Thursday, January 15, 2009

Raising Bilingual Children in Italy

I received many comments regarding raising bilingual children in Italy. It is a learning process for the parents and for the children. It is so interesting to hear how my children are acquiring both languages of Italian and English.

So the stuttering stopped for a few months as my older son was speaking more and more Italian then we had my sister over visiting (speaking mostly English) and the stuttering started again but only slightly. Now that my sister left the stuttering stopped again and we are speaking more Italian. I am trying more and more to speak only English to both kids and it is helping. I would like that the language mostly used between the two children be English but we will see what happens once the younger child begins to speak more.

I imagine when we go back to visit the grandparents in the USA, the English will come back full force again and maybe even the stuttering. I tried to get my husband to speak English at home but did not work. It is just awkward for him plus his Italian is better than his English.

I guess it is a lot of vocabulary to learn for a child in both languages but they have the ability and skill to acquire both and even more. I don't push it and never reprimand if he does not speak it. I just repeat what he says in Italian, in English and that seems to work. Any advice out there??


James Tierney said...

We've two teenage kids, both girls. Living in Italy there was no doubt they'd be swimming in Italian. My natural fear was that they'd be drowning in English. However, throughout, I only spoke English to them. I wouldn't even respond if they talked to me in Italian. It was hard going at times but I'm pleased, as they are, with the outcome.

Anonymous said...

It is no easy task raising children to be not only bilingual but also bi-literate. Since my child started preschool he has been answering me mostly in English which is so heart breaking for me. We are only with my family every few months and outside of us and our Italian speaking friends, he speaks English. He has even begun addressing our youngest in English when not too long ago it was only in Italian. My saving grace is that he will be starting kindergarten in an Italian immersion program where he will be taught in 90% Italian (even if the subject is American History) and 10% in English. Through the years more English will be introduced once the student is fully immersed in their "second" language. I think I told you a bit about it in a previous remark on the subject. It's so exciting to have this opportunity and it's about time considering it has long existed in other languages in many US cities. I know that there is an International School in Florence but that doesn’t help you! Do you have any friends that either speak English to their children or really want their children to learn it? Would you consider organizing an informal "mommy & me" that you could lead for a group? Sing songs, art projects, and read books all in English? My Italian-mom group does similar things and in addition we take an organized Italian lesson class one day a week. I am lucky to have other Italian-speaking friends who are also concerned with passing the language and culture to their children so it makes it easier. If you don’t have such a situation I have to believe (where you are) that there must be a demand for it?

Regarding your son switching languages, I wanted to tell you that I also have a friend who’s boy (speaks three languages) would seem to stutter more after returning from a month long visit in Italy and within a little time it would subside. I noticed it would happen mostly during English conversations since that was his weakest language. I have never experienced it with my children but I imagine that he is searching through his catalogue of words and buying himself some time? I think it is fairly common and wonder if it is even more so with bilingual children.

We are living in a new world, one that I believe is more demanding on future generations to speak more than just their mother tongue so I commend you for all of your efforts because as I said it is hard work being the one responsible for exposure to another languages. I also do not believe in reprimanding my son when he responds in English even though I am always tempted to say non ti capisco! The truth is he hears me speak English all the time with other people so he knows that’s a line of you know what! I don’t want him to resent the language either, I want him to enjoy it and love it when he hears other people tell him what a gift he is being given (even if that means nothing to him now). I wonder if I didn’t have him enrolled in such a great program this fall if maybe I’d be more uptight about it. Hard to tell but probably so! cristina

Lucia said...

I agree with you. It is so important they that learn English, that I am doing all in my power to keep it alive in my household. We watch dvd's only in English and I really try to speak only English to them both. When my eldest speaks in Italian, I repeat what he says in English. I never reprimand. He then will repeat it automatically in English. I don't want to make a power trip out of it or make it so he begins to disgust the language. I know they will be happy I insisted on it. I want to know more about your raising teenagers in Italy. How old were they when they moved out here ? Was it a difficult transition?Lucia

Lucia said...

