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Aug 272015
 

Question

Hello,

I am so glad I found this website, I just realized I did a big disservice to my kids. I am Italian, live in the States, my husband is American, both of our kids were born and raised here, I have lived here for 12 years now.

In the beginning I was speaking Italian to my first son, now 11, but slowly but surely I dropped Italian and only spoke English (I am not sure why, I feel like I didn’t want to have an accent and possibly was little disappointed with my country). Now my older son is in Italy with my parents for the summer and I realize the mistake I have made in not keeping up with Italian! My parents can’t communicate with my kids!

Even though now he is picking it up and working really hard to learn as much as he can. My youngest one is 6 and I have, for the past 3 weeks, switched to speaking only or almost only Italian at home and sometimes when we are out and about. He doesn’t seem to mind and have asked me how to say things in Italian, it looks like I might be still in time to teach them my language and hopefully my culture (which I have in a way, I am a chef and food is always a great way to pass on a culture).

What I am wondering is if my approach is correct? What I am doing is, speaking mostly Italian, but since he doesn’t know nearly enough words to understand a full or complicated sentence, I say it in Italian, try again, then explain in English and repeat in Italian a couple of times, is this a good efficient way to proceed?

Reading your site, I have finally realized that if my parents were bilingual and didn’t teach me the second language, I would be furious at them now, I don’t want my kids to feel the same, or my parents to be so upset (at me of course) because their only grandkids, can’t speak their language.

Thank you so much
Hopeful mum

Answer

Hi Hopeful Mum!

Thank you for submitting your question to the Multilingual Parenting family language coaching team. You are right to be hopeful! I can tell you from personal experience that it is not too late for your children to learn Italian. I did not learn English until I was 13 years old so I promise you, it can be done.

I can tell that you already have a huge advantage on your side, and that is that both of your children seem interested in learning the language so that alone can go a long way. Just because they are older does not mean that they will not be able to pick it up. In fact, in some cases, they will have an advantage because they will already have an entire language system, English, that they can use to reference when their Italian.

I like the approach you are currently using especially since your children seem to be taking to it. By speaking to them in Italian, you are slowly increasing the amount of rich vocabulary that is presented to them on a daily basis. Yet you are also pausing to explain what you are saying and providing them with context in English. Also by regularly speaking to them, you are modeling the intonation and pronunciation of the language (even if they are not able to imitate it just yet).

Last but certainly not least, by speaking to them in full sentences you are also modeling the Italian grammatical structure. I have talked about the six principles that foster language development and one very important one is that vocabulary and language are learned together.

Overall, I would say your current approach seems like a good way for you to start. Just make sure to monitor how they are feeling about this shift in your family language policy. Since they are older, check in with them from time to time and make sure that they are still comfortable.

Now let’s talk about some additional things that you can do to support their language learning journey. The first thing I would advise is to develop some language goals for each of your boys. The more aggressive those goals are the harder you will have to work to achieve them. However, this is an important step because it will help guide you in future decisions.

In reading through the Multilingual Parenting blog, you may have come across the two key ingredients to learning a language, providing plenty of exposure and creating a need to use the language. You can find a list of ideas on how to create exposure to Italian here but let me give you some additional ideas for older children:

Incorporate vocabulary that is relevant to your boys. They are going to learn the language differently than they would if they were babies so make it appealing it to them. Try to incorporate words in your conversations that they will be able to actually use when they try to communicate.

Leverage technology. If your children watch TV, for example, identify some shows that children their age are watching in Italy. They will be age appropriate and they will also have vocabulary that is relevant to what they find interesting (like mentioned above).

Enroll them in a language class. It is great that they are getting to hear you speak Italian but enlisting the help of a professional may also be beneficial. If you are not able to find them a class or an instructor in your community, no problem. We live in the digital age and you can find one-on-one classes online through tools like Skype or you can go the more traditional route and use a language software. (I am personally a fan of Fluenz).

Find a penpal. This tip may be more practical for your older son, however, do not underestimate the power of writing. Your son may not yet have a lot of vocabulary and the idea of writing a letter in Italian may seem daunting, but you can start out with really simple sentences. This is something you can work on together in the beginning. As he gets more comfortable and has more vocabulary, he can start doing it on his own. Now as far as finding a penpal, you may not have to look too hard. Your own parents may love the opportunity.

Live the language! You mention that you are a chef so cook together while practicing your Italian. Write down some recipes in Italian and make them together. There is lots of vocabulary you can include like ingredients, action verbs, numbers, etc. These types of experiences will allow your children to associate Italian with having a good time.

Leverage your family members. Your family in Italy will surely love the fact that you are committed to them learning their own language. Be up front with them about your goals and think of ways that they can help you along the way. They will likely be your greatest allies.

That should give you a good idea of the types of things you can do to increase the exposure. Just remember that you will also have to find a way for them to feel the need to use the language.

I wish you the best of luck, keep the momentum going and remember that your own enthusiasm will matter too!

Marianna

Marianna’s answer is now also available as a podcast on Bilingual Avenue!

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  2 Responses to “Q&A: Is it too late to teach my children my native language?”

  1. Marianna,

    Your answers give me hope. I have felt so defeated after realizing that neither of my kids knew my mother language and my parents were so disappointed, it felt like an impossible task to tackle.
    I will follow your suggestions and read more articles, nestled in this wonderful blog!!
    I have purchase couple of Italian children books, and to my surprise my oldest one read (a small book of course) it almost without hiccups. My youngest, now uses almost exclusively Italian words for few things he needs or wants, like I am hungry, I am tired, how do you say that in Italian (in Italian) and few other things, that fill my heart with a warm fuzzy feeling :-P.
    Thank you so much for taking the time to write this answer and for the support and help you constantly provide to parents like me around the world!!

    Most grateful

    Vanessa

  2. Vanessa,

    I am glad that you are keeping the momentum going! It sounds like your children continue to show interest in Italian. Keep it up! It will not always be easy but it will certainly be worth the extra effort!

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