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How I raise my child bilingual

Posted on August 26, 2015 by

bilingual

My name is Mara. I’m from Italy and, like many people that work at Babbel (and live in Berlin), I have a child with someone from another country. In this case, with a German. What can I do to make sure my child learns Italian well? What resources are available to me? Here you’ll find out what I’ve discovered.

Guten Morgen, Papa, buongiorno mamma!” (“good morning, Dad” in German, and “good morning, Mom!” in Italian) is how my day starts… at least when it’s a good one. Otherwise, it starts at six with a “Mama, aufstehen” (“Mom, get up!”). Apparently, the command to “get up” is, for my son, inextricably bound to his other native language, German.

You’ve no doubt already understood the situation: At home we don’t just speak one language, but two. They should both coexist peacefully. And they should both also be taken seriously – namely as two different languages and cultures that equally belong to our everyday life. A small child doesn’t understand that this difference exists or that the mother speaks one “language” and the father another. He only knows that sometimes it’s better to speak with certain people – his mother and maternal grandparents, for example – in a certain “manner”, and with other people – his father, paternal grandparents and friends in kindergarten – in another “manner”.

But this difference isn’t always apparent, especially when the parents speak and understand both languages. An Italian co-worker even told me that her daughter (also Italo-German) perceives the two languages as different “voices” – the “Italian voice” and the “German voice” of her mother. A black British friend told me that his daughter associates the English language with skin color. This means that because his black grandparents speak English, his daughter thinks all black people speak English.

“The awareness of two (or more) distinct languages comes later,” says Elisa Leonardi, co-founder of the Italian school and German-Italian cultural center SI. In the following interview, Elisa gives me more info and tips on raising children bilingual.

Elisa Leonardi: “Here at SI, we offer courses for children and adults who want to learn a language or further their knowledge of the language they already know. For example, we have Italian courses for bilingual Italo-Deutsch children growing up in a German environment. These children already understand Italian, so it’s more a matter of expanding their vocabulary with things like creative learning workshops: The “fun factor” is of vital importance in order to create a positive feeling around learning the target language. For example, we had a workshop on biology – how to build a volcano and make it erupt – and one on astronomy that the kids found fascinating.

Although the kids speak Italian amazingly well and communicate in Italian in their lessons, they speak German to each other when they’re alone in their breaks. But that’s normal. My son, who used to speak Italian with me exclusively, started using German when he began school. He wants to be integrated and accepted like the others. It’s a question of identity. And when I found out through conversations with other parents that this relationship to languages is common, I was able to relax.

Even though it was hard for me in the beginning, I never forced him to speak Italian. It’s important that he expresses himself in the language in which he feels most comfortable in the moment. But I can still “teach” him Italian by using a few tricks and by always combining learning with something fun: we listen to songs in Italian and read stories together. In this way, his contact to the language is never broken.

The point where children speak without error and can differentiate between the two languages varies from child to child and is also dependent on when the respective parent devotes him- or herself to speak in the child’s “weaker” language. In my experience, children who grow up in a German environment with an Italian mother often speak better Italian than those who grow up with an Italian father. Perhaps because the mother has spent more time with them from the beginning on (Author’s Note: or because us mothers just speak more?)

When children refuse to speak in the weaker language, you shouldn’t force them to switch. They will eventually realize that some people (visiting grandparents, for example) don’t understand a language and will switch automatically. This switch has to come from a natural impulse. That mostly happens when they play with other children: the need to make oneself understood and to integrate when playing is an crucial component of language learning.

The most important thing is that you never laugh at the child and never correct them directly. In time, they’ll come to understand the differences between the languages on their own. Especially when you actively try to keep the relationship to the language alive.”

There are many things to master. Everyone who has a child with someone from another country knows it. But as Elisa Leonardi explains – and many of my colleagues in the same situation have confirmed – the most important thing is that the child builds a connection to “other” languages. In order to achieve that connection, many options are available to us, from books to films to games. A colleague recommended the timeless classic ‘Guess Who?’ for learning how to describe a person’s appearance in a fun way.
If you’re learning a language as an adult, there are many opportunities open to you, too. So what are you waiting for? From films in the original language to food in exotic locales and newspapers in foreign languages, there are innumerable ways to learn a new language. Read about them here. Not to mention all the possibilities mobile devices open for us, whether it be language apps or wearable technologies. In a nutshell, you don’t have to grow up bilingual to learn another language!

