Monday, February 1, 2010

Facially Off-Putting.

All those years of being me a mule and insisting that he spoke back to me ONLY in English may have left their mark.

We were in the planning stage of a realistic account during his Italian lesson.

Me - "Great idea, but can you tell me in Italian since we are doing Italian in this lesson"

Son of Thor - "! ......I can't speak Italian to you. The words come down in Italian from my head but turn into English when they slide into my mouth and they won't turn back into Italian again when they can see your face looking at them !!!!!!" (all said in an utterly outraged tone at my making such an unreasonable request)

He is fine using Italian with me on a word/sentence level when we are working through the masses of grammar and language extension he has to do in quarta, or gong through the Italian books of Sci/His/Geog, but free speaking.....apparently the Italian words have a phobia with regards to my fisog.

He ended up coming up with ideas for the details of the story with me in English and then hiding behind the sofa to write them up in Italian. Presumably to stop my ugly mug scaring the words into translation.

I have a horrible feeling this might make me the "my bilingual baby" equivalent of Joan Crawford.

Which is some feat given that any coat hanger brought into this house gets immediately sucked into some kind of coat hanger black hole the second I put it down, never to be seen again.


  1. "they won't turn back into Italian again when they can see your face looking at them !!!!!!"
    :-) This made me laugh!

  2. Amazing that bilingualism can work this way!!! I wouldn't mind so much if my son finds he is unable to speak to me in Italian when he is the age of S of Th!

  3. Very funny! I will be following you with interest. My poor son gets my homeschooling ON TOP of Italian school. Better not tell him there's another option!!!

  4. I am truly impressed. How did you do it? I've been feeling very negative lately about the prospects of my daughter's speaking English, mostly because I've read so many cases of OPOL not working.

  5. "mostly because I've read so many cases of OPOL not working"

    (I'm whacking this out before we shoot off to all his afternoon activites, where is the martial arts kit, where ? WHERE ? so forgive me if it is a bit garbled.)

    I'm glad I didn't read about those cases, it's hard enough without everybody telling you it won't work.

    I started out speaking to him in English and he replied with his first words. Then he went to nido and things slipped a bit. Then he went to Materna and they slipped some more to the point where his English was going backwards and he stopped replying to me in English as default

    By the time he was in prima elementary I was fed up, I just assumed I was doing it wrong and went all "Joan Crawford" on him and unless somebody was bleeding or a animal was needing an immediate intervention...I just wouldn't respond in word or body language unless he spoke to me in English.

    For about a month he was really quite sulky about it and I went mule-like, a clash of the obstinate titans, English was hard work for him compared to Italian, but then he started to find things getting easier for him and although for about six months he needed to be reminded to speak English to me the necessary prompting became less and less. Luckily he needed me in order to eat, find clothes, get to play with something, get permission to do cool stuff etc or I think he might have stopped talking to me altogether. Since it was necessary to live and enjoy life via my provision or permissions, he had to make the extra effort, like it or lump. (evil cackle)

    Fast forward a few years and he is almost as fluent in English as he is in Italian, but he does have a slight Pavese accent which I only noticed on our last visit to see his cousins in the UK.

    I think the biggest change I made was engagement when he did speak to me, I deliberately stopped the typical and totally understandable "busy mummy half listening and trying to move the conversation on" mode and gave him my full attention when he spoke to me trying to give him a reason to expand on his original communication by asking questions etc. Until then to a certain extent I think I relied too heavily on SKY TV in English (a rule in the house, he can only watch TV in English unless it is Power Rangers which only comes in Italian, or he is watching with Papá who just can't cope with telly in English). I'm sure it helped maintain his comprehension but it did nothing for production. Anzi.

    I didn't find the "just repeat back to him what he said but this time correctly" too useful for error correction, he just got ingrained errors and ingnored my semi-parrot like replies. So I swopped to isolating one area (like irregular past tense, prepositions etc) and corrected it and asked HIM to repeat it back. Slowly slowly the things that he habitually gets wrong are easing off.

