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”