The challenge to keep the Italian language alive in our homes through our children
I recently found myself at a checkout with my crying 10-week-old son. I spoke to the cashier in English then tended to my son in Italian, soothing him and using diminutive Italian forms of his name.
The customer waiting behind me in the queuelooked at me quizzically. As I walked away from the scenario I wondered if shiftingbetween languages depending on the situation and audience is such an odd thing.Perhaps, to that lady, it was.
Code switching is the name of the game:alternating between languages to suit the context and purpose of the exchange.I find myself doing this all day long. It's a conscious active process, as Iattempt to surround and immerse my son in as much Italian as possible. What weare aiming for is a bilingual child, raised in a bilingual home.
'But he's only 10 weeks old! What could hepossibly be absorbing and understanding at this age?'
The answer: lots.
The execution: challenging.
Australia's multi-cultural background is theultimate playing ground for the establishment and maintenance of heritage andcommunity languages at home. This is certainly the case for Italian. Thepost-WWII Italian migrants provided the first significant shift in theacceptance of Italian as a community language in Australia. The dialects ofthese migrants began the first chain reaction of Italian being spoken in thehome, passed on from generation to generation.
Italian speaking households in Australia are stillextremely common, despite the fact that we have moved into the third generationof Italian-Australians. It's logical to expect that the further away we movefrom the migrant generation, the more diluted the Italian experience will become.Irrespective of this, we haven't completely moved away from the world ofItalian dialects spoken at home with 'inonni, mamma e papàƒ '. Thanks to the most recent wave of young Italianmigrants, which has already proven to be greater than that of the post-Warperiod, we are still speaking lots of Italian in Australian homes.
But how does one go about creating bilingualexperiences in the home? Is it feasible? Time consuming? What's the reality? Itdepends on many factors. What we know is that the younger you start, thegreater the outcome and the easier the transition will be for the child. Aslanguage cognition develops in the brain, children are more readily able toabsorb and process what they hear and experience around them. As we have oftenheard, their minds are like sponges.
Before you can start the process of providingbilingual experiences in the home consider the kind of outcome you are hopingfor. Are you hoping for the child to know key terms and vocabulary they can'insert' into their daily English lives? - latte,acqua, grazie, prego, nonno/nonna; or is the goal greaterfluency and the ability to converse in both Italian and English? Both areindeed enriching experiences, though the latter requires more exposure to thelanguage, consistency and thoughtful consideration. Put quite simply: thegreater the target language input, the greater the target language output. It'svery challenging, both in purpose and resourcing, to maintain that consistentinput, but the effort is worth the time and energy.
Bilingualhouseholds come in all shapes and sizes: heritage speakers; native speakers;speakers who have learned the language through study; speakers who don't speakthe language, but their partner does; grandparents and great-grandparents whocare for children, and so on. It may be that the child is exposed to onelanguage via one parent or guardian, and the other provides the English exposure.Irrespective of the situation, exposure of any kind is a wonderful gift toprovide that child. The Victorian Government's 'Speak the language you knowbest' campaign speaks volumes on this matter:
"“English is important, but it is also important for childrento learn their parents' language. Your child will learn English faster if youspeak, read and write with them in the language you know best - your homelanguage. Speaking two or more languages will make your child a better thinkerand communicator, giving them advantages at school and in life." - Departmentof Education and Training, 2017.
Language and culture are so deeply connectedthat they cannot be separated. Knowledge of languages broadens the mind andprovides scope for cultural understanding and tolerance. English PsycholinguistFrank Smith said: "“Language is not a genetic gift, it is a social gift.Learning a new language is becoming a member of the club - the community ofspeakers of that language." Providing Italian bilingual experiences is the bestway for us to ensure a continued presence of spoken Italian in our homes, aswell as keeping Italian culture alive and well on Australian soil.