My name's Alice, I am Italian, and I speak only in English to my daughter. We live in Italy, my husband speaks in Italian to her and we speak in Italian to each other because he doesn't really speak English. I've noticed that my daughter sometimes when she answers to me she answers in English but sometimes she says some words in Italian too. For example, she asks me che cos'è mommy? (what is that?) and then she goes back to English. And sometimes she mixes a lot. She is 2.5 years old. I mean, maybe I'm paranoid, but when will she use 1 language with me and the other with her dad or other people? In September she will go to the kindergarten. Do you think she will prefer the majority language?
My best friend is American and she has other bilingual friends. But sometimes I just get worried. Thanks!
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What you are witnessing with your daughter is called code-switching and it is perfectly normal; all bilinguals tend to do it! As children we usually do it when we can't remember the word we are looking for, whilst as adults we are more language aware and do it with people we know speak the same languages as us.
My eldest was a champ at code-switching when we changed language strategy to minority language at home. She had such lacunas in her minority languages (we live in France but my husband speaks Spanish and I speak in English) she couldn't string a whole sentence together! So she kept using French words in her English or Spanish sentences. She was 4 at the time. Now she's 6.5 years old and she hardly ever code-switches, only occasionally, because she has finally developed enough vocabulary in her minority languages.
It is part of the learning process. Do not worry. Your daughter is very small and far from having completed her language acquisition. She has a long way to go yet. Bear in mind she has to learn twice as much vocabulary and language structure than any other monolingual kid would.
As an anecdote, I was raised trilingual, I have always code-switched and code-switched no later than this lunch-time in our 3 languages with my husband! Personally, I thoroughly enjoy it. I use the exact idioms I want to find the right nuance for what I want to express.
As to preferring Italian because she will attend an Italian kindergarten, it could be the case, yes. But each child is different. They have their own personality. For instance, my eldest has a huge bias for French, our Majority Language, whilst her little sister (3) shows a preference for English (probably because she has a strong bond with me). We have yet to see how my little one reacts when she starts nursery school in September. I am very worried too, to be honest with you. But there is nothing I can do about it for the moment. I have to wait and see. It is no use stressing on something that has not yet arisen and that I cannot control anyway. All I can do is to strictly stick to using English with my little one to bolster our communication language, in the hope she will not try to change it from French in the future.
Hope this can reassure you and please let us know if you have any other questions. Raising bilingual is tough and we often feel isolated and hassled with doubts If we can help by answering your questions, let us know.
My kids initially mixed their languages with everyone. They were young and didn’t actually separate the speech they heard into the idea of two separate languages. At that young age they thought it was just different ways to call a thing. Like kids might say cat or kitten and it’s still understood by everyone. At that point they usually used the language in which the word was easier.
That phase ended for my oldest at about 2.5 when I accindentally used an ML word instead of ml. Then my daughter looked at me and said “mama you no say ducky. You say utka!” That’s how I knew she realized that different people had different words. But while she started using pure ML with my ML husband, she still used a mix with me. I think it’s because her language skills were so weak, she needed that ML crutch to express herself. She was 4 when she switched to pure ml with me with just the occasional ML word thrown in for when she didn’t know the ml one.
My youngest though was ml dominant in preschool and did everything I described in reverse. ml with me, and mixing with my husband. But then she started school...3 months and the balance was flipped. She was talking pure ML to both of us. She’s 6 now and mixes with me still. 😒
So to answer your question, you have to find out if she knows there are two languages. If she doesn’t by the time she starts school, she might have issues. If she knows but her ml is just weak, then it depends on when she gets strong enough to stop mixing. But that won’t interfere with her ML in any way, and she’ll be understood perfectly by her Italian friends.
Thanks a lot for your answers. Well, she definitely knows that she can speak 2 languages. She translates things for me or for my husband.
It seems that sometimes maybe she doesn't know the specific word in L1 or L2. She mixes a bit less in Italian now. So maybe should I reinforce English? But how? I'm pretty busy and lately we haven't seen her bilingual friends. She sees my best friend who is American once a week.
I'm a bit worried about kindergarten. I hope she will continue to love English as she does now.
