Bilingualism in children

With reference to your article on the above subject in the June-July edition of the Reporter, you might be interested to hear of my experience with bringing up bilingual children. As soon as my children were born, I spoke nothing but English to them, whereas my husband (Italian) always spoke Italian.

Stop signIn spite of hearing two languages from the start, my elder son started to speak before he was a year old. When he was just 3, we went to live in Zaire, where he soon picked up French as a third language at nursery school.

My younger son was only 6 months old when we moved to Africa and therefore heard, not only English from me and Italian from my husband, but also French which was the lingua franca among the children, and Lingala from the domestic staff. Probably as a result of this, although he understood all four languages, he did not speak until he was 3 years old - and then with a stammer! However in no time at all, the stammer disappeared and he was able to express himself in all these languages.

Both my sons went to English elementary school, first in Africa and later in England, and then to Italian secondary school (a "language lycée" where they were able to keep up both their English and French, and to learn Spanish as well). My elder son was the only child who was not 100% Italian in his class and, as you mentioned in your article, hated being "different" and being spoken to in English in public. My younger son, on the other hand, was one of several 'half-and-halfs" in the class, and did not feel any different from the others. In spite of the fact that one somewhat blinkered teacher suggested that my sons might get on better at school if I spoke Italian to them rather than English (to which I replied that it was better for me to speak 100% fluent English with an English accent, than sometimes incorrect Italian with an English accent!), I persevered. As a result, my two sons are absolutely fluent in both "mother-tongues" and are now continuing their studies in English with great success at foreign Universities (one American, one English) here in Rome, where they obviously have the upper-hand over their Italian fellow-students. In addition, because of their multi-lingual upbringing and the fact that my husband and I work with a United Nations organization and have friends of diverse nationalities, they are able to converse with ease with guests or answer the phone in several languages.

In contrast to this, I have several English friends who also married Italians, but who only spoke Italian to their children, for fear of confusing them when they were young. The result is that these children, now adult, STILL speak English with an Italian accent and do not have the same grasp of English colloquial expressions as my sons!

I therefore encourage any foreign girls who marry Italians to make sure that they speak their own language with their children. Not only is it a missed opportunity if such children are not brought up to be bilingual, but it also means that they are losing a large part of their cultural heritage.