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Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

We speak Mandarin to our daughter but should I switch to Italian?


Dear Dr. Gupta,

My husband and I live with our one-year-old daughter in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We both speak Mandarin Chinese to her (he is from China), and are leaving this week to take her on her first stay one-month in China. We also have many Chinese friends and hope to move to China for a few years when she is older so that she will become literate. It is very important to us that she learns Chinese since her many relatives in China do not speak English.

However, I am of Italian origin and would also like her to be communicative in Italian. I do speak Italian, but it feels awkward to speak it to her, since we already have established Mandarin as the home language. It is not important to me that she masters or is educated in Italian, but I would also like her to be able to chat with our Sicilian relatives and have a stronger connection with her roots.

My question is would you recommend that I switch and speak Italian to her? I know that I would have to force myself at first, but I think that if I got used to it, it could become a routine. Another problem is that I really enjoy speaking Chinese to her as I feel that it connects the whole family. Will speaking Italian with her stall her ability to learn Mandarin? I eventually would like to seek out Italian playmates, but there are very few of them her in comparison to Chinese children.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

– Allison

Dear Allison,

First of all the reassurance: whatever you do, children learn the languages they need to learn and don’t get messed up.

You have identified the importance of Chinese to your daughter and are doing all the right things to develop her Chinese. You enjoy speaking Mandarin yourself; you have close contact with relatives and you are making a long visit there (presumably the first of many). Do you Skype with your in-laws? I Skyped with my eldest granddaughter when she was aged 16 -22 months and we often sang together and did drawings. It really felt like being in the same room and she took to it easily. The more face-to-face contact with loving relatives, the better. Bring back plenty of books with you, and also recordings of songs that children enjoy. Learn lots of games, songs and rhymes for children and toddlers. Don’t assume your husband knows them–exploit the older generation. Your contacts with the Mandarin-speaking community in Ann Arbor are also valuable.

Italian/Sicilian is another story.

I don’t think you should do something you feel is artificial. I notice that your name is ‘Allison’–not an Italian name. It sounds as if you do not feel very close to your Sicilian origins–this makes me think that you were not brought up in Italy. Generally, people want to speak their own language to their children, but you say it would feel awkward and you would have to force yourself to do it. This is probably because you were brought up in the USA and feel more at home in English than in Italian/Sicilian–am I right? You must have an affinity for Chinese, which draws you to it more than you are drawn to Italian/Sicilian. So I would advise you not to change what you are doing. First of all you are a loving mother and that is the important role with your child–you are her mother and not her language teacher.

Be natural.

It also looks as though you would find it hard to provide much support for Italian (or for Sicilian) and you may have to accept that your children are going to be English/Mandarin bilinguals (surely a good thing!) with little or no knowledge of Italian/Sicilian. You don’t mention the possibility of holidays to visit Sicilian relatives who don’t speak English (or Skypeing them)–obviously if this is possible it would help in her exposure to Italian/Sicilian. Your husband has migrated as an adult and his parents are in China, but you are probably (at least) one generation on, so your immediate family may be in the USA and not back in the homeland. The situations are different. If your daughter wants to get in touch with her ancestral roots when she is older, she can make that decision on her own and learn Italian later–it doesn’t have to be now.

However, what you could do is to introduce A LITTLE Italian (or Sicilian–decide which you prefer). Use a few phrases in Italian (or Sicilian) even though you speak in Chinese and/or English as a whole. Sing some songs. As your daughter gets older, tell her what things are called in Italian. Talk about the language, culture and place. Get some books about it. Feed her its food sometimes. Even on a small scale this would expose her to the Sicilian part of her heritage.

But forcing something? No…..just go with the flow and have a great time negotiating your multicultural family, with all the excitement and surprise that entails!

Finally, we have had other questions similar to this, so please do look back at some of the other answers.

– Dr. Gupta

© 2012, Anthea Fraser Gupta. All rights reserved.

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Anthea Fraser Gupta is a sociolinguist with an interest in how children learn to talk. She was born into a monolingual environment in Middlesbrough, England, but enjoyed learning about languages from an early age. She gained a B.A. in English Linguistic Studies and Archaeology at the University of Newcastle, then went on to do an M.A. in Linguistics. She left Newcastle in 1975 to work in Singapore, where she encountered a society in which multilingualism is usual and expected. In Singapore nearly all children come to nursery school already able to speak 2 or 3 languages. While lecturing in the linguistics of English at the National University of Singapore, she did a doctoral degree at the University of York, looking at the language acquisition over two years of four Singaporean children who were growing up with four languages. In Singapore, she also married a man from a multilingual family from India. She returned to England in 1996 to the School of English at the University of Leeds, where she taught courses on both English language and bilingualism until her retirement in 2010. Anthea has had experience in a range of multilingual and multicultural societies and families. She has published books and articles on English, especially the language use of children in Singapore, and has also produced a novel for children set in Singapore. She is deeply interested in child development and believes that the most important thing in raising a child is to provide love and stimulation, regardless of what language or languages are learned.

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