Bilingual Babies
Cate interviews Babel Babies teacher Helen about bringing up her children with Italian and English at home.
It’s just over a year since Helen joined our little language revolution as a teacher of our baby and toddler multilingual music classes in Gloucestershire, and to mark the occasion we thought it would be nice to get to know a bit more about her and her adventures with languages.

So Helen, you have two children, Joe 6 and Marta 3, who you are bringing up with English and Italian. Can you tell us a bit more about life as a mum of a bilingual family? Do you have a plan, or are you making it up as you go?

H: There’s no plan! It is just sort of happening as we go. Enrico, my husband, is Italian and just speaks to the children in Italian, and at home we speak Italian 90% of the time as a family. Enrico is really strict about only speaking in Italian to the children, and we have the radio on in Italian, listen to Italian pop songs on the way to school, skype with Nonna in Italy every week, and read loads of books in Italian.

Have you met with any resistance from the children about their two languages?

The children speak English to each other, and usually speak to me in English. Their Italian is really good, and they understand everything Enrico says to them. Joe will explain things to Marta and help her to understand Italian. It’s lovely to see him supporting her. The children have some phrases that they only say in Italian, like ‘posso schendere?’ at the end of meals to leave the table. Basically, they seem to say whatever is the easiest or shortest route to communicating, rather than picking a language to say it in! They often say ‘posso…?’ plus a verb as it’s simpler I suppose. I wouldn’t say we’ve met much resistance, but Joe is pretty shy and wouldn’t be particularly talkative in English or Italian, so it’s hard to say if he’s being shy or resisting speaking Italian with people he doesn’t know very well. After a couple of days in Italy though he is obviously thinking and dreaming in Italian and right at home with his Italian friends, so I know he can do it. He’s even asked to go to summer camp with his friend Alberto this year, so he’ll really be immersed in it then.

Do you have any worries about bringing up your children bilingually?

Not worries as such, as I believe we are doing the right thing, but it is different to what I imagined before we had the children. They take more prompting to speak Italian than I thought, as I was always really keen to learn it since my Grandmother was Italian but didn’t teach it to us, and when we visited family in Italy I felt put out that I couldn’t speak it as well as I wanted to. So I guess I expected the children to really want to learn it, but for them it’s just a normal part of life. And sometimes Marta uses Italian words at nursery, like she always says ‘latte’ instead of ‘milk’ and doesn’t really know why people don’t all say ‘latte’, but I’ve seen how Joe sorted his two languages out in his head when he was 4 or 5, and so I’m not worried that Marta is mixing the two. She’ll soon get the idea of which groups of people speak which language. It just takes some time, and nursery have been really supportive, bringing in Italian recipe books to look at with her, so she can teach them the Italian words for things.

Any tips for other parents thinking about bringing their children up with two languages?

Read lots of books! Every time we go to Italy I spend at least a day lost in a bookshop, looking for books to bring home with us. Joe can now read in Italian, which is something I’m so proud of. His level is not as good as his English reading, so in Italian he can read illustrated books but nothing more complicated than The Gruffalo yet, but it’s amazing how well he’s doing. He also really loves little workbooks, you know the kind where you fill in the blanks to complete the words. He loves doing those kind of exercises.

Does Joe get confused at all with reading in two languages?

A little bit, when words look the same as in the other language but mean something different. Like the other week his reading book was about a monkey, and it kept referring to ‘the ape’. Joe got confused about why there were lots of pictures of monkeys in the book but no pictures of the bee the story was about, because ‘ape’ in Italian means bee. Also the English word ‘come’ he reads as the Italian word ‘come’, but he soon works it out.

Any other advice to share about introducing two languages to our children?

It just takes time, and dedication to the minority language, so stick at it! I’m really glad Enrico only speaks Italian to the children, even if we are with our English friends or family. Our families are really supportive of the children’s bilingual upbringing, and my dad in particular loves it. If people aren’t supportive, and some aren’t, then don’t let it put you off. Keep reading loads, as early as possible, and don’t worry if you’re not where you expected in two or three years: you are on the right path and it’s an amazing journey.

Grazie, Helen! It’s wonderful to hear your real-life experience of bringing up your children bilingually. Have a super summer in Italy and we will look forward to singing songs in lots of languages with you at our Cheltenham and Winchcombe baby, toddler and preschool groups in September.