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Raising a bilingual child, our seventh year

Italian Beginners Cork

Here we are, with 30 new classmates in Milano

Wow, time flies… Kevin’s about to finish first class and here are the updates on our bilingual/multilingual experience. 

I am Italian and my husband is Irish and we live in Cork, an English speaking town located in the south of Ireland. We have a son, Kevin, and during his first months of life, we decided to raise him bilingual. Therefore, I started to study about bilingualism and I found out that the most important, fundamental and irreplaceable practice I had to implement in order to pursue our mission was to speak Italian and only Italian to my son. At the time I was also working on my English in order to sound more like an English speaker, so I had avoided speaking Italian or listening to Italian or even meeting Italian people… what a blow it was to go back on my plan, but I knew that bilingualism was a great gift for my son… a key for more languages in the future, a brain that has more connections between the right and the left side and all the advantages that come with this. 

In our previous post we talked about our 3 first years of experience in raising our son Kevin bilingual (Italian/English). We talked about the reasons behind our choice, our fears and the strategies we implemented to overcome several hurdles. If you are about to undertake this journey and you feel discouraged by so many hindering factors, please read my previous post and feel free to contact me if you have any questions about how we got on. 

I am happy to say that Kevin is still speaking only Italian to me and that we have no problems when we go to Italy and this year Kevin even went to an Italian school in Milan and attended the second class for 3 days (his first Erasmus!). BUT… all this doesn’t come without a bit of work! Beginners Italian Cork

As I already wrote about all the obstacles and the way we overcame them during Kevin’s first three years, I will start now from the start of his primary school, almost 4 years ago. 

Before starting school Kevin was bilingual and his Italian was his dominant language. He was spending a lot of time with me (he went to a Montessori school for three hours a day) and he was attending our Italian school on Saturday. He knew the Italian alphabet and the sound of most syllables. 

I was aware that being in an English environment the dominant language (English) would eventually prevail over Italian… so I used all my resources to keep him interested and attached to Italian while his dad would speak to him in English and started working on his English reading skills.

When he started attending junior infants he also started to use more and more English words with me and I started worrying… all my efforts, all my hard work, all my time! No panic mamma, no panic. I ‘fought a battle on two fronts’. First of all and it is very important, I kindly refused to understand Kevin any time he would use an English word. This was very frustrating for him as he genuinely couldn’t remember some words after speaking in English for 5 hours in a row. To give you a concrete example, he would say an Italian sentence with the word ‘instead’ (invece in Italian). I remember telling him ‘Come si dice instead in italiano?’ (how do you say instead in italiano?). We would get frustrated and say ‘non lo so mamma, non ricordo!’ (I don’t know mamma, I don’t remember!). So I’ve started helping him to retrieve the ‘lost words’. In this way I helped him consolidate his Italian. In fact, retrieving or recalling is an important step to consolidate vocabulary. I used to start the word ‘si dice in, inv…’ (we say in, inv…) and Kevin would happily finish the word, with a great sense of achievement. This process also taps into our dopamine system giving us a great sense of reward and we feel we want more of it. Therefore, Kevin became used to this process and shortly afterwards he stopped forgetting Italian words. 

Secondly, we banned English cartoons and movies all together. They got replaced with… French cartoons, movies and even songs. I know it sounds bizarre, but it worked! As I can speak French fluently, I’ve started playing games in French with Kevin when he was about 3, reading him short stories and every now and then we would watch a French cartoon. Therefore, he just started watching French cartoons every evening, his French got much better very soon and the English interference during our conversations disappeared entirely. 

This is going on for more than 2 years and now my son speaks 3 languages and he is even learning Irish in school… and teaching me! 

Piccolitalia, our Italian school is also playing a very important role for his Italian language, his Italian culture and Italian socialisation. This year we are learning about masculine and feminine, singular and plural nouns, definite articles and verbs and he is very happy, interested and proud of his Italian in his Italian class with his Italian speaking friends!



Ciao from Piccolitalia

We are having a great time here in Piccolitalia and, above all, we are having an Italian time. With our Gruppo Scuola we are having fun, learning and enjoying Italian grammar fundamentals such as feminine and masculine , articles and verbs. With our Gioca e Impara group (Play and Learn) we are having fun with weather, seasons, and the days of the week… we always learn so much through songs, fun activities and games with both groups as this is the best way to learn! With both groups we really loved celebrating Natale, talking about our Italian customs, traditions and folklore… The favoured topics this year were la Befana, la Tombola di Natale (bingo) and, obviously, the Pandoro (our Italian Christmas cake). Take a look at the pictures… you can see it for yourselves!

