Question

I’m American, my husband is Italian and we have been living in Italy. My husband and I speak each others’ language and our conversations flow between Italian and English. We have used the one parent, one language approach to help our three-year-old son become bilingual. He’s doing wonderfully and we are happy and impressed by his level in both languages.

In the next few weeks we’ll be moving permanently to the US where I know his exposure to English will far outweigh that of his Italian. My question is should we continue the OPOL approach or, since he’ll be exposed to English with my extended family and eventually at school, should we speak the minority language at home? I think it would feel strange for me to speak to him in Italian since I’ve been so diligent with English but it is important to us for him to continue to grow in both languages. What do you suggest?

Thank you!
Cherrye

Answer

Dear Cherrye,

Thank you very much for your question. I’m really glad to hear that the bilingual upbringing of your son is going well so far! You don’t mention if you were the only one talking English to him in Italy, and if he attended a local daycare? I’m asking this to have a clearer picture about the extent his language input and the whole situation is going to change in the next months. You mention that “his exposure to English will far outweigh that of his Italian” once you’re in the US. Will your husband be the only person talking Italian to him on a regular basis?

In order to maintain your son’s Italian, it would be necessary for him to talk Italian regularly with more than one person. I would suggest that you look out for Italian playgroups, Italian peers, families or opportunities for him to meet other Italians. If there are none, you can provide exposure via DVDs, CDs, books, Skype-sessions with your Italian family and friends, and regular “full immersion” visits to Italy.

You say that you feel strange to talk Italian to your son and I understand that you would only consider doing so to help him stay balanced in both languages, Italian and English. I would ask you to consider a few aspects: Do you think that you would feel comfortable to talk Italian to him also when your family and friends are with you? What would a family dinner look like? Would you feel comfortable to sing Italian songs to him or to read Italian books to him? Would you feel comfortable talking Italian to him consistently and translate to your family (if necessary)? A total switch from English to Italian could be confusing for your son. If you don’t feel comfortable with a drastic change but want to support your husband with teaching Italian to your son, there is another option.

You mention that the conversations with your husband “flow between Italian and English”. What if you would focus on Italian while you’re all together? Especially if you notice or fear that your son’s Italian could decrease in a mainly monolingual context, choosing Italian as your family language occasionally, i.e. in the weekends and holidays, may be a strategy to consider. You would then have a language agreement with your son and husband, that during those days you would only talk Italian to each other.

You say that your son will be talking English with your extended family: is there anyone who talks Italian or another language a part from English? I ask this in order to understand if he will have some support and examples in growing up bilingually. Even if others don’t share Italian but other foreign languages, he’ll learn to valorize minority languages and other cultures in general. He will not feel like an outsider in a more multicultural and multilingual context. What you surely want to avoid is that he stops talking Italian. Please remember that you can choose your very personal language plan according to your needs.

I wish you good luck and I would really like to know what is working for you and your family. – Per intanto vi auguro in bocca al lupo per il vostro trasloco.

With very kind regards,
Ute

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