Though I grew up speaking only English, I am actually half Italian. My father was born in Italy in the 1950s and when he was just 4 years old his family immigrated to Australia. They moved to an Italian community in the suburbs of Melbourne and my father and his siblings started at a local school where they learned to speak English. For my grandparents, however, there was never a reason for them to learn the new language because everyone around them spoke Italian. My “Nonno” (grandfather) learned the basics at work, but my “Nonna” (grandmother) lived her life in Australia and was never able to communicate in English.
When I was born my parents spoke to me only in English, even though my father is a native Italian speaker. My mother encouraged my father to teach me and my siblings Italian, but he never put importance on us learning this language because he didn’t think we would ever need it. We lived in Australia after all, and everyone spoke English. As a result, I grew up monolingual and was unable to communicate with my grandmother, missing out on the kind of close relationship with her that grandparents and grandchildren should have.
Moving to Italy
I grew up with some of the Italian culture and traditions but never visited Italy as a child. My Italian family immigrated during a period when times were tough in Italy, and therefore never saw the need to return; they had started a new and “better life” in Australia.
Moving to Italy myself happened by pure coincidence. After university I took some time out to travel and work around Europe. On the home stretch, two years later, I randomly met an Italian during a trip to Malta and a few months later we met up again in Rome, where he was living at the time. I never imagined that I would stay, but here I am still in Italy, almost 8 years later, and married with two little boys.
I have learned Italian over the years and have become quite fluent. My grandmother, back in Australia, was ecstatic when I went to visit her family here in Italy. I stayed in the town where my father was born and learned a lot about my family history, something I wish I had been able to do much earlier.
Communicating with my grandmother
The first time I was able to communicate with my Italian grandmother was in my mid-20s. By then she was in her 70s and my grandfather had passed away many years before. I had been living in Italy for just over a year and had learned some Italian by then.
I remember walking into her nursing home in Australia and starting up a conversation with her as she grinned from ear to ear. We were finally able to understand each other! It was such a weird feeling, so unreal: I was standing in front of a person I had known my whole life, someone I had never been able to have a conversation with, and we were really talking to each other for the first time.
Through my entire childhood and teenage years, we had been unable to communicate except for the few words she knew in English and the few words I knew in Italian. As a child, I never really knew the difference, but when I think about it now, the thought of her not being able to communicate with her own grandchildren makes me really sad.
Avoiding the same mistake
Along with the many benefits of learning another language, this is one of the main reasons I want to raise my children to be bilingual. It would have been quite easy to raise them speaking only Italian, as we live in Italy, and both my husband and I speak Italian, but we want them to be able to communicate with both their Italian family and their Australian family and enjoy relationships with all of their family members.
It’s extremely important to me that they learn about both cultures and about their family history. We don’t know where we’ll end up in the future and I don’t want them to miss out on not knowing someone important in their lives because of a language barrier.
These are some of the things we’re doing to ensure that our children become bilingual and learn about both sides of their family history.
Making it a priority
We’ve made it a priority that our children learn both languages. Before they were born we did a lot of research and agreed on a plan for raising them bilingually. We continuously read up on new ways to strengthen their language skills, and we teach them new things about their family history.
We follow the OPOL (one person, one language) method: I speak English to my children and my husband speaks Italian. Because we live in Italy, they have a lot more exposure to Italian so whether we’re out in public or at home, I speak only in English to them and they’re expected to respond to me in English. It can sometimes be difficult when we’re in a group, but I try my best to be consistent. I think this is the most important thing, so that my children don’t get confused about my expectations. Allowing them to respond to me in Italian would just be letting them take the easy way out.
Because my children get so much exposure to Italian, I try to encourage English activities at home.
- My children don’t watch much TV at home but if they do it’s ONLY in English.
- We have a collection of children’s books and most of them are in English. We often read together during the day and every night before bed I read them bedtime stories.
- I have fun English workbooks for my 4 year old, who’s starting to learn the letters of the alphabet. As he goes to kindergarten and is learning Italian there, it’s my responsibility to teach him to read and write in English. He’s still young, but I teach him little bits at a time.
We try to Skype at least once a week with my family in Australia. This way my children can keep in touch with my side of the family. It’s not the same as in person, but it still has an important impact. My 2 year old hadn’t yet met many family members when we went home last year for the first time since he was born. However, because of our Skype calls, when we arrived it was like he knew everyone already.
Since our children were born, we’ve been able to travel to Australia every year for at least a month. For the most recent trip, we stayed 3 months and their English improved immensely—they even picked up the Aussie accent! Australia is far away so it’s a big effort for us to travel, especially with two little ones. It would be wonderful if we could pop in for weekends, but that’s just not realistic, so when we go, we make a big trip out of it.
Thinking of the future
Our plan is to eventually move to Australia when our children are ready for school, which means we’d like them to be speaking English at the level of their peers.
We know that once we move, Italian will then become the minority language so we’ll have to adjust our plan, maybe even switching from the OPOL approach to the Home language/Community language approach. In any event, this will take some new strategies so they don’t lose their Italian.
For now, we’ll continue trying our best to ensure that our children get a good balance of exposure to both language and both cultures. I don’t want them to be in the position I was, when I couldn’t communicate with one of the most important people in my life.
My grandmother, who passed away not long after I was finally able to speak to her, was proud of me for living in Italy and learning Italian. I think she would be proud of me, too, for helping my kids have the chance to communicate with their own grandparents.