Has it ever happen to you to realize that you’re the only one who can pass down a specific knowledge to your kids? To feel that almost annoying responsibility on your shoulder? I’m totally neck-deep into this right now!
If this is the first time you read about me, here’s a super short recap: Italian, expat in the US, married with an American man and mom of a wonderful boy.
Because of this, I’m even too aware that the only hope for Ethan, our son, to learn the Italian language and culture lies in me, myself and I. Being bilingual is not something you can really learn in school, unless you find a highly specialized bilingual daycare. It’s a result you achieve only if you completely master both languages. And the longer you wait to start the learning process, the harder it gets. So I decided to discover how to raise bilingual kids, or at least the best way that fits my needs.
I’ve been studying English since I was 7 years old and I can say that I’m fluent (alright, stop laughing… Let’s say it’s decent at least?!), ma I certainly can’t consider myself bilingual. There are still a trillion words and nuances, even in the tone in which I’m supposed to express a sentence, that still don’t come 100% natural to me. The complete knowledge of a language spreads its roots also in the culture, including sayings and many more aspects that only a person raised in that environment since very little, can understand.
Indeed, what worries me the most is that our little half-blood (any mention to Harry Potter is purely wanted) lives exclusively in an English speaking environment. As mentioned above, my husband is American and we live in the US. So basically I’m the only source of Italian he can draw from. But I’m determined to figure out how to raise bilingual kids using all the resources I can find.
Will he actually be bilingual?
I have to say that I feel a huge responsibility because it’s not always easy to speak to him exclusively in Italian, especially in front of his dad who knows only very few but very refined bad words and then the classics “Grazie” (Thank you), “Prego” (you’re welcome) and “Buon appetito” (enjoy your meal). He clearly knows how to insult you, but politely. I’d say we covered the basics, right? 😉
Ethan is now 19 months old and he says very few words, almost exclusively in English. The only Italian words he has said so far, besides mama which is clearly international, are “pappa” (childish way to say food– he’s definitely half Italian) and “nonno” (grand-pa) during a video-call with my dad, surprising us all. I can tell he’s trying, but he’s quiet behind his age average.
I’m not excessively worried about this “delay”. It’s considered normal for bilingual kids to postpone the approach to a spoken language. In their mind they understand everything you say in both languages (and it’s Ethan’s case too), but they can be confused on how to express themselves. My son hears me speaking in a way, then hears his dad and everyone else he interacts with in another way, and them me again in English when in presence of other people. I’d be confused too!! But despite this, it’s also known that the ability of a bilingual kid to catch up is very high. Which means that he’ll probably start talking later, but also end up with a talkative explosion and the only way to stop him will be to push the off button or knock him out with a rubber duck or something 🙂
So how to raise bilingual kids..
… When the discrepancy is so clear? Well, I did my research: I asked around (to other moms in a similar situation), I read about a trillion articles about the topic and I concluded that there’s still hope 🙂
Get ready because there’s plenty of methods that can be used!!
Resources and methods
Let’s see what I was able to find and fit in my son’s schedule:
1. Speak the language as much as possible.
Obviously this is #1 method of all. But the real trick lies in putting as much effort as possible in using your language with her even if front of people who don’t speak that language. It might feel weird at the beginning, but it’s important that she understands that that’s the only way to communicate with mama. Otherwise she’ll always tend to use the common language in order to not exclude anyone from the conversation (that was my biggest mistake) or to avoid to repeat herself (my greatest laziness there!). I felt I was being rude to people, but I actually found that people are more encouraging than ever when it comes about this.
2. Don’t be afraid of using screen time (in small doses)
This is cartoon time. Unfortunately I couldn’t bring my Disney DVD collection with me from Italy. I know you’re thinking that DVD exist in the US as well, but Italian (and many other languages) are not included in the options, while DVD purchased in Italy have multiple options, including English.
Luckily Ethan is still very little, so we’ll have time to bring them back from our next trip to Italy. By then, he’ll be old enough to watch Disney movies.
For now, cartoons about animals, colors, words, etc are more than enough. And for this, there’s a great invention called Youtube 🙂
Use it as much as you can without abusing. Meaning that it’s never a good idea to put your little one in front of a screen 6 hours a day, but that you can use it as an educational resources instead of a pure distraction.
For example, mornings for me are when I struggle the most. I need to shower and get ready to go to work while he’s already active and wants to be with me all the time. So while I do all my things, I let him watch 30 minutes of Italian cartoons on Youtube. That’s what I call a win-win situation. Choose the channel that teaches fundamental words and that catches his interest and you’re good to go.
3. Buy books and fairy tales online
Amazon is probably the best way to go to find books in your mother tongue or bilingual, but there are also many other websites that you can navigate. It’s never too early to start reading stories to your little monkeys. They looooove listening to your voice, learn new things, looking at pictures.
