Episode 90: Q&A – Is it too late to teach my older children a second language?

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On this episode of Bilingual Avenue, I provide advice to a mother who is concerned that she may have waited too long to teach her children Italian.  Her children are 6 and 11 and although they are showing interest in learning the language, she is looking for suggestions on how to pass on the language to them.  I give her some tips on how to motivate older children and find age appropriate content for them.

Transcript #90

Hey there and welcome to another episode of the Bilingual Avenue podcast!

If you like what you hear you can check out this podcast every week by subscribing to iTunes or Stitcher Radio.

This is an exciting episode because it is being released essentially a year from when I launched the podcast.  I can hardly believe that it’s been a year.  What a fun ride!! Thank you to all of you for your support and I hope you have enjoyed our labor of love for the past twelve months.  So happy birthday Bilingual Avenue!

Have you joined the Bilingual Avenue Facebook community?  It’s pretty simple to join if you are already on Facebook.  You can meet other multilingual families and leverage it as another support group to help you along the way.

I have another really interesting question and some of you with older children may find it particularly helpful.  This question was submitted at multilingualparenting.com

You can check out the transcript to the question on the show notes page at bilingualavenue.com/episode90 or at the multilingualparenting.com page.  I will have the link for you on that show notes page.

Alright, here’s the email:

Hello,
I am so glad I found this website, I just realized I did a big disservice to my kids. I am Italian, live in the States, my husband is American, both of our kids were born and raise here, I lived here for 12 years now. In the beginning I was speaking Italian to my first son, who is now 11.  But slowly but surely I dropped Italian and only spoke English. I am not sure why.

Now my older son is in Italy with my parents for the summer and I realize the mistake I have made in not keeping up with Italian! My parents can’t communicate with my kids! Even though now he is picking it up and working really hard to learn as much as he can.

My youngest one is 6 and I have, for the past 3 weeks, switched to speaking only or almost only Italian at home and sometimes when we are out and about. He doesn’t seem to mind and has asked me how to say things in Italian, it looks like I might be still in time to teach them my language and hopefully my culture (which I have in a way, I am a chef and food is always a great way to pass on a culture).

What I am wondering is if my approach is correct? What I am doing is, I am speaking mostly Italian, but since he doesn’t know nearly enough words to understand a full or complicated sentence, I say it in Italian, try again, then explain in English and repeat it in Italian a couple of times, is this a good efficient way to proceed?

Reading your site, I have finally realized that if my parents were bilingual and didn’t teach me the second language, I would be furious at them now. I don’t want my kids to feel the same, or my parents to be so upset (at me of course) because their only grand kids, can’t speak their language.

Thank you so much

Hopeful mum

Well hello, hopeful mum! Thank you for submitting your question to the Multilingual Parenting family language coaching team.

You are right to be hopeful!  I can tell you from personal experience that it is not too late for your children to learn Italian.  I did not learn English until I was 13 years old so I promise you it can be done.  I can tell that you already have a huge advantage on your side and that is that both of your children seem interested in learning the language so that alone can go a long way.  Just because they are older does not mean that they will not be able to pick it up.  In fact, in some cases, they will have an advantage because they will already have an entire language system, English, that they can use to reference when learning their Italian.

I like the approach you are currently using especially since your children seem to be taking to it.  By speaking to them in Italian, you are slowly increasing the amount of rich vocabulary that is presented to them on a daily basis.  Yet you are also pausing to explain what you are saying and providing them with context in English.  Also by regularly speaking to them, you are modeling the intonation and of the language (even if they are not able to imitate it just yet).  Last but certainly not least, by speaking to them in full sentences you are also modeling the Italian grammatical structure.  I have talked before about the six principles that foster language development and one very important one is that vocabulary and language are learned together.

If anybody actually wants more context on those six principles, I will go ahead and link to them on the show notes page for this episode so you can read through the other five.
Overall, I would say your current approach seems like a good way for you to start.  Just make sure to monitor how they are feeling about this shift in your family language policy.  Since they are older, check in with them from time to time and make sure that they are still comfortable.  Also, make sure that you are feeling comfortable.  You are having to do a lot of extra work by speaking both languages to them and by having to explain the context of your sentences.  It sounds like you are committed which is great just make sure you find a way so that it is still sustainable for you going forward.

