I started my love affair with all things Italian as a college student at Colgate University. After a dream-like study abroad semester in Venice, I was forever hooked. By chance, (or maybe destiny?) I met and married a full blooded Sicilian who didn’t speak English until kindergarten. When we first talked about having children, I had grand plans to raise them bilingually. Even though John’s Sicilian dialect differs significantly at times to my text book Italian, I figured it would all somehow work out…
My first three children were born one right after the other. And while I had the best of intentions to start speaking Italian with them as babies, I realized a funny thing happens to your brain when you have three kids three and under. Sometimes you can’t even manage to get a sentence out in your first language, never mind a second one.
But after taking a five year break between baby #3 and baby #4, my Mommy brain got recharged and I dove into the Italian with my youngest, Gianna. When I first started with her, she was a baby in a stroller, listening with wide eyes as a described in Italian all the things we saw on our walks together. It wasn’t something I could commit to full time. My husband and I decided that full bilingualism just isn’t a realistic or comfortable goal for our busy family of six. Still, I was excited to give Gianna some strong Italian exposure right out of the gate, and I couldn’t wait until she started to talk. I wanted to hear her saying adorable Italian words and phrases back to me, and if it happened on display in front of admiring friends and family, all the better!
But as she got older, I found that while there was plenty of growth in her receptive language skills, she was reluctant to produce any Italian on her own. If I prompted her, she was usually cooperative, but otherwise, our Italian was pretty one sided.
Then, I discovered Italian children’s music. I’m not sure why it took me so long, but better late than never. There are plenty of selections on youtube or itunes to keep the selection fresh, although repetition is always a plus at this age. Gianna’s favorite was Farfallina – Little Butterfly. I made up a few dance moves to go with it, so that the words held meaning for her, and we sang it over and over. Soon, she could sing the whole song by herself. We kept adding to our repertoire, and I couldn’t get over what an effective way it was to get her using Italian. And she was doing it willingly and naturally.
I also developed a tendency to make up songs spontaneously. That way, I had one for every occasion. When Gianna was brushing her teeth at night, I would sing a song while she did it. It was simplistic (I brush my teeth, I brush my teeth. You brush your teeth, you brush your teeth) and the tune was annoying, but it was effectively annoying. Not only did Gianna learn the phrases quickly and easily, but there was another interesting side effect I hadn’t anticipated involving my older three.
See, my big kids were a little resistant to join in with our Italian (meaning they flat out refused), so I made the decision not to push. They mercilessly made fun of the brushing teeth song, but darned if they didn’t learn the phrases in spite of themselves. And more than that, just by learning those simple phrases and paying attention to a few context clues, my son was able to understand me when I announced in Italian that Gianna had lost her first tooth. And when I reminded my two older girls to pack their toothbrushes, they got that, too. Voila – we were officially communicating in Italian!
When I designed my classes for Piccoli Passi, I knew music had to be a major part of my curriculum. To put it simply, we have a song for pretty much everything – our hello song, our weather song, our days of the week song, our counting song, and the list goes on. I also tie in theme related songs. For our jungle theme, we learned Cinque Scimiette (5 Little Monkeys). And for our theme on spring time, we sang Ci vuole un fiore (It Takes a Flower). For snack, I often serve Rainbow Goldfish, and we play a game with them using the Pesciolino song (Little fish). Within weeks, the kids were proudly singing the Pesciolino song on their own.
Another benefit to using music as a learning tool is that it pairs so well with movement. And kids learn remarkably well through movement. During our weather song, we act out rain falling and the sun coming out. And during our balloon song, we float up, up, up and sink down, down, down. You can imagine what a thrill it was to hear feedback from some of the parents that their kids were singing the songs at home and on the playground. There’s no doubt about it. Songs stick.
If you’re looking to add some music to your Italian repertoire at home, youtube is a great resource. You can learn the songs along with your child, or simply have them playing in the background during free play, or when you’re in the car together. Two great channels to check out are Coccole Sonore and Dino Lingo. But a simple search for Italian children’s songs will turn up an endless supply of choices. Or you could always make up your own! If you feel silly or self conscious at first, just wait for it to pass and sing on. You’ll be so happy to hear your child singing along, you won’t even care!