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.


6 responses to “Raising a bilingual child, our third year.”

  1. Grazie Carolina, great to hear how perseverance with language pays off. Our boy spoke as much Italian as English until he was about 2 years old and then it tailed off – the ‘mother language’ seems to win out. I, perhaps conveniently, blame his papa. He’s now attending a Gaelscoil and is well on his way to being fluent in Irish. He loved going to PiccoItalia and I hope he’ll be back when he overcomes this ‘resistance phase’ he’s going through with Italian. There’s been progress lately though; he’s speaking to his nonni weekly now and making efforts to speak only in Italian to them and, like your husband, I’ve been doing my best to speak too in Italian to him. I never thought though, having been averse to Irish myself at school, that I’d end up with a child who’s so immersed in that language so there is hope. Mind you, Italy being so good at soccer is a big help – in fact, if there were language programmes devised solely around following a ball and getting to score goals, he’d be fluent in several languages by now. Maybe a Cork City Italian Soccer League for children? A presto, Nicola

    • Ciao Nicola,

      Thank you so much for your answer.

      I think Fionn will come back to learning Italian. I heard of many children that refuse it for a while and afterwards they want to know more about their ‘other language’. W have a 9 year old and an 11 year old in the Gruppo Scuola who are half Italian and very eager to learn more about this language. To have Italian grandparents actively present in Fionn’s life it is also a great help and encouragement!

      I think that your idea of a Cork Italian soccer team it’s great! I never thought about it and I wouldn’t have the skills, but I am sure that we could find a volunteer among the Italian fathers.

      Salutami Fionn e grazie mille ancora ed in bocca al lupo.

  2. Grazie Carolina, the article is very interesting. Our little Livia is almost two and has started forming some sentences – so far they are all in English but that is to be expected as it language she hears the most. At this stage her mission is to learn how to communicate by any means possible so she is enthusiastic to learn new words in either language. It’s amazing that she has begun to differentiate between English and Italian eg asking for “acqua” at PiccolItalia and “water” when she is at home. I am hoping that she will eventually respond in Italian only when it is spoken to her. Your article has made me aware that as the English mother-tongue speaker I need to set the example by making a greater effort to speak Italian in Italy or on the phone to the Nonni.
    So far the bilingual experience has been a lot of fun. On the last trip to Italy in November she asked her Nonno in a very loud voice “è buono??” at the dinner table while he was eating his food! She picked up the main phrases of her Nonna almost immediately. My worry is that when she gets older and enters the school system she will not have an interest in learning Italian grammar and spelling. I know that she will speak the language when she needs to but that is not the same as formal education. It would be great if she could learn Italian in school!

    • Ciao Rowena,

      Sorry for my late response, but I’ve read your comment only now (I don’t know why, comments on my website are not visible to me and I’ve to fix it).

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience with me. It’s great to see your child speaking two languages and people around are always so impressed to see them to switch language so fast and so naturally! We’re in Italy at the moment and Kevin’s Italian is very very good. He started going to the creche this year (14 hours a week), but he didn’t lose his Italian at all… He tries to speak English to me sometimes, but I always say that I don’t understand and actually I don’t even try to understand him (after all my work I’m not going to give in now!). Joady is also reminding him to speak Italian to mamma when he speaks English. I am sure it will get more difficult when he goes to school, so I will work harder! I will keep you updated and I am sure that having strong connections with the Italian nonni is also a great encouragement for Livia and playing in Italian with other children it’s also great. Let’s keep in touch and I’ll let you know if I have more tricks.

      Buone vacanze a tutti voi e ci vediamo presto!

    • Ps: I forgot to tell you that we’re reading in Piccolitalia with a older group of children! The parents are very happy and they’d like to have 2 hours instead of one next semester… It’s too early for Livia as it is for Kevin, but it looks promising!


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