Being expat

Which language to choose?

When my son was born, my husband and I were living in Italy and expected to stay for a long time. Italian is one of my two mother tongues and it was very natural for me to talk Italian to my son from the beginning. Our home languages were Italian (me and my son), Swissgerman (my husband and my son) and German (my husband and me). When we moved to the Netherlands my son was 2.5 years old and he started to go to a dutch daycare twice a week. After two months he stopped talking Italian to me. My husband was still talking Swissgerman to him and I noticed that my son preferred to answer me in Swissgerman or Dutch. I supposed this was just a phase and carried on talking Italian with him, sang nursery songs, told him stories and rhymes etc.

My son was 3.5 years old when my daughters were born: he still didn’t speak Italian to me but was perfectly able to understand everything. I even noticed that he spoke Italian to other children (but not to adults). When my daughters were about one and a half year old, they developed a secret language when playing together. This is not unusual among twins (see my upcoming post about the secret language among twins). My daughters were attending dutch daycare for 2-3 days per week at that time and my son started to go to a British school. So they were exposed to one more language. I realised that their language was becoming a problem in our family, as my son was starting to be upset not understanding a word of what his sisters were saying.

Heavy-heartedly, my husband and I decided to narrow down the languages in our lives. We agreed on “sacrificing” the language we were talking with our son and opt for the one we had in common. I said goodbye to Italian and my husband to Swissgerman and we started to talk German altogether. At the same time my son told me that he didn’t really like Italian anymore. – I was a bit disappointed, but I understood that he did decide this on his own and respected it. His opinion about Italian surely helped us to decide to change our home languages, despite all the warnings professed by the research about raising bilingual children. I was very aware about the risks we were running and prepaired to deal eventually with our children refuse to talk.

But this didn’t happen. After two months my girls stopped talking the secret language and started to talk German and Dutch when playing together. I still went on telling them stories in Italian and sung Italian nursery rhymes. For me, storytime and singing-time is the international time there are no boundaries language wise! We have books for children in every language we’re exposed to and we enjoy sharing them.

Since two years now we regularly spend our holidays in the Italian part of Switzerland, where my sister lives with her family, in order to guarantee a regular input of Italian. Our children love it and I am very satisfied with how everything turned out.

Today, 5 years later, I can only say that changing our home language was the right decision for us. My son reads and writes perfectly in English, Dutch and German and reads and talks Italian too. As for my girls, they attend the same school as my son and talk 3 languages every day and are keen to learn Italian.

Sometimes multilingual families have to refrain from all the good advices research on multilingualism give and decide what’s the best for their family. In our case, we opted for a solution that helped our children and it turned out well. Personally I found it quite hard to stop talking the language I considered more natural to talk to my children, but I’m a native-speaker in German too, so this decision was all right from a linguistic point of view. But I’m pretty sure that if this secret language wouldn’t have occurred, I would be still talking Italian.

Did you make a similar experience? If you are a bilingual parent: which language did you choose to talk to your children?

If you would like to find out what happened next, please read the follow-up post “Which language to choose? Part 2”

32 replies »

  1. I am bilingual, but the language I would choose to speak to my children would depend on the country I would be living in: In the Netherlands, I opted for Polish (my mother tongue). If we were living in Poland, and my husband spoke it, I would speak German to them.

    In the end, your choice was a good one to make even if it was a hard one- especially when, as you say, research on multlingualism shows that one shouldn’t refrain from speaking a mother tongue. This can create a pressure, and doubts, and you are right: a family has to do what is right for them.

    And, in the end, your children are learning Italian. Maybe not from the beginning, but they are willing, and they will still learn to speak it well.

    • I agree. Fortunately I had the chance to rely on my other mother-tongue to solve our problem, but I was wondering if the children would accept this massive change. Up to that time they were exposed to german mainly in a passive way – my parents didn’t visit that often during that period and our german-speaking babysitter often switched to dutch… However, I think that children at that age can easily adapt to language-situation changes. And yes: now my son really likes to talk italian, but with a slight german accent (…). I often wonder how his italian would sound today if I hadn’t had to stop talking italian to him.
      At a certain point of the decision-taking process I even considered to carry on talking italian to him and german to the girls, but it seemed weird to me to use two different languages with my children. Let’s not even mention the OPOL (but I will discuss about this in another post).

  2. You’ve already read my story on language, so you know that our plans did not happen either. I’m okay with it – but it took me some years of not feeling guilty from the research and other families doing it. It just didn’t work – our priority was having a close relationship and it seemed it wasn’t going to happen unless we spoke a common language in the home together. Thanks for sharing this post with me. Made me feel we really did make the right decision.

    • Yes, MaDonna,I had the same feeling for almost 3 years. I was wondering if skipping italian wasn’t unfair or just not right. As I’m bilingual – italian and german – I struggle several times per day (!) because I just would like to say things in italian. But I know that for our situation we had to take this decision. I’m so glad I found you and your blog! – And thanks for following my blog! (I just saw it ;-))

  3. Hmm it seems like your blog ate my first comment (it was super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I submitted and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.
    I too am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to everything. Do you have any points for inexperienced blog writers? I’d really appreciate it.

  4. Great post – very interesting. Fortunately my wife and I only have one language to choose from! Or, unfrotunately… ? Anyway, great insight. I’m glad it worked out for you.


    • Jeff, I must say that I often struggle with my decision to “only” talk German to my kids, as part of me would like to talk Italian too. It’s part of a bilingual (or multilingual) beeing: the need to express themselves in the different languages they know. I now sometimes talk Italian to my hustband, also when the kids are there. They understand everything and I feel much better. I think that choosing only one language, for a bilingual parent, is quite hard… – Thank you for your reply! I’m happy you found my blog and that I found yours! 😉

  5. French is technically my mother tongue but growing up in the States, leaving French school at about 13 and then living in the US and UK til I had my kids, English is most definitely my dominant and most fluent and rich language. At first speaking French to my kids was really awkward but little by little it became natural. Eventually the eldest started pushing for English as she was well aware most of the people around her spoke it. And of course now as her questions get more complex, I want to speak English to her more as it is easier for me to explain things in it.

    For me the compromise has been to alternate days knowing that she was getting good French exposure at her French school. I am also making a concerted effort to improve my French. In a way we are sort of learning it together.

    Our spanish is all over the place. It will be interesting to see what happens next year when I start homeschooling and we introduce Spanish more formally.

    Thanks for the wonderful post; I think we all need a reminder to trust our instincts.

  6. Thanks, Cordelia, for explaining your situation here. It’s funny what you say about learning French together with your daughter. Every bilingual has one dominant language, and in your case this would be English, right? I’ve read a few of your posts (still have to go through them all!) and your situation is quite complex. Especially now that you’re going to homeschool, and add Spanish in a formal way. This can be quite positive though, that in the “school-situations” your kids will know that they have to speak coherently Spanish with you too. I would love to know more about how you do prepare the homeschooling and how all this works out for you. And yes: trust your instinct. It’s good to know theory in order to avoid major “mistakes”, but in the end, every family has her own linguistic dynamics. – À la prochaine 😉

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