Category Archives: parenting

Bible Stories

When Rossella was still in preschool and I was travelling to the US a lot for work, I brought her with me several times on extended trips, usually while Enrico was also travelling for mathematical research. So Ross experienced daycare in several different places in America, which was good for her English, and gave her exposure to American culture.

The year she was four, she was slated to spent some time with me in California. Before she arrived (accompanied by Enrico), I went to look at daycare centers with the wife of one of my Italian colleagues, who also had a young child. At one center the owner said, in a very aggressive tone: “I have all the kids recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning.”

I had my own run-in with the Pledge when I was a kid, so you can imagine how I felt about this. “But these kids aren’t even American,” I protested.

“All the more reason for them to realize how lucky they are to be here!” she snapped. We decided against that place.

The only other option was an avowedly Christian daycare center. I was worried about what kind of indoctrination we might come up against, but the place was bright, cheerful, and clean, and I liked the staff, so I decided to risk it. I gave Ross a talk about how these people might tell her a lot of stuff about God, and she wasn’t to feel bad or strange if she didn’t agree with it; she was always free to make up her own mind.

She came home one evening and told me excitedly about the Bible stories she had heard that day: the adventures of Jonah and the whale, and Noah.

“Do you think that stuff is true?” I asked worriedly.

“Oh, no!” she said brightly. “They said they were stories!”

Nov 18, 2003

My friend Ivo wrote: “When I was in the US on my first day of high school [9th grade, in Georgia] I got the teacher yelling at me because I didn’t stand and recite the pledge! He said: “Are you Russian!? Would you prefer to be in Russia!?”

When I explained that I was Italian and had no idea of what that funny thing was, we found an agreement, and for the remaining 2 and a half years I was expected to stand up, but could avoid speaking or keeping my hand over my heart!”

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.

When the Mom’s Away…

I began travelling for work when my daughter Rossella was in preschool. Sometimes I went for extended periods, and took her with me; she attended daycare in several different parts of the US, which was good for her English, and gave her exposure to American culture. For shorter trips, she stayed home in Milan with Enrico, who is a very good father and fully competent to take care of his daughter.

The mothers of Ross’ preschool classmates weren’t convinced of this, however.

“I’m off to California for two weeks,” I would announce.

Collective gasp:”Who will take care of Rossella?”

“She does have a father,” I would respond, amused.

One of Ross’ teachers told me a story to illustrate just how incompetent fathers could be: a father one morning had to get his daughter up and dressed for school. She arrived neat, clean, and nicely dressed in a blouse and skirt. But, to the teachers’ shock, lacking underwear.