Bilingual, bicultural

Raising polyglot tots

Lisa Clifford
February 24, 2011

One of the interesting aspects of bilingualism in our children is how my daughter at five years old could already work out the cultural beverage preferences of our guests. At four she seemed to know instinctively who spoke English and who spoke Italian. However, at five, she could correctly call who was partial to tea and who preferred coffee. They have a wonderful gift, these bilingual children of ours, because their instincts seem to go far deeper than just intuiting who speaks which language. They know the customs and traditions of each nationality and apply them accordingly.


My children are fortunate. They switch from English to Italian effortlessly, and they live and holiday in two of the most beautiful cities in the world: Florence and Sydney. They are totally at home in these two different cultures and can take the best of what both these worlds have to offer.


If you're a parent and read The Florentine, chances are your children are bilingual too. It's one of the reasons, among many, that long- and short-term expatriate couples move to Florence: to give their kids a second language. The advantages of bilingualism are manifold. Your children have a foot in two cultures, two worlds of understanding;  in the era of globalization, this is no small thing. It is universally accepted, though not commonly documented, that bilingual children have many advantages, such as heightened social skills and the ability to put themselves into another person's skin and relate or empathize. The experts say it boosts children's intellectual growth, gives them extended university options and can make the child a ‘good catch' for colleges looking at diversifying their annual intake.


With the increase in international travel and global ease in communication, mixed-culture marriages are becoming more and more common, resulting in more and more babies who speak two, three and sometimes four languages. There's a mother tongue from mummy or mamma and a father tongue from daddy or babbo. There's further language input from grandparents, friends, caregivers or school.


Fortunately, my kids and I didn't have too much trouble during the bilingual development years. There was the classic mixing up of English and Italian before they figured out which language was which (dammi toothpaste, chi coming?). There was my fear that they would never speak English because at three years old, neither of them was. Surrounded more by Italian family, their first linguistic instinct was to speak Italian. But then, at around four (a little later for my son) a lingual wall crashed down and they started to speak their mother's tongue. Admittedly, my son called his sister a ‘scallywag' or ‘scoundrel' (too much Thomas the Tank Engine) and used unusual exclamations such as ‘barnacles!' (too much Sponge Bob), but the point is he was not learning his colloquialisms from peers at school but rather from English shows on TV.


Now that they're older, we're trying to work on a third language, one that they have to study to speak, not one they were given for free. But kids are savvy nowadays and know that English is the international language currency, so when it comes to working hard at enlarging their cultural repertoire, they can be lazy. Some say two languages are better than one. I say the more the merrier!




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