Our child's teacher told us to stop speaking a family language – what to do?

Question

Dear Rita,

Our family is an international family, I’m from Hungary, my husband is from Italy. My son was born in the USA, and our two girls were born in Germany, but we have moved a lot. My son is nine, he speaks Hungarian (not fluent), Italian (let’s say very well but not perfect), as we now live in Germany he is learning German, and he is going to the international school, so he is picking up English, too. His teacher recommended to stop to teaching him Hungarian and focus on his Italian, because none of the languages is perfect. So what do you think would it be better – to give up my language???

Best regards,
Linda

Answer

Dear Linda.

Thank you for your question, which was posted as a comment to one of my posts. To give maximum visibility to the questions we answer all of them here through the Q&A’s where they also can be easily found later.

You do not mention which languages you speak in the family, but my presumption is that you speak Hungarian with your children and your husband speaks Italian. It would also be useful to know which language you speak when you are all together, so again, I will have to go with the presumption that your family language is Italian, as your son is more fluent in it than in your language, which is Hungarian. (Please correct me if I am wrong, and I will follow up with an extended answer.)

It never stops to surprise me how many parents still get the advice to drop one language to improve another. Yes, your son is learning two additional languages, but giving up Hungarian, which I presume you have spoken with him since he was born, is not the right solution to improving his Italian. It is like asking someone to stop playing guitar so they can learn to play piano quicker. Dropping Hungarian would also potentially have a negative impact on the relationship between the two of you, depending on how you feel about speaking Italian with your son. (Judging by the amount of question marks you use, I have the feeling that this is not your preferred option.)

Also, I would like to know what you define as ‘not perfect Italian’ – has your son been assessed by an Italian-speaking speech and language therapist? How does your son feel about his languages – is he comfortable in speaking Italian with someone outside the family? If you find that he is struggling in all of his languages, then I would recommend that you look to get a speech and language assessment done – this will show whether there are any further steps you need to take to support him. The assessment should be done in his strongest language, Italian, and the therapist should be an Italian-speaker who is also used to dealing with bilingual children. (The ideal therapist would be someone who can speak all of your son’s languages, but this may be too big an ask.) I understand that this may not be easy to arrange as you live in Germany, but if you feel strongly about it, maybe you could try to find someone in Italy who could help with this?

Independent of what the outcome of a possible assessment is, dropping Hungarian is not the solution. There is no research to support that stopping speaking one language would strengthen the learning of another. Instead look for other ways of supporting both your son’s home languages, Italian and Hungarian: find books that he likes in each of the languages and engage him in conversations as much as possible. Is it possible for you to travel to Italy and/or Hungary during the holidays? Trips to a place where a child’s languages are spoken are always highly effective languages boosters. Arrange online calls with monolingual (Italian or Hungarian) friends and relatives to frequently give him opportunities to use his languages with other people.

Please let me know how you get on and comment with any further information you have and I will follow up on your query.

All the best to you and your family!

Kind regards
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages. Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin