Hi! My name is Eurydice and I have two kids: a six-year-old son and a daughter who is 3.5. I am an American, married to an Italian, and we live in Rome. I learned French, Spanish and some Latin in school. Picked up Italian when I moved here. Tried to self-teach myself Arabic several years ago but then I had kids so that and some other hobbies were put on hold.
My mom is a retired language teacher and is fluent in German, Spanish and Chinese. She only taught me bits of those languages when I asked her to. But she gave me a love for languages since we traveled a lot and we would always study a new language for months before a trip and use it as much as possible (to try to read and talk) when we were there.
What languages are spoken by the adults in your household and at what level of proficiency?
I am the only one in the house who speaks English to the kids. I only speak English with them and my husband speaks Italian. I speak to my husband in Italian. Unfortunately I had a very short maternity leave with both kids, so their full-time exposure to English was only for a few weeks. Plus add a few weeks a year when we’re on vacation in the States... and it still adds up to very little major exposure to English.
What languages are you exposing your children to, and how?
The kids are exposed to my English and then almost always Italian. Many of their sitters only spoke Italian and their school is Italian. About 90% of their books and DVDs are in English. Thankfully Rome is very international so they are aware that other people and kids speak English. I have lots of English-speaking friends who come over every so often and when possible I video Skype with family so the kids can join in.
I think living where there is a large English-speaking ex-pat community helps tremendously. When I lived in a small Italian village (before I had kids) I was friends with an Irish woman who stayed at home with her kids and only spoke English with them. They grew up refusing to speak English back to her. I think they thought it was some weird mommy-language and were embarrassed by it. I made a point of talking to her when her kids were around so they could see it was a real language and not something their mom just made up. She said her oldest didn’t speak willingly until he turned 10 and spent a month with her family in Ireland. Somehow it sunk in then that English was very real and terribly necessary, even in Italy.
I dread when my kids start learning English in school. English instruction in Italy is notoriously awful. They rarely have mother-tongue teachers and the teachers’ accents are atrocious. Don’t even get me started on the grammar. I am so afraid they will pick up major mistakes in school. Already the kids try to correct my pronunciation of “The Hulk” and other American characters because that’s not how all their (Italian) friends pronounce it. Sends chills up my spine.
Why do you want your children to know more than one language?
I think it’s pretty obvious why I want my kids to know English. They need it to communicate with the other half of their family in the States and it will help them tremendously job-wise knowing more than one language. I grew up learning foreign languages because of school and because my mom took me all over the world.
I love languages and word play and I try to spread that same love and curiosity to my kids. I think a second or third language makes you a more empathetic person because to truly understand another culture you need to understand its language. I love trying to grasp other mindsets and life-views based on their languages.
How well do your children understand, speak, and read English and Italian?
My kids understand me fully. And my son totally understands the highly intellectual BBC documentaries on dinosaurs. I have him explain stuff to me; I pretend I didn’t hear what the narrator said or I ask a question about what’s happening and he’s very accurate. He has a decent vocabulary and amazing retention. I can use a new word twice and he will start using it correctly when it comes up in conversation.
I always spoke to my kids as if they were smart adults, using a wide variety of words and a string of synonyms in describing something. I never did “baby talk” when they were infants mostly because I find it annoying. My kids often ask me how to say some word in Italian, so that makes me think their English vocab in some ways outpaces their Italian.
My son’s use of the past tense is pretty poor. However, when he was 3 he developed his own version of the past tense by saying “I went to go... “ or “I went to see...” to mean I went or I saw. I thought that was a very creative way to get around remembering irregular past tenses. I usually repeat a correct version of what he says in a conversational tone so it doesn’t seem like I’m correcting him. He’ll say “I went to run all day.” I’ll say “Oh wow!! you ran all day!! You must be exhausted!”
My daughter has excellent pronunciation. My son definitely has a slight Italian accent. He trills all the r’s. Whereas my daughter does the American “r” sound very well. However, she can’t trill the Italian “r” and pronounces all her Italian “r’s” like a soft “d” or “n.”
I’m unsure of my son’s reading ability. They love to “read” books on their own. My son did ask me what “chicco” meant when he was a little over 4 and I saw it was written on a box in the room. I have no idea if he was reading the box or had just heard someone use the word.
This year he starts first grade, so that will give me some clue to his reading and writing abilities. I figure when he can read/write in Italian, it won’t be that hard to read/write English. He has already asked me to help him in that department. So that’s positive.
How do they feel about their two languages? Do they have a preference for what they speak in which contexts?
The kids speak to each other in Italian unless they are imitating something they saw on an English DVD and they will use lots of English words in their play-acting. They mostly use Italian with me with some English words thrown in.
When we go to the States (for three to four weeks once a year) they start speaking English all the time (to me and each other) after a few days. Even when we return to Italy, their brains are still on English mode and they’ll be stuck in English for another two weeks.
How has their language use evolved as they grow?
My son was aware at a very young age that he was dealing with two distinct languages. I’m thinking like when he was two. He knew exactly with whom he had to speak English and with whom he had to use Italian. He had the two languages neatly divided and rarely mixed them up. He always used English with me until he was at school all day (at three years old).
Both kids use mostly Italian and will throw in English words when needed (when they don’t know the Italian equivalent or the English word conveys it better.) They brag to kids on the playground that their mommy speaks English and that they speak Italian and English.
They do things like: before we go to a doctor, I double check with the kids what all their symptoms or problems are and they tell me, “Yes, Mommy, but you have to make sure you explain that to the doctor in Italian.” It’s just really neat how they accept I do speak Italian but will only use English with them. They don’t seem to resent it or be annoyed. It seems so normal to them.
