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First hand experiences with bringing up bilingual children


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My partner and I both speak English and Italian at home. Our son is now 18 months old and is making great progress and already recognise and use many words, but he clearly seems to favour English as I language. I realise he's very young, and anyway that's fine since we live in a English speaking country, but I'd love for him to know Italian and much as English one day. I read every book and article I could find on the subject, but I wonder if anyone had any first hand experience to share. What worked for you? What didn't?

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Dear Laura

I do not yet have children but what I always hear is that it is best when one of the parents just speaks in one language and the other one just his language. So maybe the father speaks only English and the mother only speaks Italian with the child. Like this the child will not get too much confused. 

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I come from a very mixed family, where we speak English and my native Setswana language. My dad is Danish and doesn't speak Setswana at all. So we all grew up speaking both Setswana and English depending on who you were speaking to at any given time. In my experience, there was no conscious step taken, our language acquisition just happened naturally. Children have a greater capacity to pick up multiple languages simultaneously without ever struggling. Now that I'm an adult and there are young children in the family, I notice that they do seem to have their own little minds and will have their own preference, in this case they do tend to lean more towards English. I'd say just carry on talking to them in both English and Italian as there's very little chance of them getting confused. You'll be very pleasantly surprised at how easily they pick them both up :)

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Thanks for your replies. That's exactly what we are doing. I speak English to my son, while my husband Italian, but we don't get to spend the same amount of time with the child. My husband only gets to stay with the little one a few minutes in the morning and at weekends (thanks god for the weekends :wink:), so he's much more exposed to English then Italian. I could counter balance that by taking to him in Italian from time to time, but I'm afraid that would confuse him.

I read that speaking the minority language all the time at home, and expecting a reply in that language, is actually a more effective way to pass it to the child. The rationale is that children can learn the language spoken outside at school, and they very quickly catchup to their classmates. I'm sure they are right, but I would hate for my son to experience being the only one who doesn't speak like the rest of his class.

I realise I'm being a little paranoid, that my son is not 2 yet, and that he will have time to learn both languages, but I feel I'll only get one shot at this, and I want to get it right.

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Wanda, I love the idea of involving the grandparents. I've ask my mum back in Italy if she would spend a few minutes in video chat with our son every week or so, and she couldn't be happier. Right now it's a lot of work: keeping a child still for longer than 2 minutes is no mean feat, mostly because he gets shy and runs away. But if we can keep it up, when he gets a little older, I can imagine him spending hours telling her all the exciting things that are happening in his busy life, you know.. the way children do.

He gets a chance to practice Italian, grandma spends some time with her favourite grandchild, and I take a well deserve break :) 

Thank you all for your replies, I've really appreciated.

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I had several friends with mixed background who wanted to raise polyglot children. It turned out that like in every step of bringing up a child, strictness is important. I had friends where the mother only spoke english with the children and the father only hungarian.

So there wasn't any laziness in practicing :)

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I too like the idea of involving the grandparents. It would be ideal if they were within close proximity of you. I think your son will do just fine, to be honest. It's impressive how much they can learn without seemingly putting in much of an effort. The brain capacity of a child at that age is such that it allows much easier foreign language acquisition than is possible for most adults :)

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The best way to have kids learn two languages is to speak in both to them. When they don't understand something explain it to them so that they use it in their own speech. When they get stuck provide them with new words and after some time you will find that they are fluent in both languages. It is as easy as that!

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I grew up speaking English and Turkish. My mother was Turkish, but she was trying to learn English. It was a little strange because she spoke to us in mainly Turkish, but she often threw in English words. She did that up until she passed away about a year ago. Because she mixed the two languages, I feel I didn't learn the Turkish language to its fullest.

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The best way to have kids learn two languages is to speak in both to them. When they don't understand something explain it to them so that they use it in their own speech. When they get stuck provide them with new words and after some time you will find that they are fluent in both languages. It is as easy as that!

This is so true, @Franco! This is how children in my country of Botswana end up learning 2-3 languages simultaneously from very young. It works ok, and there's never any evidence of any confusion or a struggle, to be honest. I guess like most things, it depends on the children and the languages in question. But I feel that if children here can learn different languages simultaneously, it should be fairly easy for most. I say this because English, my native language Setswana and other languages spoken here are all complex languages and are as different as get.

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Rimzi, thank you for you message and so sorry for your loss. I have lost someone very close to me not long ago.

There is a huge difference between understanding and speaking a language. Children are generally amazing, and they can learn so much so easily, but they also tend to be lazy (we are all guilty of that). In their case it's even more understandable: learning to communicate to them in more important then learning multiple languages at the same time. I have a friend whose son, now 16, understands Italian perfectly well, but refuses to speak a single word of it. I would hate for my son to be the same.

@Franco, I'm tempted to agree with you. It's often the case that we, as parents, tend to overcomplicate things: community language, minority language, and all that. I think however that a child needs a good reason to learn a second language, something that will justify the effort he or she puts in it. I'll just need to come up with more reasons to make it worth his while.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I have two daughters who were both born in Spain. We now live in Scotland. My husband is English.

We are happy in general with how they are progressing with their two languages, but it is not straightforward. You have to keep them going with cartoons, books, music, etc in the weaker language (Spanish for us now) and regular time with the family in Spain.

We have also been taking them to a Saturday Spanish school here in Edinburgh which is amazing. Lots and lots of Spanish children, good teachers and fun classes. The biggest thing is that they want to speak Spanish with the friends they make there and as a result they improve quickly and painlessly.

Kids pick up languages really easily and, as someone else in this thread commented, they understand well but can be lazy to speak. The best way for them and for us is if the whole process is natural and organic and they actually want to speak simply because they want to. Finding friends and fun situations on a regular basis is vital. 

Here are a few other good tips and a bit more on the topic.

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