Raising a bilingual child, our seventh year

Italian Beginners Cork
Here we are, with 30 new classmates in Mila

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! 

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!


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