Raising Bilingual Children … Methods, Rules and Food for Thought

Although I’m still six or seven weeks away from being an official expat mamma, the stress, worries and insecurities have crept in and in addition to over-thinking diaper brands, bottle warmers and car seats, I’m perhaps even more concerned about our baby’s eventual bilingualism.

Like many modern bi-cultural families, my husband and I want to teach our children both English and Italian. We plan to implement the OPOL, or One Parent, One Language rule, which means I’ll speak English with our child 100% of the time while my husband speaks Italian.

Sounds simple, right?

Well the over-anxious, analyzing perfectionist in me is already thinking about the future. While the baby is, well, a baby, it is easy to speak one language to him and for us to communicate with each other using whichever language we prefer. However, what do we do when we start communicating together … as a family, sitting around the dining table, watching TV, talking politics or rocket science (because certainly he’ll be the next child genius to take the science world by storm …). What happens then?

Sure, we can plan to speak the minority language at home, but at some point the language he studies at school will take over and the other language will become his second language. I’ve seen it happen with my expat friends and heard tales of bilingual children who can’t cut it in a university in their second-language country.

I know I’m years away from that dilemma, but the topic and surrounding debate are interesting. One of my favorite blogs on the subject of rearing bilingual children is The Globetrotter Parent. While she doesn’t post as often as I’d like (I did say it was one of my favorites … daily would be good for me!) her posts are always well-researched and documented.

Other things I’ve been reading include:

Bringing Up Baby Bilingual, written by an American ex-French teacher who is teaching her children (and niece and nephew) French.

Raising Bilingual Children, written by a Venezuelan lawyer living in Germany, who is teaching her children Spanish, German and English.

Sue Scheff, particularly this article on 100 Tips, Tools and Tricks to Raising Bilingual Children.

An article in the Orland Sentinel about continuing the language immersion once they are “out in the real world.”

The FAQs at Linguistlist.org, with answers to questions about the OPOL method, imperfect accents, poor pronunciation and a Q&A that dispels the myth that multiple languages slow speech development.

I know there are a million things to think of-and worry about-as a parent and that with time, our child’s language skills will come. But even before we’re officially a mother or papà, we worry we’re going to mess up. I guess that’s just part of this new experience called parenthood.

Are you a parent to a bilingual child or do you plan to teach your children more than one language? What process did you / do you plan to use?

Are you heading to Calabria or southern Italy? Click here to see how I can help you with your itinerary.

Photo: iicedimburgo.esteri.it

10 Responses
  1. I live in southern Italy (Lecce area) and have a 5 year old, a 4 year old, and an almost 10 month old. I, too, have friends that have done the OPOL rule and at times I wish that we had done that too. My husband is Italian, but we were so used to speaking English with eachother at home that we just kept speaking it even with the babies… I don’t think we even talked about how to go about it. Everyone said, in that not-to-be-bothered Italian way, that the kids would be fine and start speaking Italian when they started the asilo… and I believed it. It was true, they did, but it was not immediate or easy, and it forced me to put my 3 year old in full-day preschool, 5 days a week, when I otherwise would have eased into preschool had I been living in America. Oh well, this is my daughter’s 3rd year of asilo and my son’s 2nd. We survived and they might still be lacking in vocabulary, but it doesn’t slow them down… not yet, anyway. I fear 1st grade next year!!!!!!!!!!! Mostly I worry about MY Italian and if I will be able to help with homework as the years go on. I have seen over the past 7 years here in Italy, that the homework load seems to be heavy and difficult! And I already am frustrated talking to teachers at times. Anyway, the kiddos are super strong in English and I hope it evens out, but I am happy that, compared to other bi-cultural families here, that they shouldn’t have a problem if we ever move to the states. My husband is, though, now speaking more Italian with all three of the kids. Good luck and congrats!!!!

    We have a grown friend who grew up in Italy with an Italian mom and French-speaking father. They ONLY spoke French at home and she and her brother both learned Italian when they went to school. She does have a French accent when she speaks Italian, but she is perfectly fluent in both languages and is actually more comfortable in French. All of this is so interesting … thanks for sharing your story!

