Great website – thank you for taking the time to do this!
We have two kids raised from birth bilingual in Italian and English. BUT dad speaks only one of the languages (English) and we’re living in the US where foreign languages are fairly non-existent at elementary school.
Kids talk among themselves in English and mom talks in Italian. Summer camps in Italy every year so they are forced to speak while doing something fun. But am still struggling with our 10-year-old son especially who is refusing to speak to me if he has to do it in Italian.
I speak seven languages and learned them some from birth, some as a teen and some at university. I am deeply experienced in bilingualism and understanding how he feels. The problem is that his vocabulary is better in English and as his ability to express his feelings lags in Italian, it’s an uphill battle and it is becoming “mom is annoying”.
It’s easy when they are small, and it’s easy when both parents speak the minority language (let’s say my husband also spoke Italian and that was the home language, as it was for me with two Italian parents growing up in an English-speaking country) … but how do we effectively continue when asking the kid to repeat in the minority language leads to “then I just won’t talk” or “will only talk to dad”.
Thank you for your question and for your lovely feedback! I hear your frustration! Having a reluctant 10-year old minority speaker serves up a totally different challenge than trying to get a smaller child to be excited about your language.
Most articles on bilingual children do focus on younger children – in my post 40 ways to motivate your children to speak the minority language I have listed options for different age groups, so you may find some ideas there.
You have identified the issue as a lack in vocabulary – i.e. he is unable to find the right words when he tries to express himself in Italian, thus prefers English. The obvious next question is, how can you help him expand his knowledge of Italian words and phrases? Without knowing your son’s personality and interests in more detail, I can only give some general suggestions on how to go about this, but I hope you find them helpful.
Does he like to read? If yes, then books are a great way to expand the vocabulary. However, comics and quality youth magazines should not be forgotten. What about good TV programs in Italian – could you find one that he likes to watch? You could then speak about what happens in the episodes to further consolidate any new words and phrases.
Is he normally a fast speaker and generally very active? If yes, i.e. patience is not one of his prominent personality traits, then this might add to his frustration when he does not find the right word quickly enough. To counteract this, I would recommend that you consciously start speaking slower yourself to signal to him that is okay to take your time and think/find the right word. In a conversation speakers often mirror each other, so you need to take the lead on this. (I know this might not be the typical way to speak Italian, but give it a try!)
The best way to learn to speak a language is to speak it as often as possible – this is a bit of a conundrum, so independent of whether your son is the fast talker type or a calmer, more reflective person, I would try to involve him in different types of discussions whenever you can. You will know in which areas his vocabulary is strong, so concentrate on these to start with, so he feels more confident about speaking Italian. For example, talk about similar experiences to what he had during his stay on the summer camp in Italy. As he was using Italian in those situations he should find them easier to talk about.
Avoid correcting him but do offer words when he asks for them – discuss this with him so you know when to help. Tell him that it is fine not to know a word and it is okay to ask and that it would make you happy if he did so. The idea is to generally get him into talking more Italian, but without making him uncomfortable about it. Play on his interests to get him excited to speak about a topic.
I also encourage you to have a discussion with your son about how important it is for you that you have a language that you share. However, do this without making him feel guilty – you do not want to go down the route of emotional blackmail! Just express your own feelings about Italian and what it means to you – I have found that as parents we often forget to do this since it is so obvious to us.
With your own impressive language skills, you know better than most how enriching it is to be able to speak more than one language. Your son may not appreciate this right now, but he definitely will later in life, so stick to Italian and do not give up!
Wishing you a successful bilingual family journey!