Sofia, my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, can carry out long, detailed conversations in Italian, Spanish, and English. She’ll say to me: “Mi manca tanto la mia nonna perche’ vive in Italia e io la voglio andare a trovare” (“I miss my grandma a lot because she lives in Italy and I want to go visit her”). Then she turns to her father and without even thinking twice she switches to English adding: “wouldn’t it be cute if we took grandma here to live with us?” A moment later our Spanish-speaking nanny arrives and she is on to Spanish, commenting: “Estábamos hablando de mi abuelita ... ¡la quiero mucho!” (“We were talking about my grandma ... I love her a lot!”).
Sofia’s day starts in Italian, then she hears English at school for about three hours, then Spanish for about four hours, then again Italian for three hours, and she finally concludes her day in English in the evening.
Despite all the recent research that hails the countless advantages of early bi/multilingualism, most people who hear about my daughter’s linguistic experiences react somewhat negatively, bringing out the classic myths and misconceptions that have long surrounded the idea of raising a multilingual child. For example, they ask questions such as: “Doesn’t she get confused by being raised with all these languages?” Or “what is she going to do when she is in school?” Some people might even go on with gloomier predictions such as “Oh my gosh, she will mix languages and won’t be able to keep them apart” “or “She might not learn any language properly.”
Having conducted extensive research on early bi/multilingualism and being confident that I know what is best when it comes to my daughter’s language development, I tend to politely dismiss such comments, and quickly provide answers to these folks’ questions. I explain, for example, that the idea of “confusion” in multilingual children is an old belief prevalent in monolingual countries that have almost become political. I tell them that children's brains have all the capacities necessary to cope with and fully master two or more languages if they are given the opportunity to hear and practice these languages on an everyday basis. I also explain that although my daughter will learn and use English at school, her advanced knowledge of Italian and Spanish will be an asset that will further translate into higher academic achievement. This has been well proven by decades of research and countless families around the world, including the many bilingual regions where multilingualism is the norm, not the exception - such as Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, and Finland, just to name a few.
Some language mixing will occur, but this is absolutely normal, harmless, and temporary. As the child increases her vocabulary in each language, this phenomenon automatically disappears, just as a monolingual child will automatically fix mistakes after correct usage is learned. For example, children who are only learning English often begin by saying, "Me no want that" rather than "I don’t want that." Eventually, they learn what is correct. The same is true of multilingual children. Mixing is, in fact, a very positive and creative resource that shows the multilingual child’s flexibility to draw from all her languages to get her message across. Similarly, my daughter’s cute Italian accent when speaking English and Spanish will fade away by five or six years of age. In other words, by age ten, granted that she keeps hearing her three languages on a daily basis, she could well pass for a monolingual English child, a bambina italiana, or if you like, a niña mexicana.
I usually conclude my “lecture” by listing all the cognitive advantages associated with early bi/multilingualism, including higher meta-linguistic awareness – the ability to think, talk about, reflect upon, and manipulate language and its elements, which can lead to an earlier readiness to read and aid in developing the concepts of numbers. At three-and-a-half, Sofia can recognize all letters, count in all her languages, and write her own name. I think this speaks volumes as to whether her multilingualism is slowing down her development.
Clearly, raising a multilingual child is a LOT of work for parents, and it doesn't happen overnight as some might think. In order to become fluent in each language, the child needs constant exposure to and interaction in the languages she is learning. This means that if you give in to your child’s desire to use the language she prefers, she will lose the crucial opportunity to practice the other language(s). Likewise, if you let her watch TV all day only in one language, this will take away from her exposure to the other language(s).
Aware that my daughter will have plenty of opportunities to hear and practice English and Spanish here in Southern California, my biggest challenge remains to create a close-to-natural environment where Italian is heard and spoken on a daily basis. For this reason, I have put a lot of effort into creating an extensive collection of Italian-language DVDs that can make up for the lack of Italian speakers from whom she could learn the language. I also play Italian music, read Italian books, and talk extensively, in my native language, about anything at any time. This seems trivial, but the amount of language that children hear is directly correlated with their level of language development. In other words, children raised in talkative homes end up with more advanced language skills and more extensive vocabularies than children raised in less talkative homes. Creating this immersion is the best way for my daughter to learn Italian.
But if I remain the only person with whom my daughter can interact in Italian, my chances of raising her trilingually will get slimmer: in order to become proficient bi/multilinguals, children MUST interact with various speakers of a language, and more importantly, they need to have friends who speak that language. As a result, I have struggled to create an extensive network of Italian friends who give my daughter the idea that Italian is not only mommy’s language. I have also enrolled her, since the age of two, in the Italian language classes offered by Fondazione Italia, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the teaching and learning of the Italian language and culture across the Southwestern United States. In her class, my daughter can interact extensively with her native Italian-speaking teacher, and most importantly, she can meet other children just like her, who understand and speak Italian. This is extremely important since peer pressure will soon kick in and tell my daughter that if her peers are not speaking Italian, then Italian is not worth speaking.
I am happy to say that despite being raised in the US and having a full-time working mom, Italian remains my daughter’s dominant and preferred language. My efforts have paid off. However, it is only through the support of the Italian community here in Southern California that I will truly succeed in raising a child that will maintain her trilingual abilities and become a successful member of the English, Italian and Spanish language communities.
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About Simona Montanari, PhD
Simona Montanari is Assistant Professor in the Department of Child and Family Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on language development and second language acquisition in childhood. She received a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Southern California specializing in language development in monolingual and multilingual children. Dr. Montanari has published her research in prestigious peer-reviewed journals and she is regularly invited to present on early bilingualism and trilingualism locally and internationally. Dr. Montanari has also been involved in the creation and implementation of an Italian-English dual language program in the Glendale Unified School District, for which she continues to work as a consultant. Dr. Montanari has two trilingual and tri-literate daughters, six and seven years of age.