When you are multilingual and start having kids, you have to choose which language you’ll talk to your children. Linguists always recommend to talk your “mothertongue” to you children. But which is the mothertongue if you are perfectly bilingual? In my case: should I talk Italian or German to my kids?
When our son was born, we lived in Italy and as Italian is one of my mother tongues, it was very natural for me to talk Italian to him from the beginning. Our home languages were Italian (me and my son), Swissgerman (my husband and my son) and German (my husband and me) and we were convinced that he would pick up German automatically too.
When we moved to the Netherlands our son was 2.5 years old and he went to a dutch daycare twice a week since almost immediately. After two months he started to talk less and less Italian to me. My husband was still talking Swissgerman to him and I noticed that my son prefered to answer me in Swissgerman or even Dutch too. Supposing that this was just a phase, I kept on talking Italian knowing that he would at least gain a passive competence in this language.
Unfortunately in this period we didn’t find families with children of his age with whom he could talk and play. He also realized that I did understand and talk all the other languages he was exposed to, including Dutch. So, why should he bother talking Italian only with me?
Then our twindaughters were born. I still kept talking Italian to my kids. I hoped that when my girls would start talking Italian my son would follow them. In fact, they all three did for almost four months when my daughters were 11-15 months old. But then my twindaughters started to communicate in an autonomous language that had nothing in common (neither phonetically, nor morphologically) with the languages they were exposed to.
This secret language became a problem in our family because nobody could understand what they were saying. Against all warings from linguists, my husband and I decided to narrow down the languages in our family and started to talk German altogether. I did study bilingualism and was perfectly aware of all the negative impact this change could have on our childrens’ linguistic developement.
Fortunately, all our children did respond very well to this change: our girls stopped talking the secret language and now, six years later, they all talk English, Dutch and German almost every day and they even talk a bit Italian with our Italian talking members of the family and Swissgerman with the Swissgerman ones when we visit.
When you’re a multilingual parent it is very difficult to teach children simultaneously more than one language. It requires a real commitment and means a lot of work. Some families have fix situations or days where they talk one or the other language. We do have fix times when we talk English or Dutch at home, but I didn’t try this (yet) with Swissgerman and Italian (that would be 5 languages within our family on a regular basis…), but I’m convinced that giving my children even only passive input of Italian and Swissgerman helped them to understand the languages and to even talk when they’re exposed to it for a longer period.
Our initial attempt to raise perfectly bilingual children in Swissgerman and Italian may seem to have failed, but we have now children who talk perfectly English, German and Dutch instead, who have a basic competence in Swissgerman and Italian. Sometimes multilingual parents have to make choices that may not be the ones they wanted in the beginning, but that are vital for their children to survive in the jungle of languages.
If the situation with my daughters wouldn’t have happened, I wouldn’t be teaching my kids to write and read German (our schools’ curriculum doesn’t provide German lessons at an early stage). I would like to teach them Italian too, but my son recently told me that he would like to learn Spanish and French first… Alors, on parlera Français or hablaremos Español instead.
This post is for this month’s Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival hosted by Headoftheheard. This month’s theme is “Hidden Opportunities”.
- “How many languages are too many for a child?” (InCultureParent) (expatsincebirth.com)
- When there’s a will there’s a way to become a multilingual (expatsincebirth.com)
- Challenges raising bi/multilingual kids… (3rdculturechildren.com)
- Which language to choose (expatsincebirth.com)