Little translator

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.

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18 responses to “Little translator

  1. Hello to you KC…A little long respons, but I like to tell you this… I have always talked Norwegian to my sons..My husband always Italian..In the house we speak English…Me with british school-english..My husband with Brooklyn dialect..I special remember Michael (now 20).When he was 3, someone told us that he had to be handicapped..we took him to a specialist, who said, dont worry, nothing is wrong…A couple of months later, 3 languages came out in the same sentence..Another 2 months he had devided the languages…The same happened to Richard (18)..The same person that told me about the "sickness" was shocked when they were 5..an able to talk to me..turning the head and talk to the father..looking straigth and spoke to the brother in english…When the teacher in a Norwegian school was complaining about their pronunciation in the subject English..my husband got upset..went to the school…and said…those kids are American, with their own language..To day they are able to speak perfect Skandinavian,English,American,Italian and Neapolitano..and also write 3 language perfect…And they are greatful for their turbulant childhood (We have lived a little bit here and there, they never went to an international school, always to the local)Pata is lucky (as my kids) she will have something for "free"(Richard took a college-exam as "privatist" in Norway..in Italian literature..with hight score)Big hug from a mum to another…

  2. It is always surprising how a little children can learn both languages, and people are very ignorant about this. Probably the trick could not convince them, but surely you're doing a big favour to your daughter!

  3. That's fantastic that she can do the translating, but some people are so ignorant – like that pediatrician.People here are actually pretty supportive of me speaking English to Luigi, the only thing is that I only speak English with him when we're alone. When anyone else is around, I always speak Italian. Maybe I ought to always speak English with him.

  4. Ouch, I feel bad for the boy too! Our son (2 1/2) still does not really talk other than ciao, mamma and pappa. However he understands everything very well in both languages. At daycare there was another mom who was french and she said that her first daughter did not say a word til 3 1/2 and at that time she was almost fluent in both italian and french. I think that every kid takes in the languages in his own way and at his own speed. Not because one child is a 'genius' and the other not.

  5. I study linguistics, and speech acquisition is one of those things that to me, is amazing.Anyway, you guys are doing the right thing! Don't stop. I just pity that doctor because he's so misinformed.Pata must be the cutest thing on two feet! I see her pictures and I want to just gobble her up! Heheh.. You may recognize me from the expats forum; I'm not just some random person who stumbled across your blog eheh

  6. Ugh, how frustrating! I hate when people here ask if my son can speak Italian and then demand him to 'say something.' He is 4! Of course he just stares at them without uttering a word (in either language). I try explaining that he only ever lived in Italy and went to school for 2 years, so yes, he understand and speaks Italian, but they always want proof. Whatever. Apparently the mother is the last to know what is right and good for her own child!

  7. I suppose my Italian husband and I are also using the OPOL method to bring up our daughter. It is not official, but it seems easier for him to talk to her in his native italian and I talk to her in my native english. She is now 17 months and not speaking in either language though, although she seems to understand both languages. One doctor I went to said that slow speech development is normal in bilingual kids so Pata may be a genius and my daughter not an idiot, although another doctor (and my parents) suggested that she is not learning speech on time so I should take her to a speech therapist or something. I personally agree with the first doctor. There is nothing wrong with my daughter for not speaking at 17.5 months and I don't think there was anything wrong with the second french/italian boy who also was a slower learner. There shouldn't be just one cookie cut age for speech for all kids.

  8. Hi Cristina! That's wonderful that your children speak so many languages. Some children just speak later than others. Even in monolingual children, speaking late isn't always the sign of a disability. I know because I was a late talker, and I only spoke language. (That's why I don't understand why when bilingual children are later in speaking, so many people jump to the conclusion that there's a problem.)Claudia, I agree, I think that even a 17-month-old translator would have persuaded them, they were so convinced of what they were saying. Mary, I also find that most people think it's great that I speak English to Pata. Our pediatrician is great and has praised me from the start for doing OPOL. I used to speak Italian to her when other people were around because I felt self-conscious and a little rude about excluding them, but then I realized that Pata was getting very little English that way, so I started speaking to her in English all the time. It was hard at first, but after a couple of weeks, it felt normal to do it. I personally think it's the best way.

