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Moving abroad: Preparing for a change in the community language

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Moving abroad: Preparing for a change in the community language

We have recently made the decision to move our family abroad where there will be a huge change in the community language. It sounds strange for me to say move abroad, because actually I am moving back home. I have been abroad for the past 12 years. But, for my family, they will be moving abroad and it will have a huge impact on my children, especially because their language exposure will change dramatically.

I am originally Australian but live in Italy with my husband and our two children, who are almost three and five. They were both born here in Italy, and while we have visited Australia a few times, Italy is where they call home.

Both of my kids are bilingual and speak Italian and English to a native level. I am sure they will have no problems communicating in Australia, however it will still be a big change for them. While speaking to my eldest son, who will start school next year, he asked me which language kids will speak at school. When I told him that both his teachers and the children will speak English he was a little disappointed.

“Will my teacher’s speak Italian?” he asked. “No, they will speak English as well” I replied. His lip dropped and he said to me with a worried tone “So nobody will speak Italian with me?” I couldn’t believe that my four year old would even thinking about this. I explained that Papà will continue talking in Italian with him all the time, that won’t change. I then explained that if he wants, we can all speak Italian together.

Changing Language Strategies

My husband and I have been talking about changing or language strategy for a while. At the moment, we follow OPOL – One Person, One Language, and it works quite well. With this strategy, the minority language can sometimes suffer, however as I have been the main caregiver it hasn’t been a big issue for us as I spend a lot of time alone with my kids. I am proud to say kids speak English to a native level.

Things will be different in Australia though. We know that once we move, the exposure to Italian will decrease drastically. After all, English will be the community language, and multilingualism isn’t as common in Australia as it is in the rest of Europe.

I am lucky to be able to work at home now and I get to see my children a lot during the days, so their English skills have kept up with their Italian, (even if they do speak English with a slight Italian accent). However, in Australia their father will be the only exposure to Italian they get and I worry it will suffer.

My husband and I have agreed that to make up for it, we will (try to) make Italian our home language. This way, our children will have enough exposure to both Italian and English.

The challenges ahead

We are at the point now where my children don’t speak any Italian with me at all, that they laugh at me if I even try. So changing language strategies will be a big challenge for us all. I have started joining in with my husband and our kids, singing songs which they don’t seem to mind. (Even if they do correct me on the words, I definitely need to learn some more Italian songs!)

In the evenings we read books as a part of my kids bedtime routines. They have a few favourite books in Italian that they love. Usually they read these with papa and I read English books. The other night they wanted one of their favourites “La Gruffolo Piccolina” (The Gruffalo’s Child). I made it like a game, and offered to read the book with them so that I could “practice my Italian”. At first they laughed at me. But then, surprisingly they let me get through the whole book. I offered to read another one, but they politely declined, preferring that I read one in English. I didn’t mind. One step at a time I guess.

I tried a few times to join in conversations with their Papà speaking Italian, but they don’t like it, and immediately my toddler tells me to speak in English. I thought because I was able to sing songs and read books that it would be fine, but I think I will have to work on conversations a bit more.

The other challenge I have is that my Italian is my non-native language. Although I can speak Italian quite well, I am by no means fluent. I am trying to improve as much as possible before we leave, however I am not sure that I will ever comfortable speaking Italian full time. I am motivated to try though. I can sing songs, read stories, and have a conversation. But, the emotional language will be tough.

Many parents who speak a non-native language with their children say that they have problems communicating on an emotional level. They mention saying “I love you” feels different when not spoken in their mother-tongue. For me, I don’t think this will be the main issue, because I love saying “Ti amo” or “Ti voglio bene” I think it sounds nicer in Italian than English, and it means just as much to me.

I worry more about being able to communicating on a higher level. Talking about problems, being quick to think on my feet when asked a tough question, and educating my kids, teaching Italian when I can’t speak it perfectly myself. I worry that eventually they are going to overtake me with Italian vocabulary and I won’t be able to keep up with them.

Thinking of the future

Over the next few months, I want to keep trying to slowly introduce Italian into our conversations so that it becomes natural. Even if we get to a point where we can start mixing a bit of both languages, or they at least let me speak Italian without complaining, it will be a start.

One of my biggest goals in life is for my children to grow up to be bilingual, biliterate adults. To speak, read and write, both languages to a native level. I worry that if my husband is the only person speaking with them in Italian, it won’t be enough for us to reach that goal. So, I am willing to work harder for that to happen. If I have to sit and read and sing to them every night in Italian, I will do so. If I have to do work books, helping them learn to read, write and study Italian with them as they grow older I will. If I have to study to improve my own Italian skills to help them I will. I would love to eventually get to a point where I feel comfortable speaking with my kids in Italian, but I worry it won’t be the case. I guess time will tell.

Look out for part two of this post and I will give you an update once we arrive. Have you been in this situation? Do you have any helpful tips for preparing for a change in the community language? I would love to hear them!

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1 Comment

  1. Emilie

    Hi Chontelle,

    I’ve become acquainted with your site in recent months, and have been reading a number of articles on it in the past few days. I’m happy to come across this one, and would love to see the sequel if there is one (or more!).

    I can’t give you any tips, as we’re only expecting our first baby in June, and your blog has been a major source of tips for me…! However, I am really interested in learning how it’s been going now that you’re back in Australia (if you are), as I expect a somewhat similar situation to be a reality for me and my family when my kid is approaching school age (in about 4 years).

    I am originally from Canada, with English as my first language, and I have also been able to keep up decent French over the years. I have lived in Colombia for 14 years and am fluent and extremely comfortable in Spanish (so much so that it kind of pains me to “have” to speak English with my kid, but I know how important it is and am slowly getting motivated to do it). My husband is Colombian, with his first language being Spanish and having a decent level of English (though somewhat broken).

    We plan to continue living in Colombia for our daughter’s first 3-5 years, and move “back” to Canada when she is approaching school age. We also plan to live in Hong Kong for a couple of years, some years (4-7) after that, and want to introduce Chinese (the debate between Mandarin and Cantonese was a whole other affair but we’ve settled on Mandarin).

    Because we know keeping up Spanish will be a challenge in Canada (and Hong Kong!) without lots of reinforcement at home, I *think* we’ve settled on the following strategy, which seems to be an adaptation of the OPOL and situational / context strategies, I think:

    – Mom (me) will primarily speak English to her, with French in certain contexts (ie. a particular area of our home, when gathered with a French expat group, and I think a suggestion I saw about introducing a puppet that speaks only a certain language looks like a good idea for our French practice, too).

    – Dad will speak Spanish to her.

    – Our common family language will be Spanish.

    – We will look for a tutor / nanny / babysitter who can play / sing / read with her in Mandarin, for a few hours a week right from the start.

    – She will go to a French Immersion school (that also has a half-hour of Mandarin per day, as well as the required English lessons) in an English-speaking part of Canada.

    – When in Canada, we will ensure much more interaction with my English-speaking family.

    I’m writing this partly to clarify our plans for myself (LOL), as well as to see if you have any suggestions that could help us with the goal of a multilingual child in these languages, based on your own experience or the experience of others, and if any of your other readers have pointers for us, I’d love to hear them!

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