I am delighted to introduce you to another multilingual family: Giovanna’s lovely family from Luxembourg. Giovanna is Italian by birth and her husband is Flemish (Belgian from the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium). They have two children (nine and ten years old) who were born in Luxembourg and are growing up as balanced bilinguals in Dutch and Italian.
Italian and Dutch at home
French and later English as foreign languages for the children in their Dutch-speaking school. German, French and Luxembourgish are spoken in the community.
Giovanna is the author of Guanti Bianchi: Racconti dedicati a tutti i bilingui nell’anima, a collection of beautifully written stories on being bilingual and bicultural (in Italian).
What is your family language strategy – who speaks what language with whom? If you have a strategy, why did you choose it?
When we were expecting our first child, I started looking for information about early language learning and bilingualism and I got fascinated by the subject. My background of linguistics studies has also been of great support to go deeper in the topic so my husband and I decided that the most suitable approach for us, considering the linguistic situation in Luxembourg, was the OPOL. We have always been very consistent with our choice and we both strictly stick to our main language when speaking to the children.
We read a lot with them and made sure that books and DVDs were constantly available in both languages and we still do so. From the very beginning both children respected this language distribution and even between them the children automatically speak Italian when I’m present at home and Dutch when their father is at home. In any case they never switch or mix.
Why did you decide to raise your children to become bilingual?
From the very beginning, as I said, already before their birth. And my husband and I learned each other languages (Italian and Dutch). Now we preferably speak Italian with each other, but when we met we were switching between English and German. Now when we are all together each one of us tend to speak his or her own main language or my husband and I Italian. Nevertheless, the communication between the children and father remains in Dutch!
What do you think is the biggest advantage your children have of being bilingual?
I could mention obvious aspects like ‘openness to other cultures’ or ‘advanced communication skills’, but the real big advantage I see in my children is their double identity. They belong to two different cultures, they understand not only two languages but also two social codes, two behavioural systems, they have two cultural backgrounds, with all that this implies in terms of traditions, habits, ways of thinking.
What has been your biggest challenge when raising a bilingual kid? Has everything gone as planned?
Of course not! As everything in life, our family language plan also had to be adapted step by step, taking into account children’s skills, preferences, characters and unexpected ‘surprises’, too. The biggest challenge for me has been to realize that sometimes different cultures may feature contradictory values.
I’ll give you a simple example: You know how Italians attach importance to food, for us it’s a real philosophy, a way of living, the base of our reach social life. And you know how Italian mothers are caring and protective with their children. Well, imagine what happens when you have to let your 4-year-old child go to a playdate in a home where you have never been before! You are not invited to stay, so you try to throw an eye inside while you are standing at the front door to check for possible dangers in the house, then you sit in the car outside the door, ready to jump out in case your telephone rings and, when you finally pick up your child, you hear that he/she had a … croissant for lunch!
This also happens in other more difficult situations than food, of course, if for example the other culture’s values are offensive in light of your own culture. Not easy to explain to a child that part of his/her identity is struggling with the other part!
Anything you would do differently at this stage?
There’s always space for improvement, of course, though I’m quite satisfied of the results so far. Italian being their minority language, I’ve always looked for opportunities for them to get in contact with other Italian-speaking children, either Italians or bilinguals like them.
For this reason, I’ve founded a complementary school here in Luxembourg to assure the maintenance of their roots: Italo Bimbi. Having taken over the presidency of the Luxembourgish branch of the Società Dante Alighieri I also make sure to offer activities for children in Italian (choir, art courses etc).
We travel as often as we can to Belgium and Italy. One thing I would have liked to do differently is to give the opportunity to the children to attend secondary school in Italian (having been in the Dutch-speaking section of the European school in the primary), but my husband considered it to be a too big change, so we dropped the idea.
What are your family’s plans for the future with regards to languages?
Keep going, never give up and be flexible!
What is your best advice to other multilingual families raising bilingual children?
Decide for a family language plan, stick to it and work hard. Bilingualism is a big gift for the whole family but you have to set clear targets in order to decide what you want to achieve. If you decide that it’s enough for your children to speak more than one language, but you don’t attach too much importance to writing, to culture etc, then you know that your efforts can follow a certain pattern.
On the other hand, if you decide to go deeper in each language with writing, cultural background and so on, then your challenge will be bigger, but you’ll probably have to accept that you cannot expect your children to have the same level in several languages. It is a question of choice.
Do you have a funny language related story to tell from your family?
I recently published a narrative book featuring short stories (in Italian) about bilingualism and biculturalism. I held my first presentation of the book last March in Luxembourg and my family was present. Participants showed great interest for the subject and asked many questions. When we finally got home, my son (10) declared a bit annoyed: “Mum, I haven’t understood anything of what was said today and, by the way, what is there to tell about bilingualism? It’s so easy!”
Anything else you would like to add?
I would like to say a big thank you to Professor François Grosjean whom I consider my ‘spiritual guide’ throughout bilingualism.
Thank you, Giovanna, for telling us about your family, your interesting book and your fantastic complementary Italian school initiative, which will help many more parents in Luxembourg.
Would you like your family to be featured in this series? Please contact me!
May the peace and power be with you.
© Rita Rosenback 2017
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