As I’ve written before, N and I are using the OPOL (one parent, one language) method to teach Pata Italian and English. In the beginning, any misgivings were on the part of Italians, who worried that she wouldn’t learn Italian if I didn’t speak it to her (seriously, I’m not making that up), that she wouldn’t be able to speak to her Italian relatives before going to school, or that she would speak Italian poorly because her brain would be hard-wired for English. I spent months reassuring people that if one of the two languages were in danger of not being learned, it was not Italian. I never imagined how quickly I’d be proven right. Despite two weeks in the United States last month, Pata now speaks more Italian than English. Now I’m the one left wondering if OPOL is really going to work.
Pata spends most of her time with me, so she tends to learn the English word for something first, then the Italian one. Until a short while ago, she tended to use them both, either together, saying one right after the other, or (more typically) choosing the proper word while speaking to me or N. Just before we left for our trip, I noticed that she had begun replacing English words with Italian ones. As I listened to her using Italian words no one had ever taught her, I wondered where they came from. My reasoning was that there were certain words she should have known only in English, because I’m the only one who talked to her about them. Some of these were food words, others were things we’ve encountered on our walks around town, and some were the names of games and toys we play with during the day. So where were these Italian words coming from, and why did she favor them over the English words that she heard much more often?
I figured out what was happening while we were visiting Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, where Pata encountered hermit crabs for the first time. My sister’s fiancé had fished one out of the water and held it in his hand for Pata to see.
“Pata, look!” I told her, “that’s a crab. Say crab.”
She giggled and tried to poke at the tiny crab, but didn’t repeat the new word.
“What is that?” N asked.
“Haven’t you ever seen one before? É un granchio.” (It’s a crab.)
“Granchio,” Pata repeated carefully.
Then I realized that she had already figured out what I knew she one day would: that while mommy insists on using words that are different from papà’s, she seems to know all of his too, and it’s so much easier to learn only the words that they both know. She had probably learned all the Italian words that replaced their English counterparts from me, as she listened to me recount the day’s events every evening, in Italian, to N.
I realize the time is coming that I’ll have to be stricter about OPOL, not just always speaking English to her (which I already do), but also not responding to what she says in Italian. OPOL works best when each parent ignores the child’s speech in the other language. I’ve been holding off on that for obvious reasons: Pata is still very young and has a limited vocabulary, and when she first started talking I didn’t want to discourage her speech impulse. It also seems disrespectful to me to ignore her. For now, I’ve started to remind her, whenever she speaks Italian to me, that she must use her English words, and that seems to be working. I can only hope that I’ll be ready to take the more drastic measure of ignoring her Italian speech when my current solution no longer works.