As a linguist, I am sensitive to language prejudice in all its forms: sexism (“bachelor”/“scapolo” for unmarried men, “spinster”/“zitella”) for unmarried women); judging speakers based on regional accents (an Oklahoman accent heard in San Francisco, or a Neapolitan accent heard in Milan); labelling people “uneducated” based on the use of dialect (read “substandard English” for the US) in formal situations. There are also a number of common misconceptions regarding raising children in a bilingual environment. These attitudes come from ignorance and the fear that results from it, and are typically expressed as follows (my comments based on personal experience raising two children in an Italian/English environment follow in italics).
1. If the language you speak to a child at home is not that of the community you live in, the child will not understand anyone outside the home. Children will learn the language of the community automatically because they are not living in isolation. They are constantly interacting with members of the community. The real concern is that they need to learn the second language, which will not happen automatically.
2. Expecting children to learn two languages simultaneously will confuse them and they won’t learn either one well. Studies I am aware of have shown that children can learn even ten languages simultaneously and will distinguish them appropriately according to person and context. No one knows how many languages can be learned at the same time because there are no known environments that are not artificial where more than ten are spoken. My children learned both English and Italian equally well, although the process for learning the second language must include teaching reading as well in order to continue developing complex grammar structures and vocabulary beyond daily conversational needs.
3. Children who have to learn two languages at the same time will take much longer to begin speaking because they need to accumulate twice the information. It’s common for boys to take a little longer to begin speaking than girls. My son developed language skills differently than my daughter in more ways than one, but began speaking both languages at the same time as other children his age started speaking the dominant language, Italian.
4. Children who learn two languages at the same time will never learn to separate them. This was not true in the case of my children. My daughter also taught me that languages can be separated in the brain before a child can speak.
5. The best time to teach a child another language is when they are older and have already gained competency in their native language. This would waste extremely precious learning capacities that are lost as we get older, and would therefore increase the risk that the second language be learned as a foreign rather than a native language.
I raised two children, a boy and a girl, in a bilingual setting in Bergamo, Italy. This decision required serious commitment and constant effort, as well as living with all the above prejudices.
I knew a few other Americans who had children about the same age as mine. They liked the concept of bilingualism, but none had children who were truly bilingual. Their children understood English relatively well, but responded either in Italian or in English mixed with Italian, and had marked Italian accents when speaking English. The challenge of making children bilingual is complex, but not impossibly so. In order to give a child a solid linguistic model, you cannot allow yourself to slip into patterns that you would not want the child to imitate. Here are a few suggestions to keep your patterning consistent:
1. Be consistent in speaking one language at a time. Make sure you don’t mix any Italian in your English speech and vice-versa.
2. Expect children to respond in the language in which they were addressed. Help them articulate answers, giving very young children complete sentences to choose from if they aren’t yet linguistic.
3. Be consistent in using the second language during certain routine activities, places and times of day. I consider it advisable to speak the second language to children even when in public. I would only speak to my children in Italian when we were in someone’s home where no one understood English. One family I met recently was using two foreign languages in the home (the mother is Bulgarian, the father is Lebanese). They designated rooms in the house where only one of the three languages their children were learning would be used, taking the pressure off the parents to assume the role of “language police.”
4. It is very important to use the second language consistently with children in the home. We all associate faces with a specific language, and it is very difficult to switch languages at will once that association has been made.
Also, word games are very important. One of the first games I played with my son went like this:
Me: I say CAT (or BED or TREE)
Daniele: And I say BAT (or HEAD or FREE).
Cartoons, movies and computer games in English can be very useful depending on your child’s personality. If you have a child who, like my son, is captivated by TV and computer screens, you may want to limit exposure even though these are powerful language tools. His attraction was so intense that we only let the kids watch TV on Sunday. When we tried to extend the times, we ended up with behavior problems. (I can easily see why he now loves his job as an air traffic controller. He works constantly with computer screens.)
WHEN TO START USING THE OTHER LANGUAGE:
Ideally, mothers should start when they’re pregnant. There is no research that documents pre-natal language acquisition, but unborn children obviously respond to external noises. Classical music is played for its soothing effect (in fact, it’s also used in milking barns because cows let down their milk more readily and abundantly when they are relaxed); unborn babies jump at loud sounds; newborns of many species are lulled to sleep by sounds that are rhythmical and continuous, presumably because they remind the infant of the mother’s heartbeat (ticking clocks are used successfully with smaller animals); children born into environments where people speak loudly and are not careful about being noisy sleep soundly even if vacuum cleaners are running. (Yes, I’ve heard of exceptions, but this is a general concept to make people aware of how they are sometimes responsible for babies who wake at the slightest noise.)
