N and I are raising Pata bilingual, and we use the OPOL (one parent, one language) method. I’m the only one who speaks English to her, though sometimes she hears it on the television. For a long time, she knew many more English words than Italian ones, but I’ve noticed that in the last couple of weeks, that has started to change, and I think Italian may overtake English even sooner than I expected it would. I find that disheartening, but it’s inevitable. We live in Italy, and English will be the second language.
About a month ago, she began translating. One evening, as I put dinner on the table, I told her to tell papà that it was time to eat. She ran off in search of N, and when she found him, she yelled, “Mangia, mangia!” I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been; she had known for months that eat and mangia were the same thing, and of course she would have noticed that I always use the former word, and N the latter. Now she translates other words as well. “Tell papà it’s time to go,” I say. “Damo!” (andiamo, let’s go!) she shouts, looking for N.
Shortly before she began doing this, we went to a party where a few people were very curious about her speech development. They wanted to know whether she had difficulty understanding both languages. I told them that she had figured out that N and I use different words to express the same things by the time she began following commands. At eleven months, she knew that when papà asked for baci he wanted the same thing that mommy asked for by saying kisses. And, I told them, just a few months after that, she began responding to our questions in the correct language. If I held her teddy bear in front of her and asked her what it was, she would say “bear,” and if N did the same thing, she would say, “orso.”
They seemed unconvinced, and continued to suggest that it might too confusing for her young mind. They told me about a French and American couple they knew living in Naples, who had two children. The first son learned French and English through the OPOL method, and then Italian at nursery school. The second son hardly spoke at the age of two, and comparing him to the first, they began to worry that there was something wrong. They took him to a pediatrician, who told them that the first child was obviously a genius, and that their attempts to teach two languages to the second child, who was merely ordinary, were just confusing him, and that they had better choose just one for him.
When I heard this, I felt sad for that boy, now deprived of a great gift, and angry at the ignorant pediatrician, whose lack of knowledge about childhood speech acquisition did not keep him from spouting off about it. The people at the party, however, were sure that he was right because, after all, he was a doctor, and they hoped that Pata was a genius, like their friends’ first son, because in that case, being bilingual wouldn’t be too taxing for her. I decided that if the evidence before them, i.e., an actual bilingual 17-month-old, wasn’t enough to persuade them that toddlers acquire second languages easily and naturally, then there was no point in arguing about it. Later I wondered whether they would have changed their minds or pronounced Pata a genius had she performed her translating trick for them.