  9. Diana, I agree with you about children developing at their own pace. The idea that a child who masters languages faster than another is somehow more intelligent is just wrong, and a pediatrician should know that! At two years, it's not that unusual for a monolingual child to speak very little. One of Pata's cousins was like your son at 2 1/2, and now a year later he talks quite a lot. Every child is different. a.d.f., yes, I recognized you. I'm also subscribed to your blog! I didn't study linguistics, but wish I had, because I find so many aspects of language and speech interesting. I wish that people who are uninformed (like the ped.) wouldn't give advice that misleads others. The world would be a much different place if that didn't happen.Karen, that's so rude! Why do people expect children to perform for them? I guess that childhood bilingualism is rare enough in some cultures that people need to hear it to believe it. The same thing happens to me with Pata sometimes, and like any self-respecting child she does not perform on cue, and they remain unconvinced. My response is the same as yours: whatever!J.Doe, I think you're right to listen to the doctor. From what I've read there is nothing wrong with not speaking at 17 months! Especially if the child listens actively, i.e. understands and responds to commands and requests. The funny thing about child development is that when they're very young, some kids seem so far ahead of others, and others far behind, but in a few years they pretty much equal out. Another thing to consider is that some children are more verbal than others, and some kids are more physical, and they hit physical milestones earlier.

  10. Hi KC,Isn't it amazing that the uniformed pediatrician yields such unchecked power and influence?While our situation is not exactly the same as yours, as neither of us has Italian as a first language and we are relying on the school system and neighborhood to teach her Italian, we do suffer the comments, questions, and uninformed opinions of others. I've tired of responding with, "The current research says. . ." and just smile and nod as I am become informed by the oh-so-uninformed. Whatever!She also refuses to perform and also absolutely refuses to speak Italian with anyone other than Italians. She sizes up the speaker immediately, and will use his or her first language to communicate. Lots of folks we know are attempting to learn Italian as adults, and they try to engage her. . . she refuses. They assume it's bc she can't speak Italian. Again, whatever!Her verbal communication was also "delayed," but when she started it was in both languages. Twice the fun!She still struggles a bit, and after a summer in the States away from all Italian language, she said, "Io wento a piscina." I suppose I have an ordinary child! However, in May she was correcting our pronunciation and translating a story for her Italian friends. We remain calm and carry on. Her little brain will figure it all out & hang onto it all soon enough; those synapses are firing! I think that this, the third year in asilo, will be the year she blossoms.Whew!Have a great vacation! And, yes, I did wonder if you were headed to Sardegna :)Dana

  11. This post really speaks to me because when I was an infant my parents spoke nothing but Spanish to me although they both spoke English, my mother better than my father but that's neither here nor there. I don't know if they even knew of the OPOL method but my Mom just figured that I would learn English once I started school. Mother always knows best because she said that after two weeks of school I was speaking English. Even then they would not speak English to me or my siblings. They insisted we speak Spanish at home and to this day I am so thankful that they did this for us. Being bilingual has been such a valuable trait thoughout my life and now my career. I can't stress how important it is. I also spent all of my summers with my family in Mexico and I embrace my culture wholeheartedly. I am very proud to be who I am. I think when Pata is an adult, she will feel the same. Between Ale and I we speak 3 languages and I often wonder how we will go about teaching our future children all three languages. I suppose I can take a little of both the OPOL method and my Mother's. He can speak Italian, I will speak Spanish, and they will learn English in school. I'm really excited at the prospect but maybe I am getting ahead of myself! Oh well, it doesn't hurt to plan ahead, right? I'm not to worried about learning Italian because perhaps I will learn it as my children do! I think what you are doing for Pata is wonderful and I know that she will come to appreciate it later in life. Nevermind what doctors who are probably not bilingual themselves have to say. It's a shame those parents let him discourage them.