Now let’s talk about some additional things that you can do to support their language learning journey.  The first thing I would advise is to develop some language goals for each of your boys.  The more aggressive those goals are the harder you will have to work to achieve them.  However, this is an important step because it will help guide you in future decisions.

In reading through the Multilingual Parenting blog, you may have come across the two key ingredients to learning a language and that is providing plenty of exposure and creating a need to use the language.  You can find a list of ideas on how to create exposure to Italian on my episode 12 but let me give you some additional ideas for older children.

  • #1. Incorporate vocabulary that is relevant to your boys. They are going to learn the language differently than they would if they were babies so make it appealing it to them.  Try to incorporate words in your conversations that they will be able to actually use when they try to communicate.
  • #2. Leverage technology. If your children watch TV, for example, identify some shows that children their age are watching in Italy.  They will be age appropriate and they will also have vocabulary that is relevant to what they find interesting which brings me back to my first point, incorporating vocabulary that is relevant. If you are able to find a show, it is probably already targeted towards that age group and it may be something that they actually enjoy.
  • #3. Enroll them in a language class. It is great that they are getting to hear you speak Italian but enlisting the help of a professional may also be beneficial.  If you are not able to find them a class or an instructor in your community, no problem!  We live in the digital age and you can find one-on-one classes online through tools like Skype or you can go the more traditional route and use a language software.  I am personally a fan of Fluenz, we had the creator on a previous episode.  You can hear the methodology that they use.  I used it personally to learn German and really enjoyed the format.
  • #4. Find a penpal.  This tip may be more practical for your older son, however, do not underestimate the power of writing.  Your son may not yet have a lot of vocabulary and the idea of writing a letter in Italian may seem daunting but you can start out with really simple sentences.  This is something you can work on together in the beginning.  Then, as he gets more comfortable and has more vocabulary, he can start doing it on his own.  Now as far as finding a penpal, you may not have to look too hard.  Your own parents may actually love the opportunity to engage with your sons in Italian.  It may be less intimidating for your sons because they are not on the hook for speaking and they have the time to think about what they want to say.  I guarantee you that the grandparents are going to love to get some letters from their grandkids.
  • #5. Live the language! You mentioned that you are a chef so cook together while practicing your Italian.  Write down some of your favorite recipes in Italian and make them together.   There is lots of vocabulary you can include like ingredients, action verbs, numbers, etc.  These types of experiences will allow your children to associate Italian with having a good time.  As they feel more comfortable, they can be reading the instructions and maybe even translating some of your favorite family recipes from English to Italian.  There is a lot you can do here.  Of course, you are not limited to just cooking but that plays to your strength.  Just think about living the language and what other culture activities they can participate that are fun so they can then have a really positive association with the language.
  • #6. Leverage your family members. Your family in Italy will surely love the fact that you are committed to them learning their own language.  Be up front with them about your goals and think of ways that they can help you along the way.  They will likely be your greatest allies.

That should give you a good idea of the types of things you can do to increase the exposure.  Just remember that you will also have to find a way for them to feel the need to use the language.  Exposure is just one piece.  That will give them the vocabulary that they need to use but then creating the need to use it is just as important.

I wish you the best of luck, keep the momentum going and remember that your own enthusiasm will matter too!  Again, your children are older and that can work in your advantage.  Explain to them why you think it’s important that they learn Italian.  In fact, leverage your son’s recent experience in Italy and explain that if he they are able to learn the language they will also be able to communicate with family members and those around them whenever they visit.

I am excited to see how things work out, don’t hesitate to check in.  For anyone else, I hope you found the answer helpful.  You can find a transcript of today’s episode on the show notes page at bilingualavenue.com/episode90.

If you have a question of your own that you would like feature on the podcast send it over.  I’d love to help you out.

And remember that if you are on Instagram, I’d love to see you on there as well.  I love finding inspiration from other multilingual families and seeing what you are doing and how that is helping you along the way.

May you have fun travels on your language journey.  Hope to see you again on the avenue.

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  1. Pingback: Q&A: Is it too late to teach my children my native language?

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