Part II: raising bicultural children

Lisa Clifford
April 7, 2011

Years ago, when I first started my family here in Florence, my two-year-old daughter rode to school on a motorbike. To the ‘manner' born, she would pull on her tiny yellow helmet and her bright red baby sunglasses and climb up on her babbo's Vespa.


As her chubby hands gripped the handlebars, her dad would climb on behind her and settle her into position behind the screen and between his knees. Then, as my baby waved ciao with a wide smile, they would zoom off into the Florentine traffic on a mode of transport that still-and will no doubt always-makes me tremble with fear. My mother has always called motorbikes ‘moving targets,' and I could never get that thought out of my head as I yelled ‘Drive carefully!' in their wake.

Sending my daughter off to preschool on a motorbike was just one of the many fears that I have had to overcome since marrying my Florentine husband. Another apprehension was that my children would never speak English. Especially my son, who refused to speak his mother's tongue with alarmingly fierce determination.


I wasn't too worried, as many friends in Italian-English marriages had already warned me that boys apparently speak their second language later than girls. This observation was in keeping with childcare textbook comments that many boys reach developmental phases later than girls. At the time however, there was almost no literature on ‘delayed' bilingual maturity in boys. To make matters worse, quite a few of my mother-tongue English girlfriends had been told by their children's Italian school teachers to stop speaking English because their sons (a) muddled their languages, (b) were reticent about saying anything, (c) spoke only English during class and infuriated their Italian teachers or (d) wouldn't say anything at all. Consumed with doubt about their son's ability to be actively bilingual, these mothers despaired. They stopped their inner lingual rhythm and did not coo in their mother tongue. English was the language of their maternal love, anything else felt unnatural, yet they continued to deny themselves the joy of speaking their own language to their kids.


Many of these mothers regret taking their children's elementary school teachers' advice. They realize that their sons' (and daughters') slow speech development was due solely to sorting dad's language from mum's; sooner or later they would have used both languages. Children exposed to more than one language always apply the rules of one language to another and make mistakes. But these grammatical errors are outgrown. Speech is often delayed, in some cases until the child is four or five years old. Modern speech professionals unite on this point: the one-parent-one-language approach is universally accepted as the right way to help your children absorb two languages at once. It does work and will work.


Later, teen issues like motivation and shame come into play. But if the child is young and seems to have serious problems, have him or her checked out for any hearing or speech impediments and keep speaking your mother tongue. Persistence pays off. And keep in mind that bilingualism is not easy for every child. Some kids are visual learners, not auditory.




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