Is it Too Late to Teach My Kids My Native Language?

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Dear Dr. Gupta,

 

I am Italian and living in California, and unfortunately my two kids, who are nine and 13, don’t speak Italian, and barely understand the basic phrases. I understand they will never be fluent and will always have an accent, but I wonder if it is not too late to start speaking to them in Italian (will have to figure out how to make the transition). I am the main caretaker, and my wife speaks the language pretty well. Any advice and suggestions on how to make this happen will be very appreciated. Grazie!

 

Un Papà Italiano

 

Dear Un Papà Italiano,

 

At this point your children have to WANT Italian. If they want to learn Italian, then the way to do it is to teach them yourself, or get them into lessons. But the first hurdle is to get them to want it.

 

You need to sell Italian culture to them. Which bit of Italian culture will depend on the children’s interests, but try anything. The usual front runners are: food, family, football, cars, fashion, history, music, art. Even an interest in the Mafia could be a way in. Whatever it takes. A nice long holiday in Italy doing things they really enjoy seems called for.

 

Another useful method that sometimes works is to use Italian as a secret language between you and your wife. This has been known to give children an incentive to learn in. It will certainly be good to let them hear Italian. Watch some movies (ideally without subtitles and looking as if they would interest the children).

 

Are you in a city with an Italian community? Make links. Are there any classes in the community? Find out about them.

 

Do the children have Italian speaking relatives they would like to get to know better? Meet up. Skype. Go and visit them.

 

Focus on them WANTING Italian, then when they do start teaching them. It has to come from them.

 

Dr. Gupta

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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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