How to raise bilingual children by not ‘teaching’ them a single word

Posted on June 09 2018

I’m very excited to present our very first guest post by Sara Bussandri, an ex-business analyst who decided to change career and pace of life in 2016 to raise her 3 sons and follow her passion of writing and living a more intentional life. She writes over on her own blog http://www.mindyourmamma.com - a brilliant site full of resources and advice for busy mums to help them live a less stressed and more mindful life. 

Having moved to London in 2003 and currently raising 3 young children of her own Sara realised how important it was for her sons to speak her native Italian in order retain that connection with that side of their heritage and allow them to connect with their Italian family at a deeper level. Here, she writes about the techniques she’s used with her own family and suggests ways that those of us wanting to introduce, or continue to speak, another language or two could employ with our own kids. 
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“Let’s pretend to be English,” I said to my brother. I was about 8 years old and living in Italy. I didn’t know a single word of English. And yet, up and down the slides of that Italian playground, my 4-year-old brother and I spent the whole afternoon talking nonsense to each other. With our parents watching on from a distance, we let our imagination run wild, and I still remember that day so vividly.

Fast forward to 30 years later, and I can only see the irony of that situation. Now a mum of three boys living in England, I wish my children were more confident with their Italian-speaking abilities. As they get older and spend less one-on-one time with me and more time with their school friends and with each other, their English has definitely become their predominant language. But it wasn’t always that way. Until the age of two or three, we could be walking around enjoying our gelato on an Italian summer afternoon, and you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between a born-and-bred Italian child and my English-born little ones. 

I feel saddened when I meet bilingual or trilingual parents andfind out that their children only speak the language of the country they live in. “We’ll teach them when they’re older, they say,” but unfortunately that’s not how it works. With a passion for languages from (clearly) an early age, I’ve always worked hard to make sure my children could communicate with my parents. I’ve employed many a strategy over the years, and here are some of the best ones.

The one-person, one-language rule

It doesn’t matter whether it’s your native language or a foreign language that you’ve learnt and want to pass on to your child – if you want your children to speak a language, you have to speak it yourself. There’s no ‘teaching’ involved here. You don’t have to wait until your child is old enough to hold a pen or read a book. In fact, if you’ve waited that long, you’ve probably left it too late. So start as early as possible (and yes, the womb counts!) and always speak to your child in that language, no matter what. It doesn’t matter if they don’t quite understand you yet. It doesn’t matter if they can’t answer you. And it certainly doesn’t matter if they talk back in another language. You stick to yours. 

If and when you start switching languages when speaking directly to your child, they’ll know they have a choice of different ‘codes’ they can use to speak to you. And when the language of the country you’re living in becomes so strong that it’s the one they feel most comfortable with, that’s the language they’ll start to pick to communicate with you. But only if you switch yourself. Stick to your language and be firm no matter what and they won’t lose your native (or chosen) language. My children only started to wobble when I got too comfortable and (alas) started forgetting my Italian! 

The one-place, one language rule

Sometimes when a parent is bilingual, they may struggle to stick to one language. If the one-person, one-language rule isn’t going to work for you or your family, create a one-place, one-language rule. So in my case, I could speak English with my children when we’re out and about and with other people but when at home we speak Italian. Anchor the language to a place, and your child will be able to switch easily.

And please don’t think they’re getting confused! You’ll be surprised – a two year old can turn to mummy and speak Italian and a second later turn to daddy and speak English (or whatever language combination you have in your family). They may not be able to articulate or comprehend what Italian or English are, as such, but they know exactly how to speak to you when they need to. And they don’t struggle with it, because their amazing little brains are able to build connections at a speed that we can only dream of. So please don’t wait until your child is older to introduce your native language to them.

Read to them

You probably already know how important reading to your child is. But for bilingual or trilingual children, it’s fundamental that you read to them in your native language (or the language you want to share with them). I remember one morning when I was sitting a children’s centre with one of my boys. He grabbed this book from the shelves and asked me to read it. And off I went, reading in Italian. While my boy didn’t bat an eyelid, another mum sitting next to us, surprised, looked over my shoulder. “Oh, they have foreign-language books?” “No, I said, I’m translating as I go. We talk about the pictures, and I tell him the story in Italian.” I’m pretty sure she must have thought I had lost the plot.

If you have access to books in your native language, make sure you stock up on them. If they’re not available where you live, grab some if you have a chance to go and visit the country. Or if you have friends and family coming over and staying with you, ask them for books! I’m sure you can find some online, but they’ll be more expensive or you’ll have less of a selection. Naturally, you may not have that many book in your native (or chosen) language, so just make up stories. Look at the pictures together, flick through the book, and talkabout numbers and colours. Animals and vehicles. Give them the vocabulary they need to have conversations about the real world. And fantasy worlds too! Can you think of a better way to deeply connect with your child?

Find inspiration in the mundane

When your children are little, you don’t have to talk about science or literature. You can find inspiration everywhere. As you change their nappy, talk to them about what you’re doing. As you’re going for a walk together, talk about what you see. At bedtime, tell them a made-up story. Or something that happened to you when you were little. Talk about your family.The places you know. The things you like to do. Label everything. They’ll absorb all that vocabulary without you having to ever sit down and teach your child a single word.

And yet, you’re giving them the greatest gift of all. The ability to build a world in another language. Connect with people far away. Share a secret code with you.

The ability to be creative and be inspired.

This post was contributed by Sara Bussandri. Sara is a writer, blogger, and author. She helps and mentors online business owners with blogging, copywriting, and content-repurposing. She also supports and encourages non-native English speakers like herself to promote their businesses through writing (in English!) Find her over at her blog http://www.mindyourmamma.com

The Story Corner resources: Story cards, Story stones. 

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