Question: I have two girls aged 4 and 5. Their father is Italian and speaks to them in Italian and we live in Italy and they attend Italian nursery school, so naturally Italian is there first language. I, there mother, am English and speak to them in English, so English has become their second language, but their Italian is streets ahead of their English, despite all my efforts. My dilemma now is that we are soon moving to Paris in France and I will need to enroll them in school. There is an Italian state school in Paris that follows the Italian system with extra French curricula in French language and culture, but the only English they are taught is one hour a week. The other choice is to send them to an International school where they would learn in English and French (which is completely new to them), but no Italian. What is the best thing to do, take advantage of the chance to improve their English but when we eventually return to Italy we will not be able to afford to continue their private education in an international school. Or just send them to the Italian school and persevere with only me speaking English to them?
Answer: Your daughters are very lucky to be growing up in a multilingual home and community. They are very fortunate to have this early exposure to two and three languages even if it appears that one language is not as strong as the other at this time.
It can be discouraging for you to think they may not be as proficient in your first language. But they may ultimately be bilingual – thinking, speaking, and dreaming in both Italian and English. Since they are using Italian more frequently and in so many different daily contexts, it is the dominant language now. But they have established a physiological foundation in their brains for both languages. Speaking English to them daily is a more powerful linguistic influence than you imagine.
Here are a few suggestions to continue to develop your daughters’ use of English:
- Continue to speak English to them daily.
- Ask them to respond to you in English (but avoid power struggles over their choice of language).
- Have a collection of English and Italian children’s books in your home.
- Sing children’s songs in English with them as you play or do your daily routine.
- Create opportunities for them to see English “in print”, subscribe to English magazines or newspapers, compare English and Italian signs in your city/in restaurants and stores/in the airport, write or send cards to friends in the States.
I do not think that language should be your only reason for choosing their new school. Nor do I think it’s in your daughter’s best interests to change the school language and then to change again when you return to Italy. Consistency, on the other hand, is a very strong criterion. Your daughter’s educations will progress smoothly in the Italian State School where they will be using the same language and a similar curriculum to the one in Italy. At this age, you want the most positive and stress-free educational experience you can find, particularly if it offers comparable standards. The Italian State School will also create a familiarity in one aspect of your daughters’ lives so they can adjust more easily to any other changes the relocation will bring.
It might seem very lonely with “only you speaking English to them” but you are not alone in your goals to give your daughters a rich linguistic heritage. I highly recommend checking out The Bilingual Family Newsletter at www.multilingual-matters.com. The early years are an optimal time for your daughters to be learning two and even three languages, with incomparable benefits for future language and cognitive development. Creativity, problem solving, and social skills will all be enhanced by these early language experiences. Stay with it!
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.