This topic is the foundation of what Mammaprada is all about. We don't profess to be experts, we are simply parents hoping to pass on the best of our dual heritage to our children and to give them, in our eyes the benefit of two languages from birth.
Learning the hard way
Let's face it learning as you get older, though not impossible does get harder. My Italian mistakes are many and downright hilarious! Papa' Prada once had an embarrassing conversation about onions in Waitrose as he didn't know why some onions were called 'loose' and others not. Did this mean there was something promiscuous about them? He left red faced having made a Waitrose lady laugh hysterically.
We've found if you are considering raising a child bilingually you have to be in it for the long haul. Consistency is pretty much key to whatever you do and it will take a long time to see results and sometimes there will be none and you will wonder what you're doing wrong. The answer is probably nothing.
It's remarkable how quickly and early a baby will understand two languages even though they can't speak. If you consistently only speak your language to your child they will understand that you call something a 'nose' and Daddy calls it 'naso'. This means their little brains are already adapting to become bilingual as they don't see objects as having a fixed name.
Hold on to these little victories because there will be other times when you speak to them in the minority language (the language they hear the least), and they will answer back in the language that's around them most at school/nursery etc.
Keep your eyes on the prize!
For a while we felt that we were really up against it as my Husband speaks the minority language (Italian) with the children but due to work he sees them the least. We thought this was affecting how much our Son was speaking Italian. This is correct but children with parents who are both Italian but live in London for example still report their children not speaking Italian fully at home until around age 4. This is all down to growing up in London, with English nurseries, school, playdates, friends.
This also shows you how long it can take to see results if you are speaking to them in two languages from birth. Given this aspect, how important is it really to try and teach your child another language? If you're the English side of the parenting team and you live in London it may not seem a big deal.
However an Italian friend told me recently that she needs her child to learn Italian so they can communicate in a way that conveys her most natural self. Given that this lady is super fluent in English it shows how important feeling understood is to all of us.
Imagine trying to be yourself in a another language, try telling a joke for example. Are you usually funny, bubbly, do you have a dry sense of humour? Could you convey that in a second language? It's very hard. Just knowing a language is not enough, you have to feel it's part of you.
Obviously children learning second or third languages are doing amazing things just achieving that. This is no easy task. But if you're trying to help your child be bilingual it takes more work. You really want them to understand your language, culture, what makes you who you are and this takes effort. It's not a case of just talking to them in the minority language just now and again or while you're home on a weekend.
There are many strategies out there to try but the approach we are using is called OPOL (One Parent One Language). In practice I speak only English with my children and Papa' Prada speaks only Italian. English is the main language as we are based mostly in London. The children attend English nurseries/school. This presents an issue in that Italian is only heard by my Son in the evenings when Hubby is home from work/weekends and on holidays with family.
We've been plodding on in this way and have kept enough of our Son's interest through books, films and Papa’ trying his best to be massively enthusiastic and engaging using his language when he gets home and really could just do with a beer.
However around age 4 we've gone through periods where Papa' Prada will talk in Italian and every response from the bambino was in English. You can sometimes feel that you're going backwards.
The main issue for us is exposure. To learn two languages, or many languages you need to have daily exposure to that language for a certain portion of the day. If you are trying to teach your child to be bilingual, it is not enough for the minority language only to be heard for a couple of hours before bed during the week, plus weekends.
What the experts say
Research suggests that to help your child become bilingual the minority language needs to be heard/used actively for 30% of the time. Of course there are lots of theories around this but actually it is a useful checkpoint. Think about how often your minority language is being heard. By looking into this we discovered our Son was only hearing/using Italian approx. 18% of the time.
There are ways for you to utilise the exposure to the minority language even if the parent speaking it isn't around. I am now up-ing my game in support and using Italian radio, nursery rhyme CD's and Disney films in Italian whenever Papa' isn't around.
1. Both parents need to be consistent in speaking their own languages and not being drawn into answering in the majority language.
This is easier than it seems. If you imagine being at home and you are all having a conversation, it’s very difficult not to slip into the language everyone else is speaking. It’s harder for Papa’ Prada because he must always respond and question our Son in Italian even if he responds in English.
Parents who don’t speak enough of each other’s languages find this hard as your child and partner will be speaking a language you don’t understand. Translating every conversation is tiring and excluding and can create other issues. Luckily I understand enough Italian and it actually helps me to hear it at home all the time.
Some people fear it can also appear rude socially as suddenly those with you feel they aren’t part of sections of the conversation. Because of this (and the other problems mentioned) some parents do give up or decide to have different rules of when they impose bilingualism. Maybe in company you decide all to speak the majority language. This shouldn’t be an issue as long as you stick to whatever rule you put in place. Or maybe you explain to the people you're with what you're doing and translate any important parts of conversation they might miss.
2. Use every resource possible:
- Audio books, a great resource that children can listen to on their own or in the car.
- Reading bedtime stories together in either language.
- Watching films/cartoons in the minority language. Disney offer a lot of language options.
- Children’s music CD’s in minority language.
- Connect to international radio in minority language.
- Bilingual books.
- Online free stories/games in minority language.
3. Who do you know?
- Look for playgroups in your area in the required language or set one up yourself.
- Sometimes asking your keyworker/teacher at nursery/school can uncover a list of other parents with children speaking your language. You can then suggest playdates with these children/parents and see if it encourages them to play using your minority language. There will likely be parents in a similar situation to yourself.
- Call/skype family members or friends regularly. Make sure they only speak in their (the minority) language.
- What you’re doing is not easy. There will be days when both you and your children are tired, drained and just not up for responding in the desired language all the time.
- Anything you push with children backfires. Every parent knows this. If they aren’t having fun it will become a chore and something they dread.
- Try and think outside of the main task. Yes you want them to learn the language. But have they been to the country where the language is spoken? What makes that country unique? What do they know about that place? What food is eaten there?
- Do some baking. Buy a scrap book, stick in articles, drawings, pictures of your travels as a couple before you had children or you growing up in that country. Anything that shows them something tangible about why it’s important to you that they are learning, that it’s part of you. These can all fire a bit of imagination/interest/giggles and restart their motivation to learn and they can keep adding to it as they have their own experiences.
Our Son's Italian actually took off incredibly following a recent trip to Italy. It was as if all he has been learning just clicked for him. He also was interested in communicating with his Nonno and if he wanted to be understood he had to use Italian. It meant it was his own desire to be understood that spurred him on and once he started and gained some confidence it wasn't as daunting. We will now likely have another dip as the novelty of this wears off but there seems to be a change in his attitude. I think he has understood the benefit of being half Italian and half English.
Finally don't give up! We are all busy and our children are all individuals, like everything else they learn, they do it in their own time. Giving the most exposure you can to the desired language and a consistent effort, is the best chance you have of helping them learn without too much pressure.