Bringing them up bilingual


Did you know that over half the world’s population is estimated to be bilingual? A lively debate with colleagues on the subject of bringing up bilingual children prompted me to revisit the fascinating website of François Grosjean, Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics, Neuchâtel University, Switzerland, and an expert in bilingualism.

This is something I feel passionate about as I am married to an Italian and have two young children. I myself have spent a lifetime learning languages and would love to have been brought up bilingual. One thing I am sure of, if the foundations of language learning are laid at an early stage, the child will reap the benefits later in life.

According to Grosjean, there are many types of bilingual and many people do become bilingual in later life, even if they don’t ever achieve a fully native accent (see Myths about bilingualism).

Under this definition there are several bilinguals in my family. I am proud to speak Italian, French and Spanish with varying degrees of accuracy, although I’m probably not even bilingual in my ‘best’ language, Spanish. My husband is Italian and has been living in the UK for 15 years. He has never lost his Italian accent and still confuses countable and uncountable nouns but he never uses a double negative unless he’s being ironic.

Our two children were born in the UK and we are observing their progress as aspiring bilinguals with huge joy and interest. Our strategy is to establish a foundation upon which our children may activate their Italian language at a later stage. We know they don’t have a huge amount of exposure to Italian but we do our best. My husband speaks to the children almost entirely in Italian, although he speaks to me in English. In a conversation he will switch seamlessly to Italian when addressing one of the boys. Although this took effort at the beginning, it is now second nature and I love it. We are lucky in that I do understand Italian, so am not excluded – although I also feel that I am learning with them. The boys do not yet answer in Italian but we are not worried about this. They will speak Italian when they really need to.

Grosjean points to the importance of ‘need’ as an essential driver towards bilingualism. Children can consume a diet of second language films and TV without ever becoming bilingual. It is only when they need to communicate and interact that they start to lay the foundations of bilingualism. Underpinning our own family strategy is the fact that we all need to communicate with our Italian family and friends in order to properly establish these important relationships.

My children began to show evidence of bilingualism in subtle and wonderful ways. Certain words were simply learnt in Italian and not in English. Camion (lorry or truck) was a good example of this. As a toddler, whenever my son saw a rubbish truck he would shout out, “Look mummy, a camion!” This was just accepted and understood and we never drew attention to it. Camion was simply a word he had learnt, not an Italian or English word. The same thing is happening with our younger son: “How are you?” I ask. “I’m bene (good),” he will reply.

This phenomenon was especially fascinating when my elder son started experimenting with more complex sentences. “Cosa fai? (What are you doing?)” my husband once asked. “I’m cerc-ing the Lego,” he answered. Like two Lego pieces, he had stuck together two bits of language – cercare, Italian for to find, and –ing – to make a fantastic new word.

These days, my elder son understands that there are two separate countries, which he calls Italian and English, where communication can be more or less tricky depending who you are speaking to. When we go to Italy, he speaks like a tourist with a reasonable command of the language, taking risks, mashing any old grammar together; whatever it takes to make sure his needs are attended to. He is a survivor!

My children may never speak Italian with a native accent but they will be able to activate all this language they carry within them at a later stage should they choose to. And most importantly right now, they are able to talk to their amazing Italian great-grandmother, who will be 97 this spring.



  • I’ve taught clehdrin who were truly bilingual, and I grew up with several friends who, due to German mothers and American fathers. spoke both German and English fluently. As a teacher, I was privy to observing how quickly non-English speaking students would pick up our language, as our area is home to many Spanish speaking immigrants. I once had a Japanese student who went from zero to more than functional English in the course of three months. Kids are amazing when it comes to learning a new language. The elementary school that I went to had a program for the gifted students to learn French. The only problem was, our teacher wasn’t at all fluent in the language, so we ended up learning lots of French history instead! (I did learn French in high school and college, but have lost so much of it. 🙁 Perhaps I should beg my husband for an anniversary trip to Paris as a memory jolter!)As far as adults learning a second language, even if they don’t need to for practical reasons: I see learning something new as always a positive endeavor. I have the complete Rosetta Stone collection for German on one of my shelves, even though most of my German speaking relatives are dead or too senile to engage in conversation! One day I hope to actually open the box and attempt learning it! 🙂 Interesting post, as always!

    Posted by Rafa on April 15th 2012

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