I think it’s unfair to expect of her the same kind of progress in a language she hears from everyone and the language she hears from just one person, even if that person is a mother. Think of it as hours of exposure. If she’s only exposed to English a third of her time, then she’ll be a year or two behind her monolingual English peers. That is ok.
The goal is to continue to put in effort despite seeing that one language is weaker than the other. Because it is disheartening to see that for all your effort you still just try not to fall further behind. But focus on improvement in English. Does she continue to improve, even if it’s slower than Italian. Because even very tiny improvement over time will result in proficiency by the time they are 18.
As an example my oldest mixed until she was 4. Didn’t use proper verb conjugation forever. Didn’t even get concept of grammatical gender. The phrase “I have” took us 3 months. Proper preposition before days of the week took about 3 years. She is 9 now, and quite honestly what I see today from her seemed like it would never happen when I thought about the future back then. She makes mistakes, and code switches, but she is solidly using her ml, and loves that she has it. I’m sure by 18, even the mistakes I see today will be gone.
So remember the baby steps. Don’t worry too much, but don’t ease up on the effort. It’s a difficult balance.
As bilingual parents, we tend to be more attentive about our monkeys' bilingual language development.
Yesterday, I bumped into a trilingual mum who like us shares Spanish and French. She had a 2.5 year old son and she was also concerned about him mixing the three languages in one sentence. Her concern made me think of you. We are all the same.
My only advice is to keep going with English, and whenever your daughter produces a mixed sentence, remodel it in English. Kids learn like that.
Earlier today, I overheard my little one say to her dad, "Papa, yo también quiero el parrot" (Spanish sentence with an English word: "Daddy, I want the parrot too"). To my utter annoyance, my husband didn't remodel, and I had to shout "el loro" (parrot in Spanish) from the other room I was in. And before my husband had a chance to remodel, our little one repeated her whole sentence in Spanish to her dad. She had just been missing a word, and once given that piece that was missing from her language jigsaw, she immediately used it.
It is a painstakingly slow process, but kids learn like that. And given it is your only child (from what I understood), I think it is even slower (second kids learn faster through mimicking their elder siblings). At the beginning, it might not seem like they are paying much attention to your remodelling (my eldest never seems interested in it), but in the very loooong run it will work.
As long as you spend a lot of bonding time in English, exclusively use English with her, read a lot to her in English, expose her to English every minute you can whilst with her, and arrange playdates with English speakers, it will really help her bilingual development.
As for the nursery school, don't worry too much about it for now. It will only fuel your paranoia! This is something beyond our control. Our children develop their personality and likings. Their language preference is part of this process. Just try to provide as much fun in English as possible, let her see the language being used by others, strengthen your bond with her...and let's wait and see. That's what I'm trying to do with my little one too.
Hi Alice!! Welcome to the forum! Amy and Tatyana L have already said everything I could contribute, so I just wanted to stop by and welcome you.
I agree with Amy that nursery school is something we have no control over, so worrying will only drive you crazy, but what you can do is worry in a positive way: by doing everything in your power to strengthen English before school starts, so that it's as strong as possible before Italian plays a bigger role in her life.
I don't have anything new to contribute either, except maybe that I know for certain my daughter was still mixing a lot when she turned 3 and started nursery school - I have an adorable video of her saying among other things "C'est alles la gleiche", c'est and la being ML words, alles and gleiche being ml words.
She's 8.5 now and only occasionally code-switches when she's lacking a word or too lazy to use it. So don't fret about that at this age!
Welcome! My son is 21 months and it's fun to get a peek at where he might be in a few months. Right now he doesn't use sentences (he's juuust beginning to string two words together) but I have noticed that when he knows a word in both languages, he tends to use 1) the word he learned first, 2) the word that is easier to pronounce, or 3) the word that I or my husband are actively using with him at the moment. I don't think he's really code-switching yet, just acquiring lots of words to be sorted out later! Your daughter is developmentally ahead of him but maybe she's just learned some high-frequency phrases more strongly in Italian. Just keep talking to her/remodeling in English and she'll sort it out soon enough.
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