    1. Teresa

      @Emilia, hi emilia i was just looking for an english or german speakimg playgroup,around Lecce since i am planning to move to Lecce in September with my then 4 year old daughter. i also wanted to ask you how could best find accomodation for us for app 6 months are there english speking real estate agents through which i could rent a studio or small furnished appartment. I am german but live in Australia so my daghter speaks english and german at the moment if you can help at all i would really appreciate it your blog is great by the way.

      I hope Emilia found your question and that she’ll be able to help direct you! Good luck!

  2. Hey congratulations, I must have missed that announcement!
    Just wanted to share with you my experience…I’ve always spoken English with Lila at home, read to her in English and watched English programmes with her. She is now nearly 8 and bilingual and comfortable with both languages. But I also think it depends on the child too. I have friends here that have done the same as me bringing up their children and sometimes the child ends up with a strong italian accent when speaking English, sometimes the child refuses to speak English with the mother, knowing that it is different from what everybody else speaks.
    Yes, I speak in Italian to her father as his English isn’t great, but I naturally switch to English when I talk to her as I wouldn’t like for her to learn Italian from me. He speaks to her in Italian and she answers us in both, often answering him in Italian and then turning to me and repeating in English!
    I neger worried about confusing her because this is the only way she knows, like asking a kid what is it like having famous parents, the kid doesn’t know any other way so it is normal for them…
    OK, I’ll stop rambling now!

    No, no, ramble on, Charlie. Thank so much for your 2cents! I am taking all of the advice I can get!

  3. I did the same thing when I was expecting Valentina. We’re doing OPOL too and so far it’s working good. Even though she’s only 7 months old, she’s understanding quite a few things. She knows that ‘Hi’ & ‘Ciao’ are the same things and waves when you say both words, as well as ‘clap your hands’ & ‘batte le manine’. She watches cartoons on Rai yoyo which I love because it’s geared to small children so they’re learning basic vocabulary & grammar. (which is also good for me and it helps a lot) While we watch together, I’ll repeat things in English. Since I teach English to 5-6 yr old, I have a lot material that I can use with Valentina to help her with English.
    She is constantly surrounded by both languages. Carlo and his family speak only in Italian and me and my family (through Skype) speak only English. Together as a family, Carlo and I speak English to each other and I think that’s what we’ll continue only because that’s what she hears less of right now. I’m sure that might change later but we’ll worry about it when the time comes.

  4. Thanks for mentioning my blog in this post!

    I think your anxieties are very, very normal and in fact are a good sign–it means that you’re aware that your child’s journey to bilingualism will be a challenge for the whole family and you’re determined to do your best to keep the minority language alive and relevant for your child.

    If you can establish a regular playgroup of other English-speaking children that your child can connect with over the years, that will go a long way to helping him/her keep up with English even after starting school. And lots of books–lots and lots and lots of books! (Best way to learn vocabulary and grammar in context.)

    Good luck to you–what a gift you’re giving your child!

    Thank you so much, Sarah! I appreciate the reinforcement!

  5. Amber~ Care and Feeding of Wild Things

    Cherrye auguri! I haven’t checked in with you in ages and find out that you are going to receive the best little gift ever in just weeks?! Incredible! I am so happy for you. In the beginning you won’t have to worry about bilingual abilities- your family will simply communicate in the language of love! Oh how sweet, yippee! Then later your little one will soak up both languages like a little sponge. My husband speaks with our son in Italian, and I in English. We both validate our son when he speaks to us in the “other” language -for example I would say to him: “Si, e un trenino, yes it is a train” before going on in English when he speaks Italian to me. We find he is very clever in speaking Italian with his Papi’ and English with me. But we’re also very relaxed about it. We believe his little mind will easily assimilate the two languages since he is so exposed to both each and every day.

    Hey there! Thanks for the well-wishes! We are excited!!

