Raising a Bilingual Child

Our daughter is bilingual in English and Italian, and some people have asked “how we did it.” There really wasn’t much to it. While I was pregnant, I read the only book  I could find on the subject (The Sun is Feminine Amazon UK | US), which happened to be written (in English) by a German linguist married to an Italian. She suggested following the “one parent, one language” rule: each parent should speak only one language (preferably his or her native one) with the child, right from birth, so that the child is able to identify each language with a specific person, and thereby learns to keep the languages separate.

So that’s what we did. For the first 15 months of her life, Ross was mostly in the US, from then on she was mostly in Italy, but, wherever we were, I addressed her only in English, Enrico only in Italian. Enrico and I communicated in English, as a matter of habit – I didn’t speak Italian when I first met him! But when we were with Italian speakers I spoke Italian, and Ross heard me doing it. So by age three she decided that, while she could understand English perfectly well, there was no need for her to go to the effort of speaking it, since it was obvious that everybody understood Italian. I would always speak English to her, and she’d always reply in Italian. Heads would turn on the street as people tried to understand what was going on.

The summer she turned four, we took her on a trip to other parts of Europe, visiting various friends. One couple were English and German, raising their own bilingual kids in Germany. Rossella realized that she had to speak English to be understood by these adults, but for some reason she remained convinced that all children spoke Italian. My friend’s son, the same age, was similarly convinced that all kids must speak German. They struggled for days to communicate, until Ross finally said to him, in great frustration: Ma tu devi parlare inglese! (“But you have to speak English!”)

We didn’t have a TV for the first couple of years we were in Milan; we got one around Ross’ third year so that she could hear more English, on videotape. We got a multistandard VCR so we could watch films imported from the US, and built up an impressive collection of Disney movies. (Fortunately, Enrico and I liked them, too.)

If Ross were growing up in the US, it would probably be difficult to get her to speak Italian. Many American schoolkids don’t value the ability to speak a foreign language, and of course no child wants to be observed doing something uncool or different. But, in Italy, she gets lots of positive reinforcement for being bilingual. When she was in elementary school, her friends’ parents used to say: “Go play with Rossella and learn some English!” And everyone tells her how lucky she is to speak it so well.

We know several other multilingual families, and it’s interesting to observe which language the kids will drop into, depending on environment or what they’re talking about. In one family we know, she’s a multilingual Italian (speaks Italian, English, French, and Spanish fluently), he’s German. Between them they communicate in English, the only language they have in common. He speaks only German to the kids, she only Italian. So they hired an English-speaking nanny, and the kids are trilingual. Another couple are Americans whose kids were born in Italy, attended Italian schools, and spoke English at home. The parents sometimes spoke French as their “secret” language when they wanted the kids not to understand something, which motivated the kids to learn French! (Ross has been taking French in school; many schools offer English and a choice of French or German.)

It’s no longer necessary to maintain linguistic purity for Ross’ sake, so our family language has become an idiosyncratic mix that still causes heads to turn. I was wondering recently why people stare at Ross and me in the subway when we speak English; English speakers are not rare in Milan. Then I realized that they’re probably staring because we’re not speaking pure English; we blend it freely with Italian, especially when talking about activities that take place in Italian, such as riding or school.

Being bilingual has disadvantages. I sometimes realize after the fact that I’ve said or written something that was far too literal a translation from one language or the other. An American friend, who’s been in Italy even longer than I, once said to me: “I’ll make a jump at the new house on my way back.” This sounded weird in a way that I couldn’t immediately put my finger on. Then I realized that she had translated literally the Italian “Faro’ un salto;” Italians use “make a jump” the way English speakers use “stop by.” That’s what she meant and what I, being fluent in both languages, heard. Anyone who wasn’t bilingual in English and Italian would have been thoroughly confused.

11 thoughts on “Raising a Bilingual Child

  1. malina

    As a linguist, I find it unbelievably ignorant!!! to claim that German and French are that unrelated to each other. Indoeuropean have very similar structures, and you better make some more research before writing such nonsense. Also, multilingualism is in no way that more easily achieved in Switzerland than anywhere else as I know from my own experience.

