Babies - One Language or Two?
Allesandro is almost six months old. His mother is English she speaks conversational Italian and of course she is fluent in English. His father is Italian. They live in England and when at home they speak a mixture of both Italian and English, mostly quite unaware of which they are using. Allesandro’s grandparents live close-by, they speak only Italian when at home, their knowledge and use of English being only about 5 per cent of their spoken words. Allesandro’s father and mother work, the grandparents babysit, though his mother is at home for many more hours each day than his father. She speaks English with the odd Italian phrase and her endearments to Allesandro come naturally in a mix of both languages.
Should they teach Allesandro to speak English or Italian or both simultaneously?
It’s a difficult question. Some children seem able to manage to acquire two languages without much trouble: others slow down in both - and unfortunately there doesn't seem any way of finding out in advance which type of child you are dealing with "one way to avoid any possible confusion is to teach the child one language only and then, when he is reasonably fluent, introduce the second. When parents do this they usually teach first the language of the country they are living in – probably reasoning that when the child grows and mixes more he will have every opportunity of learning the language he hears spoken around him on a daily basis. So in this case Allesandro would learn English first and then Italian.
One possible risk of this method is that it may in the early years limit the child’s ability to fully mix with his parents since he would have to rely on, in Allesandro’s case – on being understood only by adults and children who spoke English. Though this group would be in the majority, he would be somewhat isolated within his close family group, unable to have those special chats with his grandparents, which are a small child’s steps into the social world. One could of course think that until he is two to two and a half that he would not be making many contacts without an attendant adult, in this case one of his parents, who presumably would act as both caretaker and interpreter.
As with most things to do with children, the answer may well be ‘take the pace from the child’. If he seems confused, worried and not making headway in either language, then it’s time to think again. What is certain is that it is much easier to become fluent in a second language if you learn it during childhood rather than to wait until you are an adult. And if there is the rich choice of two languages in one family it seems such a pity to waste that opportunity.