What resources and activities have been most useful to you? What, on the other hand, has not been useful?
My mom saved all my books I had as a kid, so we have all of them plus books people have recommended. I loved my books, so that love I have for the characters and stories shows when I read to them.
I love singing and, when I can, I’ll have a CD of some musical on in the kitchen and belt it out. When we’re in the States and have to drive everywhere, I put show tunes on and we sing them. I have thus brainwashed the kids into loving Cole Porter!!
My Italian in-laws are very musical and so they sing to them and give the kids Italian CDs. They have great songs. I want to record my in-laws singing for posterity. The folk songs are witty and very very funny.
I’m not big on tv nor are the kids. But I do let them watch any DVD we have. They are very good at only watching a bit then turning it off on their own. My son loves National Geographic for kids or BBC documentaries or anything to do with space. My daughter loves Pingu and Heidi (only in Italian) so she doesn’t get very much English exposure with DVDs. She does like one Dr Seuss' (Horton etc...) DVD, which has pretty challenging words for a three year old.
Other than that, I just read and talk to them a lot. I teach them songs and fun games in English. You can’t go wrong with that.
What challenges have you faced as you raise your children bilingually?
As I mentioned above, the dismal level of English instruction in the schools is my worst fear. I can’t afford for them to go to English-speaking schools. So I will have to be more involved when they start having English lessons and homework. I really really don’t want to tell them their teacher doesn’t know what she is saying, so I will have to think of a nicer way to tell them.
Luckily, there are lots of foreign kids at their school. Ironically, the expensive English schools are packed with Italians and the Italian schools are filled with foreigners. I think it will help them having other Americans in class this year. Strength in numbers!
Do you have any advice for us?
At one point I was feeling tremendously inadequate because I don’t force my kids to speak to me in English. I know some people who do and yet, I just don’t feel right doing it.
I really cherish my kids communicating with me. My son can verbalize very sophisticated, deep thoughts that amaze me and I want to hear what his brain is thinking. I worry that if I were to inhibit that free-flow by insisting he only say it in English... that he would just stop talking to me. If it comes out easier and better and faster in Italian, so be it.
I want my kids to know that whatever they have on their minds they can tell me and I don’t care how they tell me. I won’t judge them and I think telling them Italian isn’t the tool I want them to use with me... well... it seems elitist to me and close-minded.
When I told my mom (who is a language teacher) what I was feeling and asked her what she thought she blew me away saying: “Your job is to be a mother, not an English teacher.” She totally validated my gut feeling.
However, after reading some posts on your (or Moxie’s??) blog, I was amazed at how many people said they were unable to “think” in the second language when they had not been forced to use it as a kid. That makes me feel guilty again that I’m shortchanging them somehow. I think I will try to invent some kind of game like an “All English Breakfast” where everything has to be in English. Mostly I cheat and take advantage of my friends by telling them to pretend they don’t know Italian so the kids have to speak to them in English. Just passing the buck!
Since my husband speaks very little English, I joke with him telling him he’d better learn fast or the kids will start plotting behind his back in English. I told the kids we have to teach daddy English and they get a huge kick out of that. They think it’s just too cool to tell daddy what to do! He’s a really good sport and they have a lot of fun. He likes to read to them in English with this god awful accent so the kids will crack up.
What do you think parents, caretakers, teachers, and/or researchers need to know about teaching a second language to children? What do you wish you had known when you started? What, if anything, would you do differently now?
This is a huge experiment for me. I have no idea if what we’re doing is right or working. My mom loves hearing about our experiences.
I picked up a lot of advice from my mom when I was growing up and other language teachers for language learning, but for me the key is loving language and especially the language you are “teaching.” If there is love and joy behind it, kids will find it compelling.
Song is incredibly important. I wish I did more of it. I’m convinced musically-inclined kids/adults are better language learners. My daughter has a very good ear and my son has excellent pitch. He could hum Ennio Morricone tunes (from Sergio Leone films) perfectly when he was fairly young. He was the one who told me that the Alphabet Song and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star were the same tune!! I had never ever realized it before!!
I think anything that makes kids laugh works. I have yet to crack open my Shel Silverstein book for them. I want to see if they can memorize Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout like I did as a kid.
I’m still grappling with how to make them speak to me in English more. I really do see how it may be hindering their ability to “think” in English though I do see glimpses of them speaking in Italian with English syntax sometimes.
Answer your own question now--what did I not ask about that you would like to comment on?
If we lived in the US, I highly doubt I would speak to them in Italian. I would want my husband to use Italian with them all the time, but using it on them just seems so “unnatural.” It doesn’t feel right. I wonder if other people feel this way about a language they learned as an adult (not via a parent.)
I used to worry people (Italian in-laws especially) would think I was rude for talking to my kids in English. No one understands English over here so it’s like talking behind people’s backs in front of them. At first relatives were curious, wanting a translation of everything I was saying, then they got bored once they found out I was only asking the kids mundane crap like “Do you want more milk?” How do others handle this situation?
If it’s a multi-way conversation I will use Italian, but if I need to communicate just with my kids I will use English with them in front of others. I have no idea what people on the bus think: I’m blabbering on in English and the kids answer in Italian. They probably think what my in-laws think: that the kids really don’t know English. That it’s just going in one ear and out the other.
Sarah again--Wow! I love all these cool ideas and fascinating questions! What do the rest of you think about these issues? What about Eurydice's story resonates with you?
(And if you're a new reader to this blog, you might be interested in seeing the other profiles I've published of bi/multilingual families.)
This post is part of the February Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism.