Since we’re on a language immersion roll here with our posts I feel compelled to share my attempt -- some would call it a “half-assed” attempt -- at instilling a second language in my kids. And I’d still make the pitch that even such flawed efforts have value.
We all probably know folks who’ve enrolled their kids in a language immersion program or are speaking another native language with them, and their bilingual kids are humming along fluently. But what about those of us who may not have the opportunity or the capacity to go whole hog and who sort of limp instead of gallop along? Are those kids gaining any benefit? I’ll let you be the judge.
I’ve been studying Italian on and off for over 20 years, and so when I had kids, Mamahood was either gonna turn me into a shadow of my previous self, or I was gonna have to make extra effort to fold parts of the old me into my version of “Mom.” When it came to Italian I thought, why let all those years of learning go to waste and stop with me? My kids would be the impetus for me to push myself and not let my 2nd language go by the wayside. Okay, I know that Italian is nowhere near as practical as Spanish, Mandarin, or even French. It’s only spoken exclusively in one country and tiny pockets elsewhere. The only compelling reasons to do Italian – aside from it being the only other language I can speak at all – is that it’s part of my kids’ heritage, and I thought it’d be a good jumping off point if they want to learn Spanish, French or Portuguese at some point. Mandarin may be the “it” tongue these days, but romance languages will never die.
Partially out of insecurity and partially out of sheer exhaustion I didn’t have the wherewithal to dive into speaking it often until my first child was a toddler and my second a newborn. At that point I started peppering my language with Italian words, added in some simple Italian sentences, and responded to their questions in Italian. We did regular classes at Scuola Italiana di Portland, and we sought out native speaking nannies and other parents who were trying to do the same. And I noticed a curious thing. When my baby was just starting to talk she had a seamless understanding of Italian, while my 4 year old struggled more. This continued for the next few years, especially when “the baby” attended La Scuola’s full immersion preschool. I took this as living proof that the younger you start the more the brain adapts.
Now that they’re older, things have turned around a bit. While I can’t take advantage of a full immersion elementary program (one doesn’t exist for Italian), and I don’t need nearly as much childcare (thus no regular “native tongue exposure” via an Italian nanny), we still do what we can: weekly tutoring, listening to RAI Internet radio, watching favorite movies or video clips in Italian, and having playdates with now long-standing friends whose mothers speak Italian with their kids. We even traveled to Italy last year and did a week at the wonderful Lucca Italian School—which helped all of us see the language in action.
So, here’s what I’m noticing now. Neither child naturally responds to me in Italian, other than the occasional “Si’” or "bene"-- though they will speak Italian if prompted, especially if I turn it into a game. From what I understand, this is to be expected since we’re all native English speakers. My younger daughter -- who was certainly more fluent as a toddler -- still tolerates the ramblings of my less than perfect Italian, but has not ostensibly retained that deeper connection. This might be evidence of what I’m hearing from my friends who have done immersion programs—once they leave the program (in our case the preschool and native nanny care) the language recedes. While both kids still light up whenever something crosses our path that is Italian in culture or language, it’s my older daughter who has fallen in love with languages in general. She will speak to me in Italian unprompted at times, loves to study it with her tutor – and loves to make comparisons to other languages she hears including Spanish, which she’s learning at school every week. I also think she is more confident in Spanish due to her Italian.
My kids are also old enough now so that I can draw connections for them to English words with the Latin root, which they recognize. When reading Harry Potter for example, my kids eat it up that a Dementor is related to dimenticare (to forget). They are also becoming more aware of other people who speak foreign languages and the immigrant concept in general. So I try and create teachable moments where they learn about family history and their immigrant roots. When I speak Italian with them in public, they get to experience what an immigrant child might experience. Maybe all these “positives” I’m gleaning from our imperfect language immersion experiment are a stretch, but at some level they’re real. I partly attribute it to starting early and staying committed, even if loosely. I also think it helps that I’m passionate about it: I’m a true Italophile and I think the passion rubs off on my kids, which makes for more powerful learning.
So, is my half-baked 2nd language attempt worth the effort? It’s too soon to tell, but I figure I’m not doing any harm (if anything, the opposite) and at least I’m giving my kids a connection to their heritage and opening their eyes to language and culture. Despite all we’re doing I still don’t speak often enough, nor fluently enough. I regularly look up words and struggle with the more obscure tenses. But I’d like to believe it’s good for my kids to see me stumble through it and still love it – and get better at it. While that is a reward for me in and of itself, the true reward will be for me to see them do the same.
Are you attempting to give your kids a second language? Maybe you have some tips or encouragement to share. We’d love to hear from you. And if there are any fellow Italian speaking parents out there who would like to connect, we’d love to hear from you as well. Grazie!