We are ready to restart again next week (Saturday 27 January) and we cannot wait to celebrate Carnevale! If you are interested in your children to join us… hurry, as we have only 2 places left!

To learn more about Piccolitalia courses




Raising a bilingual child, our third year.

Cork languageMy husband is an English speaker, I am Italian and, as many of you already know, we live in Cork, Ireland. Our son Kevin was born on 17 December 2010. We decided to raise him bilingual and we still stick to this decision. It is not the easy road and it is a strong commitment for both parents. 

I started reading and studying about bilingualism when Kevin was 4 months old and I found out that in order to raise a bilingual child (Italian and English) a part of the ‘Language area’ in his brain should develop an Italian section. Studies show that a bilingual child also has a better ability to focus and problem solve… every little helps… 

With great fear, I found out that in order to achieve this goal I had speak to him only in Italian. As I started learning English at 35, I was very much focused on improving it when Kevin was born. The idea of speaking Italian constantly again freaked me out… and the first six months were a nightmare! Therefore, I understand that it is difficult for some parents to switch languages all the time, but I can reassure them that it is a temporary discomfort and that the ability to switch will soon improve. 

I started to talk Italian to Kevin all the time, regardless of where we were. It might have looked a bit funny… as Kevin was only a baby and he couldn’t answer. I know that many parents feel a bit weird or impolite about talking Italian in front of people who cannot understand. I have never had a problem with anyone. By the tone of my voice and looking at Kevin, no one would ever think that I am saying something bad or nasty about them. 

With my great disappointment, Kevin started talking mostly in English (I think he was about two years old). In spite of the fact that he used to spend the majority of his time with me and didn’t go to a crèche, all his words were in English (this, that, daddy, it…) bar ‘mama’. 

I was getting worried that Kevin, in spite of all my efforts, wouldn’t speak Italian. 

I had started Italian playgroups and I tried to keep them up for a while, I had nice time hanging out with other Italian mothers, but there was no structure and our children were not really engaged with Italian. 

I read couple of articles about the subject, one of them written by psychologist Serio Spinelli who is also raising his children bilingual in Dublin. Both articles were suggesting that the ‘majority language’ parent can encourage the use of the minority language (Italian in our case) by using some words, every now and then. They said that the majority language cannot be jeopardise by that as it is the society’s language.Afterwards, my husband started using a little bit of Italian with Kevin, too. Joady doesn’t speak Italian, but even still… the use of his few words definitely encouraged Kevin when he was about 2 and a few months old. 

Spinelli stresses also the importance of creating an Italian network for our bilingual children: ‘L’erosione progressiva della lingua materna è una evoluzione naturale contro cui è diflicile lottare da soli. La soluzione sta nella rete di amici della nostra stessa origine linguistica che si avrà avuto cura di costruire. Senza I’aiuto di parlanti della stessa lingua esterni alla famiglia d’origine sarà impossibile mantenere il bilinguismo a lungo termine’. 

Luckily enough, I am a teacher and I know where to find Italian resources and teaching support. Therefore, a year ago we started our Piccolitalia project and I started using lots of songs at home, too. Kevin started singing himself to sleep and his Italian improved a lot. This project is a very good mix: it is a great way for our children to do something funtogether, to keep in touch with each other and to learn Italian or to reinforce the Italian they learn at home through a structured routine. Cork Italian for children

Our weekly Italian class is definitely bearing fruit and Kevin’s Italian is at least as good as his English, if not slightly better. He goes to a crèche twice a week (about 10 hours a week) and when I go to collect him, he immediately starts telling me everything about everything in Italian. It is a wonderful bond, made even more special by the fact that we have our own language. People are amazed all the time because he’s able to switch from English to Italian instantaneously. The other day a lovely lady asked Kevin to teach her the colours in Italian and she was delighted with the lesson he gave her. 

As our language is difficult, I am frequently and gently correcting Kevin’s Italian and I give him explanations. It is the right thing to do. Do not think that those mistakes will go away by themselves because it won’t happen. 

Some parents asked me what I do when Kevin speaks to me in English… I don’t understand him and I don’t want to understand him in English! After all my efforts, the last thing that I want to do is to listen to him talking to me in English! I have heard of other Italian parents who are doing the same and so far so good for them, too. 

Things will probably get more difficult and I know of many parents whose children started talking to them in English since they started going to school… chi vivrà vedrà (those who will live will see)!bilingualism in Cork

Ps: this is not a scientific treatise, but only our experience limited to our first three years. If you would like to add something about your own experience, it would be great.


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