Q&A: How to introduce another language to a small child with speech delay?

by | Apr 7, 2016 | Coaches, Rita R | 0 comments


Hi there,

I am the mother of a 3 and 1/2 year old son diagnosed with speech delay. With a lot of speech and language therapy practice at home he is now starting to string short sentences together finally. He is still probably about a year behind compared to his contemporaries but I am not bothered by that, he is a gorgeous and wonderfully creative little boy.

The speech and language therapist we had originally consulted advised us to stick with one language so I decided to stick with the majority language (English) as I desperately wanted him to be understood by others.
I am Italian originally but have lived in the UK for almost half my life and I would say I am probably equally fluent in both languages. I am now at a stage where I desperately want to reintroduce some Italian or else the grandparents won’t understand him. I just don’t know how to go about it. Shall I start with an hour a day, explaining to him that ‘it’s Italian time and only Italian goes’?

Many thanks in advance,

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Dear Marcella

Thank you for your question! I fully understand your decision to go with what the speech and language therapist told you to do and dropped Italian – we all do what we think is best for our children. Research has however shown that the advice you were given has no scientific grounds and that it is an outdated way of thinking, which is unfortunately taking a very long time to be rectified.

But that was then and we are now in a situation where you want to reintroduce your son to Italian – which is definitely doable! Dedicating certain times to Italian and clearly signalling that it is now “Italian time” is a good idea, but before you start with this, you need to win your son over to the introduction of Italian.

Your son is now probably used to English being THE language of communication between the two of you so you first need to make him want to use Italian. You know your son best, so you will know what he loves and what type of motivation would work best with him, but I will give some ideas on what to do make Italian attractive for him.

Use anything in Italian that he is already familiar with and is fond of. Is there a children’s rhyme or poem that he might have heard? A cartoon he has seen? Have you been listening to Italian music with him? Use anything you can and combine it with actions pointing to the things mentioned.

Introduce a new toy that “can only speak Italian” – it can be any toy, but if he is reluctant to listen to you speak Italian, then I would start with a hand puppet. Children are absolutely fine with a puppet having its own personality (and language). Give the puppet an Italian name and an Italian back story: how it has travelled to the UK, where it came from in Italy, what it likes and dislikes and so on. You can tell most of the story to your son in English and ask the puppet, in Italian, for the things you do not know. The puppet will of course answer in Italian – always turn the puppet towards your son when it answers. The natural reaction of a child is to ask for a translation from someone who understands (you). Use simple phrases – an example of a starter discussion could be:

– Tell your son (in English) that you are going to ask for the puppet’s name
– Ask the puppet for its name in Italian. Repeat the question a few times (the puppet may be distracted, so you have to ask again)
– Once the puppet has said its name, make it ask your son for his name
– If your son does not follow the question, make the puppet ask for your own name and answer (this way you are acting as the role model for answering in Italian)
– Repeat with similar other discussions, introducing simple, important words like yes and no, mummy, daddy, play, eat, sleep etc.
I used a similar approach, but with a pet, when I had to convince my 5-year-old daughter to start speaking Swedish with me: Pricken, the Swedish-speaking kitten

Remember to always show excitement and appreciation when your son shows interest in Italian – the want to learn Italian has to come from the inside of your son. The fact that you really, really want him to speak Italian has no relevance to him, it is not a concept he understands at his age. Make Italian fun, interesting and fascinating, something that he looks forward to. Fun makes sense to small kids, adults’ wants and needs do not.

Once you have your son interested in Italian and it becomes an accepted language between you and him (and maybe the puppet), then you can introduce more structure into the Italian exposure. Use Italian e.g. in the mornings, in the car, when you go out for walks or any other situation. When he gets more used to Italian, try to set up Skype calls with his grandparents in Italy. Instruct your parents in advance so they can be delighted at any progress he has made.

As you can see, it is all about motivation to start with, and when you get that right, then you can continue to gradually increase the use of Italian for example with simple books where you can point to things and give the names in Italian. Also, if you can find an Italian playgroup for him to attend, it would be fantastic. Seeing other children use Italian would be a great boost to him. Naturally, if you could spend some time in Italy, where he would be fully immersed in the language, this would be of a big help.

Arm yourself with a lot of patience and be prepared for some hard work to start with, but stick with it and you will be rewarded in the end! Wishing you the best of luck!

Kind regards

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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.


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