I have a 5 year old and a 1 year old and both are being brought up bilingual. They speak in English to me and in Italian to their father. I have to admit it has been quite hard work as we have had our trials and tribulations of bringing our first son up with two languages. I was constantly analysing his speech development because I was certain he was very behind all his peers and he had a clear preference for English even though we lived in Italy and he was more exposed to Italian. I considered giving up speaking English but only very briefly as I know the importance of the language and whatever happened this was also his direct cultural inheritance from me. I can only say it got better and now we have a completely bilingual 5 year old, I’m so glad that I persevered and got through the pain barrier!
Some of my son’s monolingual friends were very quick talkers so for a brief period I wondered if raising him in two different languages had an affect on his linguistic development, but looking at a wider selection of children, I realised he was just a more average rather than precocious talker. I’m sure bilingualism did take its toll on his speed of picking up the languages and I’ve noticed that in monolingual children their language boom comes at about age 2 – 2.5 and in bi/multilingual children this comes much later but I’d say that from about age 5 onwards their language development reaches the same level. Other factors have to be excluded when there is a potential speech delay as bilingual children are often just fobbed off as having speech difficulties because of their bilingualism when in actual fact they have a speech problem regardless of the amount of languages they speak.
The first time I saw language switching I was amazed. I was tutoring the children of wealthy entrepreneurs in the centre of Rome. I was impressed and amazed at the natural fluency in which they had acquired both the languages. Although they were 100% Italian, their outlook on the world was completely international, they listened to me and had a sort of secret empathy towards me that their Italian peers that I had begun to teach just didn’t possess. The monolingual children just looked at me blankly when I spoke, or maybe giggled the first times out of embarrassment. This sparked my reflections on how children were when given the gift of acquiring two languages and how they didn’t just benefit linguistically, but universally, as people as if it opened their minds and widened their horizons. It was like somewhere inside their minds they had a whole new world that enriched the children that they were and just glinted hope for the people that they would become. It was spectacular as one moment they seemed two Italian children playing and speaking to each other in Italian and then one would say a sentence in English and they would both switch languages and start playing in English as if nothing had happened, they were the same two children but with two different ‘modes’.
My two children already have a very global outlook. From birth the boys have existed in multilingual and multicultural environments and know about other countries and cultures. I’ve noticed that they become less judgemental as they naturally emerge in different cultures, they get the chance to see the reasons why certain people do certain things. They observe, they learn and they put that knowledge under their belts. It’s like having the best of both worlds.
Raising completely bilingual children gives them a leap start for learning a third and fourth language and from experience it becomes so much easier for them. I noticed this when my son recently took an unexpected interest in French. I set a cartoon to original language on Sky, thinking it would be English but it was actually French. I was quite amazed when my son actually sat there listening to the cartoon and started making some very French sounds. What I was experiencing was an interest in another language. He even asked me if I knew how to speak French and if I could teach him some! I now know he has a good propensity to learn other languages and clearly more interest in different languages than monolingual peers.
He’s 5 years old and has grown up submersed in these two very different languages from the word GO and although I know he has experienced the downsides of having to deal with two languages (his peers being slightly one up on him in the majority language) the situation has only enriched him, morally, linguistically and culturally.
I know now that for my 1 year old it’s ok to raise him bilingually and that he will only benefit from the situation.