There I was, twelve years ago, a newborn baby girl and the wish to raise her bilingual. Why? Well, I explained this part here.
My recurring almost obsessive question back then was HOW do I raise a bilingual child? Time went by and I had my second daughter, but the thought of early bilingualism was still lingering in my head and was often the subject of conversation with my husband.
All in all, the best way to become bilingual would be to settle in the country where the desired language is spoken and keep on speaking the mother tongue at home. But there are…well, a few constrains: how many parents can afford to find two new jobs/careers and settle in, let’s say, France, just for the sake of the language? Personally, my days between the US and the UK seemed over: as a family we had no chance to live abroad.
In cases such as ours, the chosen language thus becomes the minority one, and it can be brought into the child’s life using four different methods.
The first is the famous “One parent-one language” or OPOL approach. Here each parent speak a language to the child. This is the normal path when parents do not belong to the same culture/language, so they each speak their native language to the child. With OPOL the child has a daily exposure of both languages.
The second approach has two variants: it is the time-based or place-based approach. Here both parents are bilingual and a family chooses when (or where) to speak each language. Usually this becomes the approach “minority language at home”. Supposing one lives in an English speaking country, the family speaks Spanish or Mandarin or any other language at home (or on weekends) and English outside (or with others).
The third approach is the mixed language approach. Here both (or one at least one) parents are bilingual and the child is exposed to both languages all or most of the time. This approach is slightly different from the one parent – one language approach because the child does not have to choose a language for a specific parent.
The fourth approach is the majority language at home, with the minority language in an immersion school. Both parents speak the same language and the language spoken outside the home is the same language spoken by the parents, with the exception that the child attends a school where instruction occurs in another language. As for the schools, names can vary, so do program of instruction, language approaches and costs. Basically there are bilingual schools and there are international schools.
Of all these methods I knew nothing at the time. I must admit that it did cross my head the idea to speak English with the girls, but I gave this thought no safe harbor: I thought it was a weird idea, being – as I was – totally unaware of the phenomenon of parents non-native speakers of a language that choose to talk in that same language to their child/children. I had not read books about bilingualism and, moreover, the idea of confronting the chit-chat of Italian mothers at the park while talking to my child in English seemed ludicrous. On the other hand, I was familiar neither with the world of international or bilingual schools, nor with the idea of opening up our house to an au-pair girl, all things that, later on, would have seemed so obvious to me.
Time was flying, my first daughter was then 4 and the second 2 years old. I had a nice teacher/babysitter who came in to do arts and crafts in English once a week with the older girl, and I was teaching them both the alphabet song, a couple of nursery rhymes and a few English words. But that was it.
My projects about bilingualism were escaping from my hands relentlessly and so much faster than I had expected.
Thinking of not being able to give to my daughters the life experiences abroad that I had received as a child and working full-time, the idea of the international school was the most feasible one. An international school did seem the easiest choice, maybe because it relied on an external organization to solve what was a problem internal to our family.
International schools in Rome have a long tradition but are also very expensive if compared to the average Italian salary.
Back then, Rome offered (and still offers) both British and American international schools as well as some schools that are a mix of the two and end up with the IB (International baccalaureate). But you must afford to pay top money and wish that your child study in a predominantly English speaking environment.
I searched the web for all the possible information and visited all the schools in my neighborhood and surrounding areas: public, international, private, whatever. It was then my sheer accident that I found that a certain private school I had known all my life had adopted, just a few years before, a bilingual program and its fees where – mmhh – let us say “accessible”.
Private education is not a big hit in Italy, especially in Rome. In the past Italy used to have a good education system. Now, according to OECD PISA results, the Italian education system is not so good. But crappier still are most private Italian schools, but a few. So it happens that, almost all my generation, has attended the public school system and the very idea of paying to learn to read and write or do math seemed – at the time – so very stupid. Italians tend to pay for other things, i.e. for making up for things in which the school fails: sports, foreign language classes, trips abroad. If they have money, parents save for university.
