it takes the pressure off launching straight into full-time language learning if you or your child don’t feel ready.
The next step is to consider how you and your partner feel about it. Are you both committed and determined to do this together? Do your families support what you’re trying to do or are they worried about the popular misconceptions one hears about bilingual children?
The major worry for most family members is language delay or confusion for the child. Currently, there is no scientific evidence that supports this theory.*
It’s important you and your partner are both a team in this endeavor and decide from the outset you will support each other. You may have resistance from family. One of you will likely have the minority language, where your language is spoken the least.
In our family, my children have less exposure to Italian than English so I supplement this in various ways whilst my Husband isn’t around. You both need to care equally about your child’s education in each language even if it isn’t yours.
Just do it:
Once you’ve agreed on the above, just start! It’s very easy to think there’s a perfect time to begin. It’s always right away! Although we can all learn languages later in life for many reasons it is easier for a child to learn than an adult.
Don’t be disheartened if you didn’t do this and now regret trying. It’s always possible just be aware that older children have their own ideas and desires so you may experience some resistance.
With younger children, you may also be told there is no point using a second language with a child before their speaking increases around age two. This is another myth, often believed by well-meaning extended family.
It is however simply not true. We all understand a language much earlier than we speak it. If your child seems to understand you when you ask for certain objects in the second language be proud! This is a win, comprehension is there. Confidence, individuality, and sense of identity all play a part in how old your child is when they first start speaking in any language, let alone two.
Even a newborn baby within weeks will understand that certain sounds from one parent mean they are about to be picked up. They tense the muscles in their necks in anticipation of being held. They do exactly the same when the second parent, uses the second set of sounds which precede the same cuddle. They already know that these sounds mean they will be picked up and that each set of sounds belongs to a different person!
The main area of focus should be on exposure. How much exposure to the minority language does your child have? And how can you improve this?
We learn and retain a language better through interactive tasks such as speaking and listening. So prioritize chatting and reading to your child first.
When the parent with the minority language is not around use books, games, audiobooks, podcasts, YouTube and apps.
Look for children at your nursery/school who have the same minority language as you. Suggest a playdate or park trip.
Check your local area for groups who meet up once a week for a chat and for the children to play. As your child grows they will want to identify with children just like them.
As children grow and for us, this happened around age 4, they start to observe those around them. They may realize their family is a bit different from those at school. Or they will focus on families where everyone is ‘the same’.
They may start to reject the second language and try and respond just in the language of their community. This is a phase and it can be overcome by consistently speaking the second language with them and asking for the response again.
Naturally, this stems from a sense of identity, belonging and wanting to fit in. This is the time to look at things from your child’s point of view.
Why would your child want to learn Your language?
They may not be interested. Or their reasons might be different to yours. Explain why it feels important to you. Do you want them to understand your background? Where you came from?
Think about sharing more about your culture, use scrapbooks and photos. Have an afternoon tea if you’re English and explain where this custom came from.
If you’re Italian make masks for Venice carnival. If you would normally celebrate Eid or another event, bake something that is eaten at that time.
This is the moment to think less about words and more about what makes you, well you!
Why is your culture different, what would your child find fun, interesting, delicious about your country and start adding this to your everyday life.
Lastly, remember that children are all individuals. They all learn at different rates, have different milestones and interests. Some children naturally speak later, even if monolingual. Others speak not a word of their second language and suddenly at four launch into full conversations.
If you were tasked with becoming fluent in a new language now you would give yourself a lot of grace? So don’t expect more of your child.
Keep going, be consistent, have fun but most importantly have faith! We all learned one language once and we all can do it again.