I started reading goodnight stories to Ethan when he was few days old. Then I found a collection of bilingual Grimm’s stories and I immediately bought them all! The ideal would be for me to read only in Italian and my husband only in English, but Ethan developed his own preference and he chooses the stories. So sometimes I have to read his favorite story (which is obviously in English), but it’s ok.
With this though, you also cover the bedtime routine.
4. Involve other people
Another huge difference comes by involving as many people as you can. I don’t have any Italian friend here (they all moved away). Luckily though, we live in a century where communicating overseas is not a huge deal anymore. Video-calls with my parents are easier now rather than 10 years ago. There are several options and I’ll cover them specifically in another article, but my favorite is a phone app known more in Europe than the US called Whatsapp. I prefer this one above the others because it’s easier to handle while you’re also trying to avoid that your kid stabs himself in the eye with the fork. I mostly like to call my relatives in Italy when Gozer the destroyer (that’s another nickname for my son) is on his highchair during breakfast or lunch and he’s not too distracted by his toys. Eating and communicating at the same time may not be the best way to go sometimes, but for Italians, having a conversation while sitting around the table is good manners too. So he needs to get used to a healthy conversation while eating.
Besides what can be considered a personal preference on this matter, involving more people helps in many ways. Think about all the positive response my son received when he nailed that “nonno” while talking to him. It was like a New Year’s party with fireworks and all! 🙂 My son was so happy to get all the attention and compliments that I’m sure this was just the beginning.
5. Travel to your birth Country
How to raise bilingual kids if not partially raise them in both Countries? If you can, go back to your Country as many times you can and make sure to bring your kid with you! We don’t want a Home Alone kinda situation right? But I’m sure that, if Macaulay Culkin knew a second language, he would have kicked the ugly thieves butts even faster! 😉
Raising bilingual kids is a long term process, it actually never really ends right? So if you, like me, don’t have many chances to travel back, you still have plenty of times to make it happen in the future. That’s for sure the best way to dive in the culture, not just the language. Also, she’ll be forced to speak if she wants to interact with her cousins and relatives.
6. Pen pals are best pals
When she’ll be grown enough to start approaching writing, it’d be a great idea to initiate a correspondence with a kid of about his age, whether it’s a cousin or one of your friends’ son/daughter. That will give to both of them the chance to use the minority language and improve it. This way they’re both learning, while deepening their relationship.
I’d suggest to go the old way: with pen and paper. Not that texting wouldn’t be another possible resource. It’s a matter of structure. Writing a letter with full sentences and with the purpose to write for longer than 3 seconds, is indeed very different and forces the development of an incredible number of skills. You’d be surprised. So paper, or emails at least. Leave the texting for later if you can.
Also writing, helps memorizing which is always a good thing when it comes about improving language skills.
7. Teach your language to your spouse too
If your spouse doesn’t speak your language, like in my case, it’d be a good idea to involve him in the learning process. For example, the fact that my husband Scott knows how to insult people in Italian will probably come handy during Ethan’s teenage, but for now it’s better to update him on a more appropriate language. It’s not necessary for your spouse to master the language, only to get to the point in which he can understand enough to not feel left out from the conversation. This will make your kid’s life easier in terms of expressing herself the way she prefers.
8. Don’t force it
During my research I found a lot of discrepancies concerning what the pros and cons are and how to raise bilingual kids. I’m not here to tell you to use a method instead of another or to use them all. I’m here to say that, if you want, there’s plenty of resources.
If you, like me, think that it’d be a great gift to pass down to your kids, then you’ll know how to raise bilingual kids better than anyone else. Things come through try outs and experience and based on your little one’s response.
All the cons I could find are either urban legends not supported by any scientific proof, or very small or temporary issues that most likely disappear in time. While the pros are infinitely greater.
Clearly, if all my attempts won’t work, I will never force it and I wouldn’t suggest you to do it either. Kids learn better when their natural curiosity is stimulated, not forced. I’ll still be a happy and proud mom of a half-blood either way. But I definitely don’t want to neglect this opportunity to him out of laziness or lack of knowledge.
No pressure, one step at the time and, most importantly, it must be fun!
Considering that the chances that my son will learn magic and to clean the house just rattling his magic wand around are very low, I’d say that being bilingual is probably the closest thing he can achieve. 😉
All I can do is try to pass down the love for languages and cultures. I’d like him to grow in a non-barrier kind of mentality and it’s well known that, once you learn a second language, the third and fourth will come even easier. Not to mention the respect for different cultures and diversity.
It’s worth to try to figure out how to raise bilingual kids, if anything for the doors that will open wide in front of them.
Am I a day-dreamer? Maybe. But I won’t let the lack of willpower to stop me. Are you with me on this? Let’s see if time and consistency will pay back!
And you? Have you figured other ways or resources that might help other mamas in the same situation? Let me know in the comment box below! 🙂
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