Tag Archives: language

Which language to choose (part II)



Steter Tropfen höhlt den Stein

Steter Tropfen höhlt den Stein (Photo credit: tschoppi)

 (“Constant dripping wears the stone”)

Raising bilingual children is not only a commitment and demands lots of energy to provide the regular inputs, maintain the passion for the language throughout all the years, but also requires to be flexible.

Almost two years ago I wrote a post about the language choice we had to make within our family and how we managed to still keep up with the languages we didn’t talk on a regular basis.

When I stopped talking Italian to my son 7 years ago, I obviously hoped that some day he would ask to learn it. Among my children he is the one who started earlier with reading and writing, and he is  very talented in languages (and literature in general).

This year he had the opportunity to follow classes in Spanish and French and I was very pleased to see that he loved both of them. We had very long discussions about the similar vocabulary, the difference in orthography and, of course, the analogies with Italian. This exposure to related languages made him realize that talking Italian is valuable too. It wasn’t the first time he heard those languages, but learning about them at school, in a setting with peers, made them apparently more valuable for him. For me this was a very interesting aspect. I always thought that being exposed to a language in “real life”, i.e. during holidays and with friends would suffice to persuade somebody of the necessity to learn it. But apparently the peer-pressure and the formal setting was the trigger for my son at this stage (11 yo).


English: Chart of Romance languages based on s...

English: Chart of Romance languages based on structural and comparative criteria not on socio-functional ones. Based on the chart published in “Koryakov Y.B. Atlas of Romance languages. Moscow, 2001”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


And then something for me very pleasant happened: my son asked me to talk Italian with him. And he asked it in Italian! This “Vogliamo parlare in Italiano d’ora in poi?” was the greatest gift he could give me. – We now talk Italian in the weekends. Just he and I, when we have one-on-one time. And we both enjoy it very much.

So this is another phase of the multilingual journey in our family I’m really pleased to write about. My son is currently re-discovering books we already had, also those for younger children, but I’m sure this summer he will enjoy the ones his cousins kept for him too, from age 11 upwards.


Rita Rosenback just published a book called Bringing up a Bilingual Child, where she mentions the seven “C’s” of successful multilingual parenting: communication, confidence, commitment, consistency, creativity, culture and celebration.

When we “gave up” Italian and Swissgerman a few years ago, my husband and I were worried that this lack of consistency would affect the language acquisition of our children. We thought that they would not understand us talking German to them, that they would refuse talking back to us in German and that they would forget those languages and never be interested in talking them.

I think that the fact that those languages kept being important for my husband and me, that we would still use them also in the presence of our children – while talking to friends etc. – and that we regularly visited our relatives who talk those languages, kept them easily accessible for them.

I’m convinced that the consistent passive exposure to these other languages helped our son to still have “a good rapport” to them. Like if the door to access those languages was always open. This not only happened for Italian, but also for Swissgerman which he talks with great confidence and the right intonation while talking to his Siwssgerman family. The fact that our children would not actively use them on a regular basis does not prevent them to use and learn them at a later stage in their lives. – I know by my own experience that this can happen at any stage, even when you’re already adult.


Planting seeds of knowledge

Planting seeds of knowledge (Photo credit: CIMMYT)

 “We can plant different seeds, water them, expose them to sun, but can’t predict how fast they grow and when they will come to fruition.”











Monolingual parents and bilingual children?

Many parents wonder if they can succeed in raising their children bilingually. Most of the studies of the ’60-’80 about bilingualism were about monolingual parents who wanted their children to become bilingual. Some parents would share the same mothertongue and the community language would be L2, in some other studies only one of the parents would share the community language etc..

I think that defining a monolingual parent becomes more and more difficult because talking “only” one language, i.e. being monolingual, nowadays is almost impossible – at least for all those who don’t have English as mothertongue*. Everyone studies another language at some point, and will acquire some kind of knowledge in it. Therefore, being exclusively monolingual parents, living in a continuously monolingual context is almost impossible. Especially if we count dialects as languages. – If we agree with François Grosjean‘s definition of a bilingual:

“Bilinguals are those who use two or more languages (or dialects) in their everyday lives”

we can define accordingly a monolingual:

“Monolinguals are those who use only one language (or dialect) in their everyday lives”.



