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« Character: The Key to Success? | Main | Language Immersion – The What, Why and When »

Language Immersion - Un Po' Can Make a Difference

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!




Reader Comments (5)

I have to say, I am so happy to read this. I am a total mutt when it comes to cultural heritage and therefore try to soak up anything I can for myself and now my kids. My husband is half-Indian and I thought it would be brilliant to teach our kids Hindi as a tie to their heritage. So I took Hindi lessons. Yeah....that didn't go very well. I still can barely say anything in the language and as for my kids....nil. However, I keep coming back to the strong desire to have our kids learn a second language. Spanish is the obvious choice as both my husband and I took a bit in our school days and it's easy to find for the younger ones. However I am enamored with French soooo, what a mutt to do? I guess we just continue to expose our kids to language whenever possible and I guess throwing in some of the Spanish words and sentences we can manage will pay off. Glad to know I'm not the only one who really wants this for her family!

October 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErin

I'm Filipino (speak English and Tagalog) and I've lived mostly in English-speaking countries since a decade ago. Now that I have a child and live in America with no relatives and Filipino friends, I'm missing speaking in my lingua franca on a daily basis. This was my impetus for communicating Tagalog with my child. I started when he was an infant but as he started speaking he latched onto English as the majority of the "sounds" he heard in the house was in that language. I reinstated Tagalog when he was 3 and I panicked when he started saying words with an American accent. I knew the part of the brain that can learn multiple languages easily was starting to close. I realized that until I spoke Tagalog daily, there was no way that my toddler would accept it. After a month or so, he is back again to saying words in my language without the foreign accent. He doesn't speak to me in Tagalog in sentences yet, but I'm just glad that he understands me to enable him to respond. There's not a day that he won't ask me what a certain word in my language means.

When I was pregnant, we met a couple where the mom was French and the dad English. The rule was to speak French in the house, where both dad and kid started on the same level. We met them when their child was about 2 and he spoke English and French, and the dad would speak with him in French. It was so cool to see them interact! The effect on the kid and on their family was more than the sum of its parts. This method is what we're applying now. My child would say Salamat (thank you) with me and Thank-You with his dad, say Saging (banana) with me and Banana with his dad. It also helps that Tagalog is peppered with 20% Spanish, which truly helps him at his Spanish-immersion school. My husband's understanding of my language is also improving.

October 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCeleste

@Erin - Hang in there with this. The fact that you're a cultural mutt is a fantastic thing to share w/ your kids. I truly believe that giving kids an understanding of their family history opens a window to the world, past & present, and will probably spur interest in language, history, customs, etc. The more cultures they're connected to the more dots they can connect. It's awesome.

@ Celeste - You rock, what an inspiration that you're doing this! Who cares if your kid doesn't have the accent down perfectly? His 2nd language ability will be reflecting his own reality/experience since he didn't grow up in the Philippines, but in the US - though he'll still have a deep connection to it. And like I was trying to convey to Erin above, he'll forge connections to world cultures in a richer way - even those that aren't his own heritage - just my humble opinion!

October 18, 2011 | Registered CommenterResearchMama

Hi Jacqueline - my husband and I also share a strong desire to have our son learn a language, which has been challenging with recent changes at his elementary school (and perhaps doomed at the outset when he failed to get in the Spanish immersion program in our neighborhood school), and I think whatever efforts you make in whatever language are worthy for our children in at least making them aware of other languages and more importantly trying to introduce them to the ways in which learning another language can open doors to amazing experiences and relationships across the globe. I was a Rotary exchange student in Italy (and subsequently studied Italian in college and did some time there as an au pair), and I had the great fortune to spend my year with a wonderful family that I have kept in touch with for over 20 years. Italian is not a language I get much "use" out of, but the relationships I have with the family members there are precious. This October I cashed in all my frequent flyer miles and took my 8-year old son to Italy to spend a few days in Venice and then spend a week with my former "host" family in the Veneto, primarily spending time with the mother and my host brother but also meeting the grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins etc. He was showered with such affection and admiration (you can imagine how Italians might fawn over a lively and engaging 8-year old boy). It was a real linguistic work-out for me, not having spoken much Italian in the last 20 years - fortunately I found my comprehension was great, just took some effort at times to express myself. My son however was oblivious to my halting Italian and assumed a greater fluency on my part, and he himself took great interest in picking up words and phrases and was encouraged to use them. At the end of our trip he was actually moved to tears when our train pulled away from my host mother and brother. When he expressed his desire to visit them again, as well as an aspiration to be a foreign exchange student, I was gratified that the trip had achieved exactlly what I had hoped - that first and foremost my son would have the chance to know and develop his own special bond with these wonderful people that I had the great fortune of making a part of my life, and also that he would see the ways in which learning another language - even one as arguably "inutile" as Italian - can fundamentally change your experience of the world. Wth the language skills to communicate with the local people, a visit to a foreign country becomes more than just seeing a new place and trying some new foods, it is also an opportunity to cultivate special relationships with others that can last a lifetime. Anyway, that's my two cents (or more) on efforts to expose our children to another language - every little bit counts!

November 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa Robertson

Melissa – What a great story, and I totally agree that even a tiny bit of foreign language exposure opens the door to the whole world. And your experience that even 20 years after the fact, your language skills came around is a great testament to “it’s never too late” and “it doesn’t have to be perfect.” Thanks for sharing your experience! And if you’re in the Portland area, and ever want to practice your Italian, email me through the site and I can hook you up with a small group of ours that includes other 8-year-old kids. Good luck -- or I should say, in bocca al lupo -- with continuing the second language development!

November 30, 2011 | Registered CommenterResearchMama

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