I never felt the need to learn a second language until I had a child
Learning a second language was never a priority growing up. My previous post about my monolingual childhood regrets explains how my parents chose to speak only English with me, though my father is a native Italian speaker and I could have been raised to be bilingual.
Fast forward a few years and coincidentally I found myself living in Italy married to an Italian. My language skills were very basic on arrival, I could meet and greet but that was the extent of my knowledge. Living in Rome, I was able to easily get by. My friends were mostly English speakers. My husband and I spoke English together so that he could improve his fluency. And I was working as an English teacher so I was speaking English all day. Though I was living in an Italian speaking country, I was based in an international city where I didn’t really “need” to speak Italian.
My language learning journey was motivated by my bilingual child
When my husband and I spoke about raising a family, there was no doubt we would raise our children bilingually. Having taught English as a second language to many young children, I had seen the benefits and wanted that for my own children.
However when I was pregnant awaiting the arrival of our first child, I started to realise that raising a bilingual child meant he would speak a language I did not speak. Sure I was confident that he would learn English and we would be able to communicate. But he would simultaneously be learning Italian, and speaking with my husband and his family in Italian. I already had difficulties speaking with my in-laws. We only visited them a few times a year, and it was only for a few days or weeks at a time, not nearly enough for me to acquire fluency in the language. My husband was my translator most of the time.
I found myself thinking and worrying that I would be missing out. I started asking myself questions like:
What if I can’t understand what my child is saying?
Am I am going to be isolated from a family conversation?
What if he speaks Italian first?
What if he doesn’t want to speak English?
Learning a language like a child
Experience showed me that the best way to learn a language is naturally, like children do. When children learn a language, they don’t study grammar, they don’t worry about if they say something wrong, they simply just talk and go with it.
Our son was going to be born in the Summer in Rome, Italy. If you have ever been to Rome in the Summer you will know how hot and humid it can get. My husbands family live down in the south of Italy by the coast, where we usually spent our Summer holidays. We decided that I would go and stay there for a few months after the baby was born and that he would travel back and forth depending on his work. This way, I would not only have full time help with the baby, but I would be immersed in the language and forced to learn.
Awaiting the arrival of our little boy, we enrolled in a birthing class which was once a week. Everything was in Italian so I quickly learned words like “travaglio” (labour) and “spingi” (push). I was kind of glad that I couldn’t understand everything they were speaking about, because I am sure I would have been more scared than I was. I would take home the notes and printouts they gave us and try to work out what the words were. It wasn’t enough to really learn the language, but it was the basics of what I was going to know when in the hospital at least.
Full Immersion in a second language
My “full immersion” started a few days after the birth of our little boy. I was far away out of my comfort zone when I spent almost three months surrounded by Italians who couldn’t speak a word of English. Based in a small town in the south of Italy where foreigners, especially English speakers are almost unheard of, my husband was the only person I could speak with in English, and of course my newborn baby boy, who couldn’t speak back.
With my husband back in Rome most of the time, I didn’t have my translator. I was forced to speak what basic words I knew, and invent hand gestures for those I didn’t. A simple conversation that should have taken 2 minutes, took about 10minutes back and forth, and looked more like a game of charades. I didn’t know if I was tired because I was up every two hours at night with a newborn baby, or from my brain working overtime learning a new load of vocabulary. Either way, I was exhausted.
Finally some Progress
Slowly though I started to get somewhere. Words I learned the days before came back again when I needed to use them, and I started to recognise sentences and repeat them. I really did sound like a child starting to talk, I had the vocabulary of a two year old, but I was learning something new every day.
New people would come to visit me and our son every day, baring gifts and asking about the birth. I was able to use the new words I learned in our birthing classes, I was so proud of myself. I spent many days at the beach with my sister in laws, who were also keen to help me improve my Italian.
After a while people started complimenting me on how much my Italian had improved. My husband who wasn’t around for a lot of the time really noticed each time he came to visit. By the time we moved back to Rome, I was able to have that 2 minute conversation in just half the time it took me before. Sure my grammar wasn’t perfect, but I could get along with people, I could understand most things, and I could speak freely even if imperfectly. What was more important to me, is that I could understand what people were saying to my little boy when they were playing with him.
As he got older and he started to talk, my son and I learned new words together. I always listened carefully when my husband and other people spoke to him, because they spoke slower and clearer to him, than they would speak to each other.
When our first was just two years old, we had a second child, and we moved back to that little town in the south of Italy where we now live, and I continue to improve my language skills daily. Though I continue to speak English to my children, and I teach English to other children, Italian is still the main language I use in the community.
It is widely agreed that children learn languages quicker than adults, and in my experience it has proved to be true. Now, having been immersed in the Italian language for a few years, I am quite fluent but still have an English accent. My children on the other hand, have true Italian accents, and sound like native Italians. I am just happy that I have learned a second language, and that I am always able to understand my children, whichever language they are speaking.
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