Every family raising bilingual children need a language plan. There are several strategies that can work for monolingual families or monolingual parents. In a (almost) monolingual situation, the strategy would look like this:

                       Parent 1            Parent 2                  Community             

 Strategy 1   Language A      Language A              Language A

Parents would speak their native language and the child would associate the second language (not indicated in this figure) with a certain place or certain person, such as special classes or trips to visit relatives or friends. With an environment not providing a regular input to the child, the parents would need to make more effort in providing exposure to the second language (cfr. playgroups in the other language, language lessons, care givers who talk the other language – and DVDs, CDs, audiobooks, books etc.).

Monolingual parents who want to raise their children bilingually but are not able to support this at home, need to reach out for help and provide a regular input from someone else. With the help of technology this is surely possible and I know many families who succeded, but in the long run, either one parent (or both) would learn the other language and the parents would need to offer regular full immersion programms to their children – during holidays etc. – to foster the learning.

If one of the parents has the knowledge of another language, but the family lives in a Language A community, one of the parents would always address the child in his or her non-native, second language.

                           Parent 1           Parent 2            Community             

Strategy 2        Language A      Language A      Language A

                            Language B

These first two strategies require a special effort and commitment from the parents to provide regular input in Language B, with the advantage that in Strategy 2, one parent would be the regular dialogue partner for the child. On the long run, the child (and the parent) may need more people to share this language with. Playgroups, peers, collaborative teachers and family who either share the same language or at least support the bilingual upbringing can be very beneficial.


If both parents have the same mothertongue but live abroad, the scenario can look like this:

                       Parent 1           Parent 2              Community             

Strategy 3    Language A     Language A         Language B

Both parents would talk Language A to the child and leave the second language (B) to the environment and school. Usually, parents in this situation would learn language B at some point and would probably also be able to understand and support their child during his learning process.

When one of the parents has some knowledge of the community language, this could be the scenario:

                       Parent 1             Parent 2                   Community             

Strategy 4   Language A        Language A              Language B

                        Language B

One parent would always talk the community language (B) with the child, while the other parent would be consistent talking the other one. Language A being the minority language in this case, parents would need to support the child by offering other opportunities to speak language A (with peers, playgroups etc.).

For all the scenarios listed here above, it would be beneficial for the bilingual child if parents would agree on a language planning, be confident, creative, commited and consistent – and flexible, if the language situation within the family changes due to a move abroad or else.


My parents adopted strategy 3 in raising my sister and me bilingually: with German as mothertongue at home and Italian as the local language. They both learned Italian too and talked other languages (English, French and local German dialects). I can say that they succeeded: my sister and I are both bilinguals talking up to 6 languages and raising our children as bilinguals too.



Sign in Switzerland's four official languages

Sign in Switzerland’s four official languages (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


* I’ll discuss the difference with English mothertongue speakers in another post.


Related articles


8 things to say to a bilingual

Bildschirmfoto 2012-08-27 um 11.53.00This post is somehow a response in a dialogical way, to the brilliant post by Rita Rosenback “7 things you should not say to a bilingual child“.

I did experience some of the 7 things she listed up and I totally agree with her that “children can be (very) sensitive about almost anything to do with themselves”, no matter if monolingual, bilingual, multilingual. It’s just a fact. I think that also young adults and some adults feel annoyed by the kind of questions she mentions. Therefore I decided to figure out questions that would not bother a bilingual or multilingual, indipendently if it’s a child or an adult.

1. “Did you live in all the places you know the language from?”

Multilinguals are often also multicultural and they usually grow up very open minded. Therefore questions like “Where do you come from?” seem too restrictive and some consider them really alienating. Multilinguals often possess more than one passport and have lived in more than one place. Or at least they visit their passport countries on a regular basis. But they don’t need to have lived in all the places they know the language from. – “Did you live in all the places you know the language from?” always gives us the possibility to either answer it by a simple “yes” or “no”, or to start a broader discussion about where the languages are spoken around the world, how many people talk them or why we didn’t or did live in the places they’re the national language.

2. “How would you say [fill in the blank] in [one of the languages the person talks]?”

People often are very curious to hear a child (or a grown up!) talking the other languages. Especially if it are more “exotic” ones for them. It’s not unusual to be asked to tell something in that other language. The only thing others don’t consider is that it’s difficult to “just say something in the other language”. What exactly do thy want to hear? Therefore, suggesting a sentence like “Hello, how are you?” or “Hi, my name is X and I come from Y” or a more complex one, helps the multilingual to not just be struck dump… – The positive side effect of this kind of questions is that we can point out the syntactical, lexical, phonetical differences among the languages we know. And this is something most bilinguals or multilinguals like doing.

3. “It’s amazing how you can switch from one language to the other!”