I am going through the same thing you are only vice versa. My child in preschool is speaking always more Italian to me but like I said in the last comment, I repeat what he says in English and then he repeats it in English.
Although I only spend the summers in the USA, I usually put him in some kind of class, or summer school or gym or swimming so he can be with other American speaking children. I find in a matter of weeks he is fluent again. I am saddened though that he has an Italian accent when he speaks English. If someday we return to the USA, I don't want him to have a tough time with peers. Do you think that will ever go away? I know people that have no accent at all. Looking forward to hearing from you and please pass on my blog to your Italian friends too.Thanks.Lucia

Anonymous said...

hi Lucia,
Accents are tough, I would think that the more one is exposed to another language and at what level they are exposed it to would determine how strong or how long they hold on to that accent. Your parents I assume speak English with an accent? Are you told that your Italian is spoken with an American accent? Since my son spent most of his time with me he spoke in Italian when he first learned to speak and ironically although we live in the US, when he started speaking English he did so with an Italian accent. He has lost the accent all together now while speaking English and wonder if one will develop in his Italian later on.
If one day you do return to the US I think the determining factor regarding your children’s accents will be how old they are once they jump into the American school system. I wouldn't let it worry you though; I love my children's little accents while they lasted. What was your experience? Did you speak either language with an accent since you were also raised a bilingual child? The people you know that have no accent, what's their story? Did they go to an International School?
I will certainly share your blog with my friends. Cristina

Letizia said...

Lucia, all,

as I decided to raise my child bilingual in Italy I felt plenty lonely. So I started organizing playgroups and created a blog on bilingualism in italian, meant to reach all bilingual families living in Italy , whatever their first, or second, language might be, as well as all italian bilingual families, wherever they live. It's called Bilingue per Gioco:

My boy hasn't really started talking, so I haven't gone through the problems you mention yet. However few families are exchanging opinions and experiences on my blog, so may be some will have releveant experience to share with you.
In any case I hope you'll find it interesting and I'd welcome your feedback.


Lucia said...

Thank you for your comment and I most certainly will follow your blog. It is always a challenge especially since I find myself always speaking more and more Italian with my children. I instantly after saying something have this feeling of guilt and then repeat it sometimes in English. I don't want to harass my children with it always remindning them to speak English especially when I myself forget to. I am hoping that a trip home to the USA this summer will bring back the English and continue to give him that basis I have worked so hard to give him in the beginning. I also recently found a native English speaking child that I am hoping to do some playgroups with. I welcome all your advice too!!

Letizia said...


I think your points address the right issues: maximise exposure and make it fun!

My personal advice is to try to be stricter on yourself but not on the children. If you can bring yourself to always speak english, just never address them in italian, they will end up hearing a lot of english and will keep learning it. Also probably they will be more likely to speak English to you in return, particularly after holidays I would hope. You are right though, you can't force them to speak English, unless you have done it from the very beginning like James (James, I'd love to hear more about how you did it, did you go as far as refuse to hand a biscuit to a 2 years old who asked it in italian?).

But I think that a very consistent behaviour on your side, plus extra exposure through vacations and playgroups will go a long way.

I spoke about this topic on few recent posts, this for instance:, or this:

Please feel free to contact me at

I would also be extremely grateful if you could forward my blog to any friends you think might be interested because bilingual, wherever they live, as long as italian is part of their portfolio...

Thanks and talk soon,


milanesemasala said...

Just happened upon your blog. I'm a Canadian living near Milan, married to an Italian and have two small children under the age of 5. My husband and I have always spoken English together so that's the main household language. His English is quite good now. I told him to speak whatever language he felt most comfortable in with the kids and while he mostly uses Italian, he sometimes slips into English. My eldest started speaking at the age of one and she mostly spoke English. Obviously as she started daycare in an Italian school she started speaking Italian more and more. But I always insisted on speaking English.

It's difficult to know where to draw the line. I know that as long as we're living here, Italian will be my children's main language. There's no getting round that. But we watch all dvd's in English and English is always spoken at home. I don't force them to speak English to me because I don't want them to hate the language, consider it an imposition. But I find that because I continue to speak and read to them in English and holiday in English speaking countries, they have an excellent command of the language. I can say that my eldest is perfectly bilingual and speaks English with a Canadian accent (without the "eh"!). She's proud that she can speak two languages. She's even interested in learning French. My 2 yr old is starting to speak more and while he mostly converses in Italian (esp. with his sister) his English is getting better. Fingers crossed!