The Wrong Word

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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.


19 responses to “The Wrong Word

  1. Good luck! And whatever approach ends up working best for you and your family, don't worry about it too much. Those bilingual kids are amazing. Mine almost always speak to me in Italian, but come up with English everytime they have to!

  2. Instead of just ignoring her when she speaks Italian, which would be hard to do, why not say in English, "I'm sorry, what did you say?" and then hope she'll repeat what she said in English.Keep trying! I am still sorry my daughter didn't end up speaking Dutch because she refused once we came back to the US. I really should have insisted more.

  3. Thanks Saretta, it helps to know that so many families are successful in raising bilingual children.Miss Footloose, that's sort of what I was thinking I'd do- saying something like, "I'm sorry I didn't hear you," until I get an answer in English. I could never not just say anything. Thank you for the encouragement!

  4. I've been worried about that with Luigi too. He has started saying acqua (well, it's really qua-qua that he's saying) and I can't get him to say water. Of course, he's got 5 or 6 people saying acqua to him and only one saying water. I can tell this is going to be an uphill battle. Good Luck!

  5. whatever you do . . . .don't give up! (okay, i know you won't, but that's all i've got for you….well, that and the fact that i often meet teens who have parents who speak different languages, yet the kids only have one. it makes me sad for them, like they've been cheated.)

  6. In our family me and the boys speak english with Luca, while his papi speaks only in Italian to him. So understandably the little he speaks is mostly in english- some of it is his own little baby babble language too. He is being quite coy about speaking Italian right now. He understands his papi but hasn't yet uttered a word in Italian. We're not worried though at all. We assumed from the beginning that being raised in the US he would take on that language at first. Our own experience has taught us not to worry. When i first moved to Italy my two older boys literally didn't know more than to say "ciao." They learned to be fluent in Italian after only one year there. They were speaking quite well after only a few months there. So we feel that when we come to visit relatives in Italy, Luca will be immersed in the language, and Italian will easily come to him. For now, his Papi reads to him and speaks to him in Italian. I am not an expert in languages but I really feel that you and your husband are doing just perfect with Pata. In time, both languages will come to her.

  7. Wow. So interesting! Are there any good articles or books on OPOL? I never actually heard about it until this point but, considering I may propose to my Italian girlfriend in the future, the linguistics issue may come up!

  8. What i do when S says something in italian to me is repeat it back to ehr in english as a question, that way she just has to rephrase it a bit to answer it. EG she'll say vorrei mangiare, and i;ll say 'what'? then a pause in case she repeats it in english, followed by ' you want something to eat'? I find that works quite well. It is like having a long conversation with yourself though! I also explain everything i am doing (let's go and fold up the washing, whose shirt is this? etc etc), trying to pack her brain with english words, and find reading kids books esp those with lots of adjectives helps her vocab tremendously. She loves the funny sounds in dr seuss books too and wants me to repeat and repeat some pages! Also, after having my mum to stay for 3 weeks (speaks no italian) and being at home with me for 6 weeks (asilo closed) has done wonders for her english. She now actively speaks in english to me, still wiht a few italian words in there (usually the verbs) but it is not forced and she uses it no matter who else is around. Yesterday we were driving past the lcoal pizzeria, whcih she pointed out. Then i said, that's right, it;s called the Gambero Rosso. She said 'you mean the red gambero'. I was v happy about that. Couldn't think what gambero was in englsih though ( i don't eat seafood). ha ha. But it is very hard when you are the only one around who speaks english. I was thinking to invite some of her friends around to give them 'free english lessons' as a way she (and they!) could use english as a fun 'play' language. I noticed that in NZ, her italian improved dramatically after ONE week of a few hours/ day at a daycare centre. SHe'd already spent the previous month in the compnay of english speaking adults but the kids made all the difference. Play language is v important to little kids. As it is we speak english at home and I ALWAYS speak to her in english, and have mentioned that her baby brother 'only understands english' so that has also kept her talking. If you can in any way meet up with english speakers and even speakers of other languages so she can see the world is not monolingual. I'm sure you're aware that once K starts asilo her italian will probably get MUCH stronger so that means more work for you wiht the english. Good luck, it is hard work and often initially depressing but i'm sure she will be fine if you persist. Vanessa

  9. Hi KC,Welcome back! From a linguistical point of view, I can also reassure you Pata will learn English when you speak it to hear. (I am a linguist and very interested in bilingualism in children) But yes, you may have to insist she speaks English to you. However, a child's brain is so flexible that it will store and use both languages. It won't do any harm if she speaks to you in Italian once in a while: in a few years, either language could become a 'secret code' for both of you when speaker of the other language are around, or to express particular feelings. I think you are doing just fine with the OPOL method, keep it up! Hanneke (from Brussels)

  10. Mary, I can't get Pata to say water either, even though she used to say it. I think we're in for some very hard work.Thanks for the encouragement, Dana!Thanks, Amber. I try to remind myself as often as possible how easily children learn languagrs, and stay positive about the way we're proceeding.Peter, I'm sure there are, but I can't think of anything of the top of my head. In addition to the links that Amber listed above, have a look here and here to get started.V, phrasing the question like that is a great idea. That can even be done when their vocab is still very limited because it teaches them the word too. I love the red gambero story! I think that may be a prawn. Yuck, I don't eat seafood either.Thanks for those links, Amber. I wasn't aware of them before. Pata's first word was "mamma," but I'm not sure if it was in English or Italian. I like to think it's English…Thank you, Hanneke!

  11. I am interested in the OPOL method or any method to get children to speak the 2 languages that their parents speak, but is it OK to actually say to a child who addresses you in her main language and not the one you wanted 'What did you say?" or "I don't understand" when it is obvious to the child that you do. Pata hears you speak Italian so she knows you understand it too.I am worried that my child will do the same (opposite since we live in the US and we don't know anyone here that speaks Italian)

  12. J.Doe, that's my difficulty with it…it seems disrespectful, and I'm hoping that I wont have to take that step. But if she won't speak English otherwise, I will.

  13. We are going through this as well, but I'm trying not to stress about the fact that Dylan speaks more Italian than English. The last thing I want to do is pressure him because I fear that with too much pressure, he will "reject" English. Obviously, I only speak to him in English and we read books and watch shows or Baby Einstein DVDs in English.Oddly when we were just in the U.S., he began using Italian words he'd never used before. Meaning his Italian was "improving" though he was no longer in Italy. But then toward the end of the trip, he was speaking more English. I think it was the desire to communicate with other little kids. I think what is important is to not listen to the naysayers (everyone told me that since we were raising Dylan bilingual, he would speak late – he began talking at nine months and now speaks shockingly well and in phrases) and follow your instinct.

  14. Michelle, I know I shouldn't stress about it, esp. because she'll pick up on it and it'll become even more of an issue, but it is so hard not to do. Pata did the same thing on our American trip, using new words we'd never heard her say before. But she added very few English words, perhaps because she spent most of her time with adults and knew that N and I would understand her if she stuck to Italian.We heard the same thing about how bilingual children tend to be late talkers. Our experience with Pata doesn't bear that out either, though she didn't start speaking as early as Dylan! She had a few words at nine months but didn't really start building her vocabulary up until about a year. Still early enough to surprise everyone who told us we were holding her back.

  15. I started speaking to my husband in English instead of French whenever my daughter was present precisely because of the situation you describe. It upped her exposure to English just enough to make her speak English instead of just understand it.

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