The holidays are behind us, and – major snowstorms aside – our family is slowly sliding back into our usual routines. Admittedly, I could have done without this snow day today, especially since my kids were only back in school one day, but once we’re shoveled out and the kids have, once again, cleared out of the house, life can go back to normal. I’m sure it’s the same in your household. As wondrous and special as the holidays are, it’s always a pleasure to return to regular bedtimes, normal meals, a break from travel and visits from relatives, and with any luck, a reprieve in meltdowns from over tired, over stimulated little ones ...
Now that 2018 is underway, it’s the perfect time to set new goals. Healthier eating, gym memberships, organizing the house. While you’re at it, why not reassess your family’s goals when it comes to your child’s second language learning. Maybe you’ve had it in the back of your mind to step up your Italian with your child (or any language, for that matter. This doesn’t just apply to Italian). How do you do it? What method do you follow?
A simple search online will yield hundreds of articles and books on the topic. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, parents can quickly find themselves down the rabbit hole of terms like OPOL (one parent one language) versus ML@H (Minority Language at Home). While these methods are undoubtedly effective and yield excellent results, they do tend to leave out a very specific group of parents – the non native speaker. In fact, some of these methods are so strict and intimidating that they can scare off the non native speakers.
I was once one of those parents. While I had spent years studying Italian and was fully proficient, I was admittedly rusty at the time my children were born. After researching a number of methods, I felt not just overwhelmed, but also terribly inadequate. I took all the warnings and pitfalls very seriously, how consistency was everything, how mixing languages was the worst thing you could do. I felt like non native speakers were almost discouraged from even bothering, lest we teach them all our mistakes.
Could I really sustain my Italian full time with my kids? Would it hurt our relationship? Would they get resentful when I pushed them? And then there was that pesky complication of my dialect-speaking spouse. While for the most part, John and I understand each other, the differences between my text book Italian and his dialect are vast. Not just in vocabulary, but also in verb tense. So were my children really expected to learn a third language on top of the second one? One minute it’s an apple, then it’s una mela or if Nonno and Daddy are talking, it’s suddenly una puma.
What was once supposed to be something fun and enriching for our family had turned into a bit of a mess. I was giving up before I had even begun. But my thinking changed one day when I stumbled upon an extremely insightful book. And I mean literally stumbled upon it. It was a summer night and John and I went on a date night to a Barnes and Noble for some coffee and a little quiet time. As soon as we entered the store, he quickly secured two of the big, cushy chairs for us to use, and sitting on the table in front of them was a book that immediately caught my eye. 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child by Naomi Steiner. I love when that happens. When things are literally dropped in our path so we can’t possibly miss them, and then they end up transforming everything.
I immediately loved the author’s approach. It was light and breezy and her love of languages really shined. The book specifically addresses the monolingual family, and I realized I felt more akin to this set than I did the multilingual families. Yes, I was proficient in Italian, but I wasn’t a native speaker. And while my husband was the native speaker, it wasn’t the Italian our kids could read in books or hear in videos. Steiner’s advice made me let go of all my apprehensions about using Italian with my children. We didn’t need to follow a set-in-stone path to bilingualism, and we didn’t need to give up on it, either.
Instead, as Steiner mentions in her book, we needed to set goals that work specifically for our family and then come up with a plan to reach those goals. When I thought about what that plan might look like, I realized how fun this could all be. My mind raced with ideas. We could start slowly, with Italian meal time several nights a week. Then throw in Italian bath time. We could plan outings where Italian would be the focus, and we could prepare the kids ahead of time by reading them books about the topic and playfully introducing pertinent vocabulary. We could designate one stuffed bear as our Italian bear, and whenever the kids played with him, we used Italian.
From there, things really took off, particularly when our youngest came into the picture. So much so that I felt inspired to start an Italian playgroup for families like ours. And from there, Piccoli Passi was born. And while I still regret that I lost so much valuable time when my older three children were little, I can only look forward.
And speaking of looking forward, now that 2018 has arrived, why not take the time to set some goals with regard to your child’s language learning. Remember, full bilingualism doesn’t have to be the goal for your family. Your goal might simply be to start with some exposure to the language. Or to learn enough to chat with Nonno and Nonna about their day at school. Whatever that goal is, take a few moments to lay out a plan. It can be as simple or as involved as you’d like. You can start with Italian story time once a week, if that’s all you’re comfortable committing to in the beginning. Remember, you can always increase as time goes on.
Whatever your goals may be, make sure that having fun is at the top of the list. That’s the true beauty of learning a second language at a young age. It can be silly and playful. Stimulating and creative. It can be seamlessly woven into your child’s current interests, whatever those might be. It can be a special, secret way you and your family communicate. And who knows? It might be that one thing that your child develops a passion for later in life and you’re giving them the key to unlock that passion now. So set those goals and have fun! Stay Calm and Speak On!
Buon anno nuovo!