It therefore took some time for us to take this step and, besides, we were on a waiting list. We finally enrolled the eldest girl at the bilingual Italian-English school. She was then 5. The second soon followed the same path, having turned 3 years old. For the eldest it was a change of school, classmates, and most of it, language. But she soon found a friend and a success it was. She embraced the new environment from day one.
Some years later I noticed that both girls were reading Oxford Reading Tree books almost at the same level as a British children of the same age, plus they were being instructed to read and write, do math, science, art, history, geography and so on, in two languages!
Although the school has (to these day) its limits (especially a lack of an international environment, since foreign children are a minority) it has proved to be a very good basis for learning the language. All the rest we, as family, provided: extra books in English, summer camp abroad, au pairs (whose presence allowed – more than forced – everyone to speak English at home) and all the things that make the minority language “alive” and not (merely) a school subject. It is a demanding school. Doing almost two programs means having a very dense schoolday plus homework, during the week even if the school runs from 8 to 4,30 daily.
The girls now both speak fluently, have been abroad to summer camps with American or British peers and read and watch movies in both languages. Knowledge of English has made travelling with them so much easier, with the added bonus that I can see friends that live abroad (and do not speak Italian) much more often and it is much easier for our children to mix with theirs.
During these years I have been finally reading what I should have read years and years ago: books on bilingualism: my first was Raising a Bilingual Child, by B. Zurer Pearson, which has remained my bible.
Then came The Bilingual Edge. Why, When and How to Teach Your Child a Second Language by King & Mackey and 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child, by Dr. Naomi Steiner.
Why should I keep reading? After all my girls are now 12 and almost 10 years old and both bilingual… Well I do it because I am passionate about it and…for my third child!
He is almost 2 now and, since his birth, I decided I could finally experiment a different method to introduce bilingualism in his life from an early age: I am the one speaking English to/with him. He was 4 months when I switched from talking to him in both languages (mixed language approach) to choosing only English (OPOL approach).
I must admit I felt awkward for the first half day. I had to pretend with myself that English was a sort of baby-talk and that it was the only possible mean of communicating with an infant. Magically, as the evening approached, I became less and less aware of it and it soon became natural, even when other people were around. Somehow it has now become “our” language.
And the rest of the family? Well, Dad speaks Italian to him, and the sisters have each chosen which language to speak with him: it is English for the eldest, and a mix of Italian and English for the younger sister. As far as results go, since he is attending an Italian day care, Italian is, at the moment, his language number one. But his passive knowledge of English is perfect for his age. He understands everything I say and uses quite a few English words, distinguishing the times in which he talks to me, to those in which he talks to his daddy.
When a non-native speaker decides to speak in English s/he has to choose between English and American English. Many do not choose, because they are familiar with just one of the two. I am familiar to both and, therefore, I had to choose. I chose the latter, since American English was the one I had been exposed to first. However I sometimes add a few british words here and there. I would tell the little boy “let’s change our diaper” but, if he is very alert and responsive, I would add “some call it nappy”.
But the funniest thing about bilingualism in early childhood is certainly onomatopoeia. Since with a small child we often describe the sound of this or that animals, the sound “translation” in each language is funnily different. I still can’t understand why a frog should go “ribbit” in American English (a sound that resembles the word “rabbit” to me, very confusing since we are talking about animals) and go “croak” England!
I became fully bilingual with English at age twelve, so the onomatopoeia took me a bit of studying: after all animal sounds as well as nursery rhymes I had only mastered in Italian. This philological approach has not spoilt my son’s fun. He seems unaffected by the double standard: when imitating a dog, for example, he would go “wof wof” in my presence and “bau bau” with Dad , “bau bau” being the Italian translation of the barking sound.
So this is now: three different children, two different methods, one family: whatever will come out of this Babel household will be fine.