The trials of raising a bilingual child in small-town Italy

Guest post by Rochelle Del Borrello

This week I'm delighted to welcome Rochelle Del Borrello from the wonderful blog Sicily Inside & Out Rochelle is an Australian with Italian heritage and lives in Sicily. She is married to an Italian and has been raising her little boy with her native English from birth. I love that she explains so well the real daily challenge of raising a bilingual child. You do need to be persistent but the rewards are immense! I’m very excited to look for podcasts for children as well, such a great suggestion!

Have a read of her lovely insights into raising a child in the minority language but in an area of Italy where English is not widely spoken.

Credit: Rochelle Del Borrello

Credit: Rochelle Del Borrello

Over to Rochelle

I’m raising my child to speak English in Italy, not just anywhere in Italy but to be precise in a small town in Sicily.

Unlike the major cities on the peninsula like Rome or Milan or even Palermo with large expat communities and English international schools, I’m the only English speaker in my local community.

Which is great if you want to have an ESL tutoring monopoly, but it can be isolating and intimidating when you want your child to be fluent in your native language. I feel Italian is always getting the upper hand on English, but after nearly eight years of battling it seems my struggles are beginning to show results.

After pigheadly sicking to my guns over the past eight years, arguing with my in-laws and other people around me who thought I’d delay my sons speaking, confuse him by mixing two languages, give him problems at school with his dictation and reading.

I’m proud to say I’ve been speaking English to him since he was born, he has never been confused, began reading at the same time as his classmates and is conversing well in both languages, apart from a slight Italian accent, due to a lack of interaction with other English speakers.

Which method

To make it through the journey which is by no means over, I’ve done an endless amount of reading on how children acquire different languages, and the most effective method which is the one I have used is the ‘one speaker one language’ system. That is when a father and mother speak two different languages, and each chooses to express his or her tongue exclusively to the child.

Experts suggest that a third language can be introduced by the child spending a certain amount of time with a nanny, grandparents or a playgroup that exposes them to another language, which brings in another tongue through socialising and play. A parent and child can also learn a third language together in the home or through travel experiences.

The idea of two languages is confusing enough for me but not for my son Matthias who seems to have handled it all with great finesse. I have found it difficult to speak English to a child surrounded by Italian speakers in Italy. Occasionally I shift back and forth as we find ourselves in the presence of other people who don’t understand us or in general conversation but when we are alone it’s all English, and I see when he talks to me it is automatically in my language.

English resources

The real challenge for me was to expose my son to English from many other different sources such as t.v programs, DVD’s, YouTube videos, podcasts and other kids. I’m doing my best with the first few, but Matty does not speak with other children in English as there are no expats where we live in provincial Sicily. It has been challenging to find resources here in Sicily so, often trips home to my native Australia has meant stocking up on things like DVDs and books.

Over the years I have used iTunes to download helpful cartoons or podcasts to develop my child’s interest in words and language, and places like Book Depository and Amazon are a great source for physical books which are of fundamental importance to encourage early learning.

It is normal for one language to dominate over the next especially when you are living in a country where it is the predominant language spoken, but the important thing is to nurture both words together, use them both and make them interchangeable and natural for the child.

Despite my worries, I am persistently surprised when Matty understands complicated instructions in English and how he says one word in Italian and the next in English. He easily translates for his father, who doesn’t speak English and he is proud when his classmates ask him to help them with their English homework. He speaks with a very heavy Italian accent, but he can tell when something is mispronounced. I guess persistence is the key and it is important not to lose energy or focus as language acquisition is like a game for the child. So I take a deep breath and try to keep up the enthusiasm.

Credit: Rochelle Del Borrello

Credit: Rochelle Del Borrello

Since my son only speaks English with me, I’ve been careful to make sure he interacts with English as often as he can, which means Skype calls with his grandparents, trips to Australia every couple of years, plenty of cartoons and movies in English and above all many English language books. Matthias loves wildlife documentaries, and so we have acquired a collection of BBC World DVD’s, and like most other boys he has been through phases where he has wanted to learn about everything from Dinosaurs to Sharks. I have used his interests and passions as a way of encouraging his love of English too.

Bedtime routine has always consisted of bedtime stories from nursery rhymes, fables, myths and anything else that will spark my son’s interest. Through the years we’ve read a mixed bag of books which has come from my son’s very idiosyncratic tastes everything from Dr Seuss, to Mr Men and Roald Dahl. Gradually moving onto more complex reads like Percy Jackson by Rick Riordan, R.L Stine's Goosebumps series, Adam Blade's Beast Quest books, Tolkien's The Hobbit and we've recently finished reading a great fantasy book called Goblins by Philip Reeve. This reading list is very centred on a typical little boy’s interests but searching online will always give you endless ideas.

One day to my surprise, my son picked up one of his more simple books one day and began reading all by himself. It seems the primary action and repetition of listening, repeating and following the words over my indicating finger was enough for him to pick up all a basic reading vocabulary.

My son loves words and stories, whenever he hears a new word in English or Italian it will immediately spark his interest, and he will ask its meaning.

Credit: Rochelle Del Borrello

Credit: Rochelle Del Borrello

Podcasts for kids

Over this long hot summer, his attention span has gone out the window, and he has lost interest in books and writing, so I have introduced him to the world of podcasts. There are many audio files you can download for children online from Science shows, curious facts, fairy tales and fantastic science fiction.

Audiobooks will no doubt become a feature when he gets older, but for now, his eight-year-old brain is happy to find a cool spot in the shade and drift off into another world for a twenty-minute episode of his current favourite podcast.

Lately, he’s been saying to me that he’s getting too old for bedtime stories, so we have had long talks before bedtime where he shares the story of his day, or I tell him something else that has happened to me. My son’s getting to the age where he can read by himself so this past summer he read his summer reading, did a little revision for school, read a few of his favourite English language books to me and happily consumed a classic Spiderman comic he found in the local bookshop.

Ongoing education

The plan with my son Matthias is to nourish his love of reading, continue to get him into comic books, perhaps when the weather becomes a little cooler I’ll look into a more significant book we can serialise every day and get him to read together with me.

And I also want to try to focus a little more on English grammar and writing as his spoken English is at a reasonable level and this year at school he’ll be doing a lot more grammar in Italian he’ll be able to understand more and more English grammar.

As your child grows and develops, you generally have to adapt your methods according to their interests, attention span and personal development. Every child is different so be sure to be, and the language acquisition will eventually manifest itself.

What stage of the bilingual journey are you in with your child?


Sicily Inside & Out

About Rochelle

Rochelle Del Borello  is an Italo Australian writer and journalist who ran away to Sicily sixteen years ago, to the surprise of her family, friends and herself.

Ever since moving to Italy she’s been teaching ESL, being a mum and writing about her experiences in Sicily on her blog Sicily Inside & Out which is all about her obsession and frustration with her new island home.