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  • The Myth of Bilingual Babies
    Discover how some children need to wait to speak Italian and another language
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Conventional wisdom tells us that young children are like sponges. As a result, we believe they are suited to learning more than one language from the get go. You might have even had a doctor tell you to speak one language to your baby, while your spouse speaks another to get the ball rolling.

    I started to pick up on the Italian language as a child in the United States myself. My grandparents and my father spoke Italian practically to the exclusion of English, and my mother, who grew up in the States, always spoke her family's native Italian, too. I perfected my Italian language skills in high school and college, but it was a part of my life from birth. When I married my husband, who is a native of Italy, I began speaking Italian almost as much as I spoke English.

    Of course, we expected to teach our son both languages from the moment he was born. I purchased kid-friendly DVDs that promised to have a panda bear cartoon character teach him Italian. My husband spoke to him exclusively in Italian, and I spoke to him exclusively in English. We traveled and lived in both the United States and Italy, so we thought he'd be able to pick it up easily. People kept saying how much they envied our ability to give our child the gift of language so early in life.

    When he was not speaking – neither English nor Italian – at 2 years old, I started to envy all of them. My son had never even called me mamma. He said it once at about 7 months old, and then never said it again. Instead, he would sometimes call me zio (Italian for uncle) or nonna (Italian for grandma). These were the same titles he gave everyone else, except my husband, who he occasionally called Zio Daddy. We don't even know where he learned daddy because no one in either of our families calls their father daddy. Everyone sticks with papa', which is Italian for daddy.

    After a 9-month stint in Italy, we returned to the United States and looked into speech therapy. We found a lovely teacher, who grew up with relatives speaking Italian to her. Before our son could start talking, we had to rule out other problems. For starters, he had to go through audiology testing to be sure he could hear us. His hearing was fine. Through the therapy, we learned that he didn't have any of the disorders that might make it physically difficult or impossible for him to make the sounds necessary for speech.

    Once all this was ruled out, our speech therapist and our doctor said we had to pick one language. Clearly, Italian and English were confusing our boy. And because he seemed more interested in everything in English and we plan to send him to school in the United States, we had to abandon Italian for now. This is a challenge. His relatives in Italy, obviously, speak only Italian. Even his American relatives in the States often speak Italian, especially when they're together. And he has had exposure to Italian TV and books from birth. Plus, my husband can speak English but isn't comfortable doing so. We all had to make some changes.

    We eliminated exposure to Italian cartoons and books. My husband forced himself to speak only English – even to me – whenever he's with our son. We often fall back into the Italian, but we try to catch ourselves. We have also spoken to my side of the family, which speaks both English and Italian. Everyone – from cousins to great aunts and uncles – ditches Italian whenever they are with our son. They have also been singing the alphabet to him, reading him books, and giving him gifts that should help him speak more.

    My 4-year-old niece and 2-year-old nephew have lent a hand. They encourage our son to say words, and they are completely responsible for him learning "bird," "car," and a 4-letter word that I'd rather not print. At least he's talking. Don't worry it was not the F-bomb, and we told them all it was inappropriate, and no one has said it since. Nonetheless, it makes for a funny anecdote. The kids have even learned to applaud his efforts to speak and use the speech therapist's catch phrases, such as "good talking" and "good job saying "

    Of course, we can't force our Italian family in Italy to speak English, a language that is literally foreign to them. But I have asked them to use any English words they can when they do talk with our boy. We recently arrived in Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples that is home to my ancestors and husband, and I'm happy to report there have been lots of accented hellos and bye byes. Our son's Italian nonna also gave him a gift – a magna doodle type contraption that sings and talks and has settings for both English and Italian. Everyone has been understanding and wants to help our son become a great communicator.

    In five months of therapy, he has made lots of progress. He says numerous words and even a few phrases, including, "I want it," "I don't want it," and "help me." He also has fewer tantrums, probably because he can better express himself and clue us into what he needs and wants. Getting him to accept no is an entirely different matter, but now we have a basis for language at least.

    All those months of longing to speak with my baby, a desire to finally figure out what was going on in that little head of his, came full circle, when he said, "Mamma, mamma, mamma." He finally realized I was his mamma – and he could say the word out loud. And he grabbed me so tight that I thought my heart would melt faster than Olaf in summer. Baby boy hasn't called me anything else since. Repeatedly pointing to people in pictures and saying their names might be helping, too.

    When we landed in Naples, Italy on Father's Day to reunite with my husband, Baby Boy called his father papa' – not zio, not nonno, and not even zio daddy. The reason I'm sharing this with the readers of Our Paesani is simply because most of you are just like me.

    You are proud to have an Italian heritage, and you want to share it with your kids. Part of that means teaching them the language – be it universal Italian or even a dialect. Most of the world will tell you that teaching children a second language from birth is the best way to do it. But I learned the hard way that sometimes people – even experts – are wrong.

    The idea that being able to easily teach toddlers more than one language seemed like a universal belief to me. Now, I think I should be the one to tell you that not every kid – maybe not even yours – can handle it. Knowing my son's temperament and the challenges he had living between Italy and the United States, I probably should have known better or at least consulted with a speech therapist sooner, rather than relying on what my pediatrician was telling me. The pediatrician wasn't wrong, mind you. While most kids can handle two languages as toddlers, mine can't. If I could go back in time, I would have stuck with English from the start.

    Baby Boy's relationship with the Italian language is far from over. My in-laws only speak Italian, and we're with them for months at a time every year, and he hears from them on Skype, too. And all the experts agree that my son probably already understands Italian and will eventually speak it, too. It just might not be until he's older and is already fluent and capable with English. That's perfectly fine with me.

    Di Meglio is the Newlyweds Expert for About.com, and you can follow her work at the Two Worlds Web site.


    Article Published 6/19/2014

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