How I raise my child 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!