  2. victoria

    I just think you misinterpreted what she meant by “THAT” unrelated. Sure, they have “very similar” structures … but I don’t find the languages similar at all. Not to say that German is not closer to French than say, Chinese. But, I speak English and French, and I can’t understand much German at all. But I do understand a lot of Italian from French because of the Latin-link that German doesn’t have. I don’t find what she said to be ignorant at all. “Multilingualism is in no way more easily achieved in Switzerland than anywhere else as I know from my own experience.” You’ve lived everywhere in the world? From my own experience also, I “know” that you’re wrong, to be blunt. There is a certain stigma given to people who don’t speak English in the US (“speak American,” as if it is unpatriotic), and the fact that in Switzerland they do regularly speak the different official languages and respect their multilingualism. Some places in the world are not nearly as accepting of these cultural and linguistic differences. The US is also extremely isolated in comparison to Switzerland, and so the country’s push to learn other languages (besides Spanish) is minimal at best. (“Oh, you’re taking Italian classes? Why not learn a useful language, like Spanish? What are you going to use Italian for?”) Of course it is more easily achieved in Switzerland.

  3. maire kolb

    Hi reader,

    everyone makes their own expierence, when one speakes about learning more languages it´s going to positive or negative anyway. Why? If you have a positive outlook and enjoy life, then learning languages is fun. If you are more negative and life is hard work, of course learning is less fun. Anyone who wants to bring up children with different languages, please do. Important is, one must speak the “Mother tongue” only, one person one language it´s the way forward to teach languages. It´s fun, go ahead and enjoy. I work “English immersion” in a German KiTa and the kids love English, I never force, how I work… we have big fun, laugh and play all day. It´s the best paid job in the world, I get paid for playing and having fun with kids all day!

    enjoy life, Maire Kolb

  4. Richard Davies

    My girlfriend was born in the UK to an Indian father & German mother.

    Her parent decided early on (she has two older brothers) that it would be best to speak English around the house as it was the common language between parents & would help the children fit in better at school.

    As well as English my girlfriend has a degree in both German & French & does know a few words in various Indian languages.

    One of her brothers has married a woman of Panjabi origin, who can seemlessly switch between Panjabi & English, normally when speaking to family members.

    One of my sister’s friends (born parents Spanish & has lived in the UK from when she was young) can do the same between English & Spanish.


  6. Anita Esteve


    I would love to know what is the best thing to keep french going being my children who are bilingual!
    They are aged ten , eight and four!

    The little one speaks french at the moment but the other two speaks english to each other!
    I keep and try and remind them to speak french at home but there are struggling with the concept.

    At first, we were putting french dvd’s but now they want english!

    As my children are not academic, I feel it is extremely important for them to speak french especially for my son who is going to do french next year in the secondary.

    Can you please let me know what is the best thing to do rather than me nagging them!

    Thank you very much and look forward to hear from you soon!

    Anita Esteve

  7. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    I’m guessing you’re not in a French-speaking environment now? I’m not an expert, but my own experience is that they need what they themselves consider good reasons to make the extra effort to speak another language. Our daughter understood English but couldn’t be bothered to speak it until we took her (at age 3) on vacation to places where people didn’t speak Italian – then she realized English was useful. We only bought a TV and VCR so she could watch movies in English, and didn’t at first allow her to see anything in Italian.

    Perhaps your oldest will be more motivated to speak French at home when he has to study it in school and realizes he could have an advantage over his classmates. If you can get French-language films and TV channels and find some shows the kids like that are only available in French, that will help. Then there are lots of great kids’ books that originate in French – Asterix and Tin Tin comics are some of my old favorites; just don’t tell them that those are available in translation. 😉

  8. Jennifer Failla

    Thank you for posting this article and for continuing to inspire me. I speak only Italian to my children and although praised for their ability to be bilingual, I have caught my fair share of criticism as well. This really reinforces what I am doing and inspires me to continue. Thank you!

  9. Mathieu Simon

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m a spon of a swiss-german mother and a french father, so I’m enjoying being quite native bilingual adding english at school. I can confirm that it’s being considered a worthy skill in Switzerland to speak a least two languages since I grew up in the german-speaking part. I think simply because we’re in such a small country.

    My parents have indeed been tried to talk in their native language with me, now that I’m grown up and don’t have that many french collegues, we talk as much as possible in french at home, but sometimes some german idioms drop in. ;)- But when I go to France or Belgium being surrounded by all native french-speaking people I realize that I have to clean up my french from introduced ‘swiss-germanisms’ – and always come back with improved french skills from such trips.

    Meaning: Even though I had the opportunity to learn french pronounciation a bit earlier/easier than other swiss-germans I continously have to keep my language skill up. – Or else it will get lost. :-/

  10. Oliver Gready

    Dear All,

    It is very interesting to read about bilingualism and the reports that have been posted by researchers. The advantages and disadvantages are for me truly amazing as they really make me think about what it really means. I was brought up bilingual and never really took any real notice of it as for me it was ‘normal’. I now attend an international school and are really involved now with bilingual people daily and I must say I thoroughly enjoy it because it’s so special!

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