I know that this might sound a bit too much, but many multilingual children get to hear that they surely are not as proficient in language A as in language B (and C, D etc.) and that their tendency to switch from one language to the other is a sign of weakness or that they don’t master the languages yet. – Against all those clichés or false myths: code switching is actually a sign of great mastery of both languages, people should recognize it as a sign of mastery!

4. “You’re such a great example to (other) children!”

When children grow up multilingual they usually not only switch languages frequently but they also change from one cultural group to the other, adapting and embracing diversity. This is a very positive side effect and it is worth to be recognized because it gives those children a very open mindset. They usually don’t judge others by the language they speak or by the culture they come from, they tend to be much more curious and accepting. And this is, in this time of increasingly more global living families, an important asset that should be praised. – The same applies, of course, to adults!

5. “When did you learn all those languages?”

This is actually a question I’ve been asked a few times and I really liked it for two reasons: first, because I felt like the other person is really interested in the languages I speak, and second, because it gave me the possibility to tell more about myself. The conversation was not as superficial as it sometimes can be with monolinguals, or multilinguals who speak other languages than ourselves. In fact, one person who asked me this was a multilingual herself and we ended up talking about how difficult or easy it is to learn certain languages at some point of our life, and about when to start to learn an imparented language or when even it would be appropriate not to.

6. “Which language was easier to learn for you and why, except for those you learned naturally?”

This is a very intelligent question and it reflects that the other person is aware of the different level of difficulty in learning a language. Some are completely different from the mothertongue or one of the “family-tongues” (i.e. languages spoken within one family) but this doesn’t mean that they are more difficult to learn. Sometimes it’s even easier to learn a language from a completely different language-family than one that is imparented with one we already know.

And the second part of the question shows that the person is aware of the different ways someone can acquire (=naturally learning) and learn (=at school) a language.

7. “Do you speak all those languages on a regular basis?”

Being bilingual or multilingual is hard work. Keeping up with all the languages we learned and using them actively on a regular basis is not very easy. First, our parents need to provide inputs for us in all the languages we’re supposed to become proficient for social, emotional or very practical reasons. And then, once we’re adults, we need to find people who speak all our languages in order to keep them active and we need to find situations where to practice those languages. This is the challenge of a lifetime for people who want to stay bilingual or multilingual. – Personally, I couldn’t imagine to live in a strictly monolingual culture, it would be too hard for me to give up one of my languages…

8. “Do you have one (or more) dominant languages?”

This kind of question is obviously not very common. Surely nobody would ask this to a child. It is a question that linguists or people who know about linguistics would ask. We all have one or more dominant languages, also depending on the social context we’re living in: if we need more than one language in order to interact with our environment, those will probably be our most dominant languages. We still know the others too, but if we don’t practice them regularly, they’ll become more passive, secondary. – By asking this kind of question, people can get an idea about our linguistic situation and our preferences.

And what really should be avoided….

Even though I usually avoid telling what not to do and prefer giving positive advice about what to do, there are some really inappropriate things people can say to a bilingual or multilingual person that I would shortly mention here.

First of all, one should always avoid to be judgmental.

Rita mentioned several questions that could be interpreted in different ways, depending on who asks them: “you have hardly any accent”, for example. Some people might really be honestly thinking that you don’t have any accent, i.e. you really speak like a native. Others would say this just because they really think you have one… – But accents are not a sign of weakness or of not being proficient in a language. They just are our very personal “finger-print” and surely shouldn’t be criticized.

In general, a bilingual or multilingual person shouldn’t be corrected in the presence of others. Rita mentioned “You said that wrong!” as one of the many things one should avoid saying to a bilingual child and I can only agree. This shouldn’t be said to anyone. If someone really makes a mistake, remodelling is the key: “You mean [and say the sentence in the correct way, or like you think it should be said…]”.

One other thing that should be avoided is to compare to siblings, friends, partners, spouses etc.. We all pick up languages and speak them in our own very personal way. We all have preferences when it comes to languages and this is as natural as having an accent or having blond or brown hair etc..

One last thing: never ask which language they prefer the most. Every time people asked me this, I felt like they asked me to decide if I loved my father or my mother the most. This is just impossible!

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Can we learn a new language only by listening?

We all know this situation: we understand a language but are not able (yet) to communicate in it. This passive knowledge of the language, which involves already many levels (phonology, morphology, syntax, vocabulary etc.) is very helpful and sometimes even crucial when we want to learn and acquire that language. During the passive language learning process we start more or less consciously with understanding some basic rules of it: Does it have words we already know from another language? Is the intonation similar? We will first listen to the sound of it, then understand the meaning of single words, phrases, sentences and we will eventually feel the urge to say something in this language. Passive exposure to a language, if it is over a longer period, is very beneficial to the learning process.

