The trials of raising a bilingual child in small-town Italy

I’m raising my child to speak English in Italy, not just anywhere in Italy but precisely in a small town in Sicily.

Unlike the major cities on the peninsula like Rome, Milan, or even Palermo, with large ex-pat communities and English international schools, I’m the only English speaker in my local community.

This is great if you want an ESL tutoring monopoly, but it can be isolating and intimidating when you want your child to be fluent in your native language. I feel Italian is always getting the upper hand over English, but after 12 years of battling, it seems my struggles are beginning to show results.

After pigheadly sticking to my guns in the past, arguing with my in-laws and other people around me who thought I’d delay my son’s speaking, confuse him by mixing two languages, and give him problems at school with his dication and reading. I’m proud to say I’ve been speaking English to him since he was born; he has never been confused, began reading at the same time as his classmates and is conversing well in both languages, apart from a slight Italian accent, due to a lack of interaction with other English speakers.

To make it through the journey, which is by no means over, I’ve done an endless amount of reading on how children acquire different languages, and the most effective method, which is the one I have used, is the ‘one speaker language’ system. That is when a father and mother speak two different languages, and each chooses to speak their tongue exclusively to the child.

Experts suggest that the child can introduce a third language by spending a certain amount of time with a nanny, grandparents or a playgroup that exposes them to another language, which brings in another tongue through socialising and play. A parent and child can also learn a third language together in the home or through travel experiences.

The idea of two languages is confusing enough for me but not for my son Matthias who seems to have handled it all with great finesse. It has been difficult to speak English to a child surrounded by Italian speakers in Italy. Occasionally I shift back and forth as we find ourselves in the presence of other people who don’t understand us or in general conversation. Still, when we are alone, it’s all English, and I find when he talks to me, it is automatically in my language.

The real challenge for me was exposing my son to English from many other sources such as t.v programs, DVDs, YouTube videos, podcasts and other kids. My son does not speak with other children in English as there are no expats where we live in provincial Sicily. It has been challenging to find resources here, so often, trips home to my native Australia have meant stocking up on things like DVDs and books. Thank goodness for online streaming services like Amazon Prime and Disney plus.

Over the years, I have used iTunes to download helpful cartoons or podcasts to develop my child’s interest in words and language. Places like Book Depository and Amazon are excellent sources for physical books, which are of fundamental importance to encourage early learning.

It is usual for one language to dominate over the next, especially when living in a country where it is the predominant language. Still, the important thing is to nurture both languages, use them both and make them interchangeable and natural for the child.

Despite my worries, I am persistently surprised when Matty understands complicated instructions in English and how he says one word in Italian and the next in English. He easily translates for his father, who doesn’t speak English, and he is proud when his classmates ask him to help them with their English homework. He speaks with a very heavy Italian accent but can hear when something is mispronounced. I guess persistence is the key, and it is essential not to lose energy or focus, as language acquisition is like a game for the child. So I take a deep breath and try to keep up the enthusiasm.

Since my son only speaks English with me, I’ve been careful to make sure he interacts with English as often as he can, which means Skype calls with his grandmother, trips to Australia, plenty of cartoons and movies in English and above all, many English language books.

Matthias loves wildlife documentaries, so we have acquired a collection of BBC World DVDs, and like most other boys, he has been through phases where he has wanted to learn about everything from Dinosaurs to Sharks. I have used his interests and passions to encourage his love of English too.

My son loves words and stories; whenever he hears a new word in English or Italian, it will immediately spark his interest and ask its meaning.

Since he is a preteen and loves his iPad, phone and computer, he picks up a lot from messaging on Roblox, Youtube videos and online.

When he was younger, bedtime stories were sacred, but he’s getting too old for bedtime stories, so we have been having long talks before bed where he shares the story of his day, or I tell him something else that has happened to me.

I encourage him to read, so he’s chosen a book he’ll read over the summer.

As your child grows and develops, you generally must adapt your methods according to their interests, attention span and personal development. Every child is different, so be persistent, and language acquisition will eventually manifest itself.

What stage of the bilingual journey are you in with your child?