What made me passionate about raising bilingual kids
I grew up monolingual, speaking only English, although i could have been raised to be bilingual.
My father was born in Italy and is a native Italian speaker. However, he and my mother chose to speak to me only English when I was born, so I wasn’t raised with a second language.
I was raised with a lot of the Italian culture, and I learned a few words here and there from my grandparents who didn’t speak English, but nothing more.
My father would always say “why do you need to speak Italian? We live in Australia, everyone speaks English.”
Sure everyone we knew did speak English, except for my grandparents, who I was unable to have a conversation with.
My grandparents immigrated to Australia in the 1950’s when my father was just a young boy. They left Italy in a time where things were tough and moved to the “lucky country”.
They moved into a small Italian community in the suburbs of Melbourne where my father and his siblings learned English at the local school. My nonno (grandfather) learned the basics at work, however my nonna (grandmother) never learned to speak English at all.
As a result I grew up never being able to communicate with her.
I vaguely remember visits to my nonna’s house, where my sister and I would be laughing because we couldn’t understand what she was telling us.
At the time for us, it was funny, but she would get so frustrated, and now I understand why.
I can’t even begin to imagine what that would have been like for her, not being able to communicate with her own grandchildren.
Moving to Italy
I never had any plans to move to Italy.
After university, I left Australia on what was supposed to be a working holiday. Originally, my plan was to stay no more than one year. Work in London for 6 months, and then travel around Europe before heading home.
However arriving in the UK mid winter, I didn’t last very long. Plans changed and I worked myself around Europe as an English Teacher.
Each year telling myself, and everyone else, “just one more year”. After three years, I was actually ready to return home. It was then, that I met an Italian on a trip to Malta.
Before long, my plans had changed again. I found myself living in Rome, and a short time after, married and raising our two little boys in Italy.
I learned Italian over the years and have become quite fluent.
Knowing that my children would speak a language that I should have grown up with, really pushed me to learn the language myself.
My nonna was so excited when I went to visit the little town where my father grew up. I met all of his aunties and cousins who were just as excited to see me. Although my nonna had visited a few times over the years, my father had never returned.
Speaking with my nonna for the first time
The first time I was able to communicate with my nonna, was on a visit home, a couple of years after moving to Italy.
By this time she was in her 70’s and my grandfather had passed away years before. I will never forget the smile she had on her face when I started speaking to her in Italian. She certainly didn’t expect it, it was such a surprise for her.
There I was standing in front of a person I had known my whole life, and we were able to understand each other for the first time. The feeling was unreal.
Through my entire childhood and teenage years, we had been unable to communicate, except for the few words I knew in Italian, and the few she knew in English.
As a child, I never really knew the difference, but when I think back now, it makes me incredibly sad that I was unable to communicate with someone in my own family.
I won’t make the same mistake
Along with the many benefits of being bilingual, my own situation is one of the main reasons I am raising my children to speak both of our native languages.
My husband and I decided right from the start that we would raise our children bilingually.
It is extremely important to us that our children speak both Italian and English at a native level. It is equally important that they learn about both cultures, and their family history.
We are doing everything we can to ensure they get a good balance.
I don’t want my children in the same situation as I was, unable to communicate with an important person in my life because of a language barrier.
I want them to be able to form close relationships with both sides of their family, Italian, and Australian. I don’t want our parents to feel left out of our children’s lives.
I am happy that I was finally able to speak with my nonna before she passed away. It was just unfortunate that it took so long.
I think she would be proud of me for living in Italy and learning Italian. I think she would be proud of me, too, for the effort I am making to ensure that my children are able to communicate with their own grandparents.
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Does it have to be a sense of regret? Not trying to nip you, but if you look at the bigger picture, even if you cannot communicate all that well, it’s really obviously that you both loved each other and knew it. Language barrier doesn’t have to be the “be all end all” for a relationship. I couldn’t speak to my grandmother all that well either, and haven’t seen her so often, but when I did, and even though I cannot speak fluently, whatever I could speak, along with the actions really made it meaningful. A deep so called conversation doesn’t have to be the only way to make something meaningful. And of course because I loved my grandma, I was interested in improving my language skills. I have no regrets just because I can’t speak my family’s language, but I do feel really blessed to get to know her before she passed away. There’s no reason to fret about it. Apparently a lot of people are missing the bigger point.
I hope you don’t force your culture and language onto your kids and let everything become natural to them and encourage them. So many people are trying do this and it just creates resentment.
Thank you for your comment. I am glad you were able to have a relationship with your grandmother 🙂
I am definitely happy that I got to spend time with mine before she passed away, however I do believe if we were able to understand each other earlier in life, that our relationship would have been stronger. I don’t force my culture and language on my children, it has become a natural part of their lives from the day they were born. They are both bilingual and understand both languages to a native level (for their age). I also make learning about culture fun, so they enjoy it 🙂 I believe children should learn about their heritage, it is a part of them. If it is a natural process, then they won’t know any different, and that is the best way 🙂
Dear Ms. Bonfiglio, you have a point. Communicating with grandparents is one of the best reasons to raise a child bilingual. It is not a matter of education, only a matter of heart. I knew personally a Moroccan cleanlady whose child learns and speaks Italian at school, French with Mum and Moroccan Arabic with Dad, and the good reason given was he should be able to communicate with grandparents when on holiday at their home.
On the other side, I knew also the young daughter of a couple of engineers, Italian and Brasilian, working abroad. The young girl, international school educated, spoke perfect English, somehow understood her parents’ language, but was not able to speak them.