I have several personal experiences with passive language learning and I’m firmly convinced that passive exposure to languages does “plant seeds”. I was exposed to Swissgerman when I was a kid (around age 4 until 7). It was mainly through TV and sporadic visits to the German speaking part of Switzerland. We were living in Italy and we only had the chance to watch this channel for a few years, because at some point they stopped airing it in other countries (it was the pre-satellite and pre-internet era!).

I know that this early passive exposure was the reason why I never had any problem understanding Swissgerman dialects. Never. – When I moved to Northern Switzerland at age 18, I was perfectly able to understand everything and it took me very little time to talk fluently and even recognize and imitate different regional dialects.

I observed the same with my son. During his first 4 years I did talk Italian to him, my husband Swissgerman and my husband and I did talk German to each other. When we decided to change our family language into German only, my son did switch to talking German overnight. – It was amazing!

My husband and I did then decide to use French as a “lingua franca” to communicate among us adults: It took our son less than a year to understand almost everything we were saying. – He recently started having French lessons at school and I was pleasantly surprised about his excellent pronunciation of the nasal sounds and ability to form grammatically correct sentences.

In the early sixties my mother did learn Italian by listening to the local radio and watching Italian television and, of course, by listening to locals. It were the early sixties and this was the only way for her to get to learn this new language. I am very proud of my mother who managed to learn Italian perfectly within a very short time. It surely helped that she was living in the country of the language she was learning: we all know that total immersion is the best way to quickly learn a new language.

I truly believe that regular exposure to a language, even if you don’t speak it, is highly beneficial once you’re going to need to talk it.

But do we really need a person who talks to us or would a simple auditive exposure suffice to learn a new language?

In the study “Word learning in absence of a speaker” (by Jason Scofield, Amie Williams, Douglas A. Behrend, in First Language, vol. 27, issue 3, 2008) mentioned by Galina in her post “Planting a language tree. Does passive language learning work?“. In this experiment on toddlers of average 32-month-olds was made in the absence of any kind of referential context, i.e. the physical speaker was absent. They found out that “referential context is not necessary for successful word learning” (Dr. J. Scofield, director of The Bama Cognitive Development Lab at University of Alabama). A similar study was done by Sudha Arunachalam, Ph.D. , director of the BU Child Language Lab and assistant professor in the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences at Sargent College. “Monolingual toddlers were able to acquire some word’s meanings when were presented with “the novel verbs without visual access to the speakers, child-directed speech, or discourse context”.” (cfr. Galina)

I agree with Galina, that this research would surely also work with bilingual or multilingual children. I would even assume that bilinguals and multilinguals would be faster in this phase of the learning process because of the inherent cues they would have from the other languages they’re exposed to.

Interesting is, that the words those toddlers were learning were words of objects. Not verbs, adjectives etc. And they were out of context. These children were not listening to a speech, but listening to single names of objects and had to point or touch the right one. Of course, this kind of experiment makes sense with this age group and it really analyzes only one single phase in the language acquisition process. But I wonder if older children would be able to learn more abstract words and whole sentences in the absence of a referenctial context too, and, furthermore, would a synthesized voice in future studies give other results? A human voice still can supply a referential context (i.e. by intonation, accentuation etc.)…

The fact that children can acquire new words without any referential cues is surely impressive, but I’m wondering if the children would be able to use these words in the right context. I really doubt that they would re-use them in a daily context and that they would be able to even learn more complex structures (like entire sentences) without a referential context. In order to really memorize new words we need to repeat them, to hear them and experience them in other contextes and we need feedback (cfr. picture below).

I consider visual cues and feedback crucial during the acquisition of a new language. Especially if we want to consolidate our knowledge. Cues help us to make connections between the new words and those we already know, and we need them to fully understand their meaning and use in the new language. I wouldn’t say that they are always indispensable. It surely depends on the age group, the experience, the knowledge of the person and the kind of learner, but they surely facilitate not only to “match words to the meaning more easily” but also to get second meanings, metaphores etc.

To answer the question in the title of this post: “Yes… but”. Yes, we can learn a new language by listening to it, we will probably (only) learn some words, some sounds but we will need cues and feedback to understand their meaning and their use in other contexts which will then allow us to fix and sort them in our memories.

Demonstrates control and feedback in human speech

Demonstrates control and feedback in human speech (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Related posts:

Passive learning

Learn a Language by Listening to the Radio

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