Creating a multilingual lifestyle for our kids, inside the home and out
“Mummy, let’s go to the part, we can bring our bikes, come on let’s go” My four year old yells, holding the front door open. When I hesitate to answer, he runs up to his papa on the couch and pulls him by the arm calling “Papà, andiamo fuori, portiamo la bici daiiiii”. Just like many other bilingual kids, he switches languages depending on who he is talking to. Languages have become a natural part of our children’s lives and we have created a multilingual lifestyle to make our kids comfortable using them.
Creating a bilingual home
I am originally from Australia and didn’t learn a second language until I moved to Italy with my Italian husband. It was having children that actually motivated me to learn.
When we decided to raise our children with multiple languages, I knew that I would have to put extra effort in myself speaking English. I am the only English speaker they are in contact with, apart from video calls with my family back home and occasional travels. I accepted that Italian would be the stronger language, but I knew I wanted to keep up their English so that they spoke it to a native level as well.
For this reason, I have only ever spoken English with my kids, and my husband and the rest of the community take care of the Italian. We have been quite strict with the OPOL approach from the start. Even when my children were younger and resisted, I persisted, encouraging them to speak English as much as I could. As a result, they are bilingual and speak English to a native level for their ages.
Making our bilingual home, a multilingual one
Just before our eldest son turned three, we decided to introduce a third language. Our kids have a “playmate” Ana, originally from Argentina who comes to play with them in Spanish. Neither my husband nor I speak Spanish, so this has been a huge challenge for us. We are trying to learn along with our kids but it has been a lot easier for them.
Ana has only ever spoken Spanish with our kids, and from the very start they have been expected to speak back with her in Spanish. Just like with my husband and I, they have learned to associate one person with one language.
Outsiders aren’t always understanding
Parents and teachers at my children’s school used to look at me strange when doing the school run. Because I speak to them in Italian, and then switch to English when I speak with my kids, even in front of them, and whoever else is around. They have gotten used to it over time and just kind of stare and smile now.
When people find out that our children are learning a third language there are mixed reactions. There are some who think it is great. Then there are others who actually feel sorry for my children for having such a burden. They assume that somehow I am pushing my children too hard. What they don’t understand is that kids can and do learn languages quite easily, and my kids are learning in the most natural way.
The other main issue is that there are people who think it is rude speaking in a language they can’t understand. I have many people ask me why I speak English with my kids outside when everyone else is speaking Italian. I have had to explain our situation more than a few times.
My children only hear English from me, and we are not always at home. If I start switching to the community language when we are out, a vast amount of their minority language exposure will be lost. I also ask Ana to keep to Spanish when she takes my kids outside, or when others are around. Consistency is very important to us, and for our children.
There are some people that disagree with our choices and that’s fine. We live in a very small town, and not everyone is so open-minded or educated on bilingualism. It may seem rude to others, but it is no way intended to be.
Keeping in touch with both cultures as much as possible
We don’t just live a multilingual lifestyle, we try to live a multicultural one too. We live in Italy, but I try to keep as much of the Australian culture within our family. While the language is important to us, keeping touch with their cultural heritage is just as important.
I wouldn’t say we live the full Italian lifestyle here. We try to mix a bit of both cultures into our day to day lives. We eat different foods, listen to different types of music, and celebrate both countries holidays each year.
We try to give our children exposure to both sides of their cultural heritage so they grow up to appreciate their family background.
Our children often visit Ana’s house too for lunch on a weekend where they experience full immersion into a third culture, something we are unable to give them ourselves. Her family only speak Spanish in their home, which is a great bonus for our kid’s Spanish exposure. Ana’s mum usually cooks up a traditional Argentinian meal and they will dance around to traditional music. It is something my kids enjoy and look forward to.
Mixing with multilingual friends
We are also very lucky to have many multicultural friends who have bilingual and multilingual kids themselves. Though they don’t all speak the same languages. Between us, our eight children speak Italian, English, French, Spanish, and Swedish. Our children speak Italian together, but have no problem switching with their parents who speak the other languages. There are times where we are all in one room, with five different languages being spoken at one given time. Our kid’s have been brought up to embrace it.
Living a multilingual lifestyle
Creating a multilingual lifestyle hasn’t been easy. We work at it every day to make languages a priority. We have been able to create a multilingual home giving our kids exposure to three different languages and cultures, and have been lucky to be able to enjoy multilingual friendships. I can only hope that our children will continue on their multilingual journey and make their languages the norm throughout their lives.