Comments

We’re an eclectic group but, man, we work well together! And I conu;l&#8217dt have put it better, Sherry. What a lovely tribute to our years of working together.I think your genre is life – you write compellingly about relationships, and identity, and home. It’s a gift. And thank you for sharing it with us. Keep writing and good things will happen.

my son is 3 years old ,and i start teach my son english 1 year ago , now he can count and pronounciate some simply words

Being bilingual is amazing, your son will be so proud about himself. My son is also bilingual, English and Korean 🙂 love the story that you’ve shared. Great blog!

I am Puertorican married to a Russian, have a son from first marriage who speaks English as first language and Spanish as a second from only hearing it from me since birth and we live in US. I just recently had a baby with my Russian husband and we are talking to her in our native languages. My husband and his family only talks to her in Russian, me and my family in Spanish and my son in English. She’s 9 months and she seems to fully understand the three languages perfectly. She’s started to talk and most comes out in Spanish but when my husband (who doesn’t speaks Spanish only understands a bit) talks to her in Russian she talks back the same in Spanish. We communicate the meaning of the words that’s why we understand what is she saying but it’s very interesting how she chooses to reply in Spanish since I’m at home all day with her. I decided to finally start learning Russian myself just in case my daughter turns on me talking to me in Russian. 😉 My son is very eager to learn Russian as well so we both will be using application. I read a lot about raising trilingual kids and most articles agreed that we should stay firm and keep talking on our native languages and when they talk to us expect and react only if they talk to us in the same language. It’s amazing how my son up to date knows how switch to Spanish when referring to family members that only speak Spanish to him but if there’s a slightly knowledge of English he goes back to speak English. He does this since he started talking and now he’s 13. As of my 9 months old hopefully she can be fluent on the three languages. I’m super excited about learning Russian using Babbel. Having a bit of hard time with alphabet since it contains letters that I’ve never use before and different meaning for some others but hey nothing is impossible!!

What about couples from two different countries living in another country where a 3rd language is spoken? Advices for Trilingual children?

My Italian granddaughter spoke Italian for over 4 years but heard only English from her mother. On her first visit to New Zealand at 4 yrs 6 months, she was speaking English fluently, and for the first time. With a slight accent that progressively disappeared.

I’m an English grandparent of a 3 year old granddaughter she lived in England for 2 and half years then moved to Germany mother German father English, I think I should learn German or should I continue to speak to her in English? My son is continuing to speak to her in English whilst he learns German and she is picking up German really quickly after 5 months

Maybe people are shy of learning Greek because their alphabet is different ?
It’s a wonderful place to visit and they are very welcoming people.

I’m a British grandmother and have lived in France since 1976.
My British grandchildren 19, 15 & 14, born here, speak French as their most familiar language but all three understand English easily because each have one parent using English quite a bit and I speak English to them almost exclusively. (I do speak French easily) The two eldest now use English when confronted with a non-French speaking person. But they speak French to me and I reply in English: we both understand this bi-lingual conversation.
It’s quite a surprise to hear them speak English as they are fluent but have a French accent !
The two eldest also have a Belgian papa. So when they hear Flemish, or German, spoken they understand the gist of it and the one who is learning German at his Lycée does it easily.
I’m learning Italian with Babbel because I’d like go be able to communicate with people when I visit Italy.

Hello Penelope,
Thank you so much for leaving this very interesting comment on the Babbel blog!
Your multi-lingual family story sounds very interesting and we would like to know if you would accept that we write a “user portrait” about you and your story with languages.
We would just need to interview you on the phone and then write a blog article about your story, which will be sent to you before publication for approval.
As a token of our appreciation, we would like to renew your Babbel subscription for an additional 3 months. You can directly reply to press@babbel.com if you are interested.
We are looking forward to hearing back from you!
Best regards,
Pauline from the Babbel team

Why no Greek?

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