  12. Thanks to you for your post and for the comments you received. It makes me feel better to hear that my 17 month old daughter is still 'normal' even though she doesn't speak. I have a Pediatrician appointment on Tuesday and I dread it because I usually get the crappy Dr. who thinks my daughter is semi-retarded because she doesn't speak. Also my parents, husband…..everyone close seems to KNOW that she should be talking by this point in her life. I feel like I have a definite uphill battle as I was the only one insisting she was normal. It's really nice to get support and know I am not alone. She is normal.

  13. That's great that Pata is growing up bilingual. I've heard that bilingual kids start speaking later, which is perfectly fine. I can't believe how people say they'll be "confused" with 2 languages…If my brain could learn a new language at 25, then a fresh brain of a 1- 2 year old should have no problems at all.I'm wondering how the OPOL method works when the 2 parents speak together.

  14. When I was a kid, I was extremely jealous of my cousins who were born in Venezuela to an American mother and French father. They were trilingual at a very early age. I thought they were wonderful and exotic and so vey lucky.

  15. Ciao,I'm late in this conversation, and I'm frustrated because this topic is very important to me. I am a bilingual Italian/English speaker, raising my son as a single mom. I was advised by a similar pediatrician "expert" to stick to one language with my boy in order for him to master his first language (Italian), and then at 3 start introducing English. "Otherwise the boy will speak both badly and late" he said.I am alone, no spouse to share the OPOL method with. Grandparents are not "live-in" enough, and our nanny is Philipino, speaks Italian with a very strong accent and simple phrases. Initially I did feel perhaps speaking a jumble of 2 languages to my son could actually be confusing, but now I'm having second thoughts.All my friends, including a Eng/Spanish couple who are raising a trilingual boy 1 year older than mine insist I made a mistake. I could have spoken English only to him, grandparents Italian… and school would have filled in the gaps. But would he have been integrated in Italian public preK? How was I to communicate with the nanny in front of him? Is there a chance I may have to switch entirely to English now, and will it be a shock rather than a productive method? My son speaks Italian perfectly, he has a very wide vocabulary and is curious about English. I speak Eng to him occasionally, and in America this summer during vacation, he began understanding random words and concepts. I have no idea how to proceed from here… (sorry for this very long comment)Help!~Lola

  16. Hi Dana. I find the unquestioning acceptance of what pediatricians endlessly frustrating! I've read that code mixing (mixing two languages unintentionally) is pretty common and normal in small children. Pata does it often.

    Piccola, your mother was very wise!

    You're welcome, J.Doe. I can relate in a way, Pata took a very long time to walk on her own, even though she started cruising early, and people would not let it rest! I think I read somewhere that pediatricians look for fifty words at 2 yrs. Your daughter still has quite a while to get there.

    Delina, that's an interesting question about OPOL and parents' conversation, and one I've begun to ponder after noticing that Pata is picking up Italian from me as well. (I'm going to post about that soon.) I'm beginning to wonder if OPOL is enough, though in the absence of anything better, I'll be sticking to it.

    Reb, I didn't have anyone bilingual in my family, but I grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood and I really envied all my bilingual friends. They were just so much more interesting than everyone else.

    Lola, there's no need to apologize. I'm not an expert but I would start speaking English to him exclusively if I were you- you're the only source he has for it, unless he's studying it in school, but from what I hear, foreign language instruction here tends not to be very good. I'm a member of a forum for multicultural families, and I will post your question there and see what others advise, then I'll get back to you here.

  17. So great to see so many successful stories about trilingualism as well as bilingualism. I'm a native speaker of English and husband is Dutch and we're raising our daughter in Italy. We each speak our native language with her and her babysitter speaks Italian (next year she'll go to Italian daycare). Anyway I know a lot of kids speak really early and some speak late – A is 13 months and so far nada – but she's very commmunnicativve inn other ways. I'm sure it'll all work out in the end. on the other hand, mothers worry that's what we do!

  18. Lola, I posted a question on that forum and there were a couple of responses. The advice was to take it slowly at first, building up his vocabulary, perhaps using games and reading to do so, and allowing him to respond to you in Italian in the beginning.

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