Kids in two languages

Ask the cats to bark, please

Lisa Clifford
June 1, 2011

My mother-in-law likes to tell my children the Tuscan joke about the cat that waited for the mouse to emerge from its hole in the wall. For three days, the cat sat outside the mouse's home, waiting, waiting, waiting. When eventually the cat barked ‘bow wow,' the mouse ran out and the cat caught it. As the cat ate the mouse, the mouse said ‘I didn't know you spoke dog. You could have told me you spoke two languages.'


Nonna says the joke reminds her of her two bilingual grandchildren. It's typical, too, of my Tuscan mother-in-law to use humor to gloss over a subject that has often caused her pain. Tuscans do that: they tease and tell funny stories about difficult issues till the problem is so out in the open it's no longer a sensitive subject. There's no denying that nonna's only grandchildren's journey towards two languages has not been easy for her.


I follow the experts' advice on raising bilingual children-one-parent-one-language-which means I speak only English to our kids, and my husband speaks only Italian. Along the way though, nonna has been left out. She doesn't speak English, so when she's visiting us from her home in the mountains of Casentino in eastern Tuscany, she finds herself isolated from my children's world. They chat between themselves, gossip with their friends, talk with my monolingual friends, all in English. Of course nonna feels marginalized.


It wasn't always this way. At first, my children spoke only Italian, and nonna, widowed and dedicated to her only son's young family, was in her element. She spoke to the children in her own Casentinese dialect. Nenne for drink, cecce for sit down and citta for young girl. She spoke to them in that special Italian baby language that nonne seem to specialize in. Pappa for their food, nanna for nap and bua for a scratch or a bump.


But as the children have become older and their English more fluent, they now tend to speak only English at home. Babbo is often at work, so speaking in Italian is reserved for when he comes home or when we go out. During her visits, this leaves nonna in the unenviable situation of being cut off from her grandchildren's everyday chatter.


Understandably she was angry and let her disapproval be known. Or she joked that the children didn't know how to speak Italian. The kids were not intentionally leaving her out, English is the language of their home and they just kept forgetting to switch when nonna was there. In any case, she had good reason to feel upset. So I developed a system to remind the children to speak Italian when grandma visits. I make a talking gesture with my fingers, kind of like a shadow puppet in the shape of a dog barking. 


The sign system works. The kids change language in mid-sentence and nonna is happy, no longer feeling cut-off from her grandchildren's accounts of their days at school and casually spoken thoughts. She's never asked about the barking hand gesture. For her, it's another piece in the puzzle that is the world of English. 



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