One of the benefits of being in a dual-language household is that there are twice as many words we can claim Oliver might have said, even if he was just flailing his tongue around randomly. Case in point, last night at dinner, Oliver said, “Dai!” which in Italian means “come on!” (and incidentally sounds identical to “die,” which I’m sure won’t lead to concerned parent-teacher conferences in the future). I’m pretty confident it was accidental, but like all good parents, we love to pounce on anything our child says and infuse it with meaning. It seemed to fit the context: I was halving some raspberries for him, which I don’t know why I bother to do since he shoves 17 of them in his mouth at once, and Oliver impatiently shouted “Dai!” as in, “Come on Daddy, pick up the pace!”
We’re trying to be pretty intentional with teaching our kids Italian. Elisa only speaks to them in Italian and I sometimes do. We know that they’re getting immersed in English everywhere else—at daycare, with their American grandparents, around town, and often in our home since we usually lazily speak to one another in English—so I’m trying to give them as much Italian exposure as possible. Originally, we thought that it would be best for me to speak English since it’s my first language, but after doing more research we changed our minds. This article from Slate argues kids are actually “really good at extrapolating from the patterns they hear and filtering out noisy data,” which means I can breathe easy about consistently screwing up the subjunctive tense. Additionally, as I mentioned, our kids are getting plenty of English input elsewhere. We don’t need to worry that by me speaking mediocre Italian to them, they’ll somehow be unable to speak either language well.
When in doubt, more language input is better—even “bad” input.
One of our biggest concerns is that Oliver (and eventually Margot, but she can’t even hold her head up yet, let alone speak multiple languages) will learn both languages, but only respond in English. At the moment he seems to respond (or not respond, depending on his mood and whether the words are “Don’t touch that!”/”Non toccarlo!”) equally well to both languages.
When Elisa lived in the Netherlands for grad school, she was an au pair for a Chinese couple who had studied in Iowa. Their two kids were young, 3 and 5 I think, and both completely understood Chinese, but I can’t recall hearing them say a single word in Chinese during the entire two weeks I visited Elisa. They only spoke in English.
Bilingual kids only speaking in the culture’s dominant language is actually really common.
There’s a great post over at Bilingual Monkeys about this (in fact, the whole blog is really helpful). The author offers a lot of helpful tips for what he thinks are the two main obstacles to a child developing both her/his languages: need and exposure. We try our best to expose Oliver to Italian through watching Peppa Pig in italiano and through reading Italian books at bed time, in addition to everyday talking. As far as need—and time will tell on how effective this will be—I am blessed with a very stubborn wife. Elisa plans to not respond to English as Oliver gets bigger so that he knows that when talking to mamma, he needs to use Italian.
We still have some time though. Here’s the run down of words Oliver says in each language:
Go, Up, Bye bye, Yeah, No (technically the same in Italian, but Elisa says he says it with an American accent), Dada (really neither, but more English than Italian)
Acqua (water), Cacca (poop… yeah), Ciao ciao (bye bye), Mamma
So, he’s got a bit of a head start with English. The main reason is most likely that he has more English input, but I also have another theory (that I can’t find evidence for, which means that it’s probably not true):
It’s easier for kids to initially use single syllable words and English has more of those than Italian.
Notice that all the Italian words Oliver knows are two syllables (okay, “ciao ciao” is two words), and that all but “acqua,” which is the most recent acquisition, are actually repetitions of the same syllable. With English, they’re all one syllable or repetitions of the same syllable. Now, I know a sample size of one does not a study make, but it at least seems intuitive to me. Longer words with more syllables require you to be able to control your tongue better, so kids would be more likely to pick up more words from a language with many common single syllable words than languages where the common words are multi-syllable. So it might be frustrating at first if Oliver doesn’t pick up as many Italian words as English ones, but maybe we just need to be patient and trust that he’ll get there with both languages eventually.
[Note: I wrote this on Friday and then edited it on Sunday and was reminded that Oliver also says “Here ya go,” so all of the above may be, as the Italians say, cacca.]