  6. Cherrye! I cannot believe that you are due so soon! It seems like you just made the announcement!

    I struggled with this also with Simon. For me it is even harder as my husband does not speak Italian at all. So for a while I spoke only Italian and he spoke English. That still works when I am alone with Simon (he just turned 2) although I have to say that I have been slacking lately out of convenience. Where it gets tricky for me has been when I am trying to communicate to both Dan and Simon – since Dan does not speak Italian I have to use English. However my parents only speak to him in Italian and I read as many books and sing as many songs to him in Italian as possible – so while English is the language he has started to speak he does throw in Italian words (acqua, fuoco) and I am pretty sure that he understands 99% of what we say in Italian. When we were in Italy this past summer no one spoke English to him for 3 weeks and he was fine – although he did not really start speaking until after our trip. So I am going to just go with this and see where it takes us.
    Having grown up in America in a house where only Italian was spoken I do not remember having any problems picking up English. I had American friends and I watched a lot of TV (Sesame Street, Electric Co.) and I went to pre-school and as far as I can remember or as far as my mom can remember there were never any serious issues with my ability to communicate.
    I suspect that you and your husband will find what works best for you and that your bambino/a prezioso will be a language guru before you know it 🙂 Best of luck to you both, have a great holiday and I look forward hearing about your experiences as a new parent! Ciao ciao!

    Thank you so much, Paola! I love hearing about how these different techniques are working out. I think it is definitely easier when both parents speak the same languages (like your parents), so I’ve been working on my Italian A LOT lately! 🙂

    BTW … it’s a boy!

  7. Cherrye,

    I have three bilingual children, all born in Costa Rica to an American father (yours truly) and Costa Rican mother. In CR, I always and only spoke English with them, since initially they only heard English from me. As my then wife learned more English (and eventually became very fluent), English was the language at home, since the kids heard Spanish everywhere else.

    All three children were slow to start talking, but all understood both languages perfectly. The oldest was three before she uttered a word of English, and it was because she wanted to talk to her American grandma. From then on, there was no problem. The younger two, who heard their mother speaking English, started speaking both at about the same time and, to my surpirse, never mixed them up. But I was always careful not to mix languages myself. And they always knew which language to speak to whom.

    When we moved to the States, I tried speaking only Spanish with them, to keep them fluent, but that was a lost cause. They HATED me for trying! “Dad doesn’t speak Spanigh to us!” As adults, between living in both countries, they are fluent in both languages. I think the key is not to mix them up, like the proverbial “Spanglish.” Is there “Italish???” You (and the bambino) will do fine!

    Thanks, Peter! I know P and I tend to speak Italish pretty often. I hope we don’t ruin poor Max’s languages! he he

  8. My son is almost 11 years old and fully bilingual (speaks, reads, writes). I read ABSOLUTELY nothing about raising a bilingual child while pregnant and very, very, very little afterwards. It never even occured to me to worry about it. I have always spoken English to him, in private, in public, no matter what. My husband has always spoken Italian to him, in Italy and when we visit Canada. At first people will ask questions, make comments, maybe even criticize or insist that you are confusing him (you’re not), but eventually they will get used to you and ignore it. (Once a scuola materna teacher tried to force me to speak Italian to him when we were on school property and I had a battle royale with her and the principal. Several weeks later I discovered they were using him as an interpreter to speak to one of the Arab mothers that didn’t speak Italian!) My son went through a phase were he was embarrased to speak English to me in public. I ignored it for a while but then after a few months and without making too big a deal out of it, I gently told him to answer me in English. Now he reads in both languages at his age level and higher, watches DVD’s in both languages, communicates effortlessly with family and friends back home and even had the chance to be translator and tour guide to my cousin’s children that visited from New York state in the summer. He has absolutely no problem answering me in English in front of his friends or when we are in public now. I found that when I told people that my mothertongue was the language of my emotions and asked them to imagine expressing love or anger in a language that wasn’t there own, they tended to react with understanding. No matter what, enjoy your time with your little bundle of joy, the years fly by faster than you can imagine!

    This is great, Joanne! Thank you for the info / encouragement. I’m worried about how fast these years will start flying by now!

  9. Edmondo Donato

    8 weeks ago my daughter, Maria, gave birth to her first child.
    Her inlaws speak Italian and we would like the baby to be confortable in both langagues.
    Soooo. Before you start buying Italian DVD’s for Max, please let me know.
    I have a zone-free DVD player for my Italian movies, but there isn’t much available here in the way of “kiddy” shows.
    I’d like to get some for the grandaughter.
    Perhaps we can do a little business.
    God Bless you all

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