    We have made massive leaps forward in just a few months thanks to HE, cos he spends so much time with me using English, but I think you can get more or less the same results overall in the long term even if your kids are at school.

    I have to admit it was something I wasn't prepared to compromise on, I don't want him to turn round as an adult and for me to see in his eyes that my "elephant in a tutu trampling the language" status in Italian means he sees me not only as a foreigner to him but also can only know me through the often murky filter that comes with speaking in an L2.

    I've seen too many adult kids of immigrant regard their parents as slightly stupid (or rather, even more stupid that the "native" kids regard their parents, we are all stupid cos we are old, past it and probably a bit demented apparently) because the language gap was causing a false impression.

    I seriously don't want that to be my fate.

  6. I have a bilingual son (13). He is truly bilingual and unfortunately lives in the country of his mother's language so gets little practice. My husband (German) did not have the same close bond with my daughter (4) when she was born and spoke ENGLISH to her. For which I am struggling to forgive him. So I have a bilingual son and a monolingual daughter. This year come hell or high water we will be spending some time with relatives in Germany where my daughter will HAVE to speak German.

    Back to the point in hand. The English will be fine - you just have to speak it to him. The Italian will be great - you live there and his father is Italian. Relax.

    My son cannot translate between the two languages at all and has only recently been able to speak German to me properly as it didn't work for him either!!! I reckon so long as your son sees the Italian stuff as parcelled into school work only he'll manage it in your presence - put on a teacher's at if it helps!!!

  7. Sarah- a brief reply because my computer's battery charge is about to run out- I belong to a site with a multicultural families forum, and it's there that I've heard tales of OPOL not working.

    I thought quite a bit about this over the weekend, and I am fairly certain that in almost all those cases, the unsuccessful language was not English, and that the families were living in Anglophone countries. I think that trying to get a child to speak a minority language in a country like the U.S., for example, would be very difficult because the minority language, would have very little presence in the culture. (Though an exception in the U.S. would be Spanish.) That's not so much the case with English elsewhere...for example, here it's possible to see English-language programs on television, there's English-language ed in the schools (though often not of good quality!), etc. I think when that when the minority language is English, in certain environments, there is often more external support of the language. Does that make sense?

    I wonder, too, whether all parents are as proactive as you have been. I think the issue with OPOL is that just having one parent speaking the minority language conversationally is not enough, and perhaps those that fail don't do anything beyond that.

  8. First of all, hilarious post! I'm so glad your poor son was able to hide from the paralyzing effects of your face to complete his lesson.

    Secondly, thank you so much for your comments on being a mule about getting your son to speak English to you. I might have to adopt that with German with my English-speaking (mulish) toddler. You make so much sense.

  9. ...."The words come down in Italian from my head but turn into English when they slide into my mouth"..this tells me he is proficient in both languages so hurray for you Sarah. I also had to smile when I read this...he is a smart kid!

    Makes me wonder how it will be years down the road when my daughter is speaking croatian to me and I will be staring at her with a blank stare on my face and be like hu?? so I'm really putting an effort to learning right now that she is a toddler, I don't want to be left behind when she is having conversations with daddy in Croatian! My hubby really hasn't put much effort in learning spanish, he figures "why bother,as long as our daughter knows 'enough' to communicate with my parents, but for me, that's not sufficient. long live bilingualism!

    A Mexican Mommy living in Europe

  10. KC, that is so interesting about the language being lost when it is a minority language in an anglophone environment. We are in Quebec, Canada so your remark: "I think that when the minority language is English, in certain environments, there is often more external support of the language" certainly is true for us. I worry sometimes that his English will suffer in the majority French environment (ie that he will speak it colloquially as he speaks with me at home, but not have a good error-free academic grasp on higher uses of it), but I don't worry that he will ever reject it, as he might reject the chinese we are also doing. Thanks Sarah, for a funny and fascinating post, but esp the comment here.



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