Rhythm, volume and tone are present the entire time the fetus is developing. In addition to sound, the fetus is also experiencing the mother’s emotional/chemical reactions, many of which are associated with sound, and therefore is exposed to physical responses linked to sound. There is no question that the newborn has had ample time while in the womb to develop quite a feeling for the world of sound. How much of this is a determining factor in the child’s language development is unknown, but at the very least parents will benefit from having already disciplined themselves to use the language(s) they wish to teach the child by the time the he/she is born.
DIALECT / REGIONAL SPEECH
My mother-in-law was from Acireale in Sicily. Her mother lived with her, and they spoke Sicilian at home. When my son was born, I begged them to speak to him in dialect, but they refused. They didn’t want him to have any of the stigma they had had to deal with because they were southerners. In addition, the majority of Italians I know associate dialect lack of education. I couldn’t fight these prejudices, and as a result my children don’t understand Sicilian. I think this is a great loss for both sides. They now understand a reasonable amount of the dialect from Bergamo, thanks exclusively to their friends who use it, switching with the ease of the bilingual from Italian to dialect at appropriate times. (I’ve always been amazed by the fact that Italians don’t consider knowledge of their local dialect bilingualism. For anyone reading who isn’t familiar with the incredible linguisitic richness in Italy, Bergamo’s dialect is commonly considered among the top “most impossible to understand,” on a par with “it’s Greek to me,” even by people born and bred in Bergamo who only speak Italian.)
THE COMMITMENT (AND THE DIFFICULT MOMENTS)
At times of stress, usually when tired or angry, it was very difficult to continue using English in a predominantly Italian environment. My son would use English as long as he was rested and content. When he was under emotional stress or when he was tired, he would revert back to Italian. I saw adults do the same thing.
This problem took care of itself just before my son’s 6th birthday, when we brought him to California for the first time. This is when he realized that there was a whole other world that spoke English, including cousins that were his age. From that moment on he never again spoke Italian to me. He could even be engrossed in a game with Italian friends, look up and see me coming, say “Hi, Mommy,” and return to his game in Italian. This was incredibly helpful in the linguistic patterning of my daughter, who was exactly four years younger. By the time she was putting together whole sentences, Daniele was speaking English at all times in the house. She imitated him, and our efforts were over.
BOYS VS. GIRLS
I found my children’s language development to be endlessly fascinating. There were distinct differences in their progress, which I can only assume can be attributed (at least in part) to the fact that boys develop differently from girls. Here are some of the differences I saw:
Initially, my son mixed the two languages. His first sentence with a verb, however, was entirely in Italian. It was: “One uto giù” (“È caduto il sapone” / The soap fell). He would say things like: “Ho bumpato la testa” (I bumped my head),” or “La mia pistola non ha le bullottole” (My gun doesn’t have any bullets). Sometimes this caused a bit of consternation, like the time he told his Italian grandmother: “Nonna, guarda che bel dog” (Grandma, look what a cool dog).
My daughter, on the other hand, almost never mixed the two languages from the earliest moments of speech. Since English was more strongly patterned at home, she had a few minor occurrences of transference, like: “Sono paura./Sono fame./Sono due.” (I’m afraid./I’m hungry./I’m two.”) I noticed an exceptional difference however, when her language competency was at a single word level. If I asked her a question in English, she would say “Yes.” If I asked her a question in Italian, she would say “Sì.” This was consistently true, and I realized that she had already separated the two languages completely prior to speaking.
When you start paying attention to language development in a child, you start to see interesting and unexpected aspects of individual brain wiring. Once I was coming home from a trip to the supermarket with my daughter, who was three, when I ran into a neighbor woman and started chatting. My daughter waited patiently, but at a certain point, she tugged at my hand and said: “Andiamo” (let’s go). I kept chatting. Then she tried English: “Let’s go.” When that got no results, she finally resorted to: “Dom, Mami!” (“Let’s go” in dialect.) I had never heard her use any dialect at all. When he was five, my son was sitting on his bed reading an animal encyclopedia in Italian. He also had on a head set and was listening to music. I noticed he was singing under his breath and asked him what he was listening to. “The Beatles,” he said. I was floored. He was singing along to the music in English while reading in Italian. I had to ask him to tell me what he had just read to make sure he was actually taking it in, but sure enough, he could tell me all the details of what he was reading.
Language is an endlessly fascinating world, and children are sponges. The more exposure they have to languages, the more complex neurological paths are forged in their brains. I began teaching them to read English when they were three and four, a process that took me over a year each. It was the first time they were learning “scholastic” material, and the rewards were not only enormous satisfaction for them (and me), but gave them a great advantage when they started school. I also had them write letters, beginning with any message they wanted that they would dictate to me. I then wrote the letter out and they would copy it over, usually adding a picture.
Today my kids live in California, but still speak to each other exclusively in Italian. They understand what an incredible gift another language is.