“You’re so lucky your baby is going to be born bilingual!”
You can’t imagine how many times I heard that statement or something similar when expecting Adeline. Eventually, because I’m petty, I couldn’t stop myself from gently reminding people that babies aren’t born with any language. They have to acquire it, whether “native” or a second language.
I bristled at the idea that just because I’m a native English speaker, the baby automatically would be bilingual without any effort involved. Language isn’t a gene passed on through the placenta, it’s something we learn, we study, we test, and I felt it all to well when Adeline was born.
The examples my colleagues gave on their own experiences ran the gamut: some have kids who are completely bilingual with English being their primary language, others didn’t learn English until they were about five but now are completely bilingual and still others understand everything but completely refused the language and even today don’t speak it. How would I know what Adeline would choose?!
The truth is, for the first year or so of her life I was essentially terrified of the idea that she wouldn’t be fluent in English.
I started back at work when she was 6 months old and she spent the vast majority of her awake time in an all-Italian day care (which we love). Not only that, but it was more difficult than I expected to exclusively speak in English to Adeline.
I know what you’re thinking: But isn’t that your native language?!
And yes, it is, but I spent years studying Italian and assimilating and all of a sudden sticking out again while speaking English felt unnatural. The unwritten etiquette for dual-language speakers is to use the language that everyone knows so that you don’t exclude anyone. Turning to Adeline in front of my Italian in-laws, the daycare teachers or even other moms and speaking to her in English felt rude. So many other bilingual moms told me that they don’t care at all, that they speak exclusively in their language with the baby, that they’re the best moms in the entire world and I felt confused and frustrated that I wasn’t so easily able.
I didn’t want all the weight of teaching Adeline English to fall on me alone
So, Marco and I decided that instead of the popular “one person, one language” philosophy, we’d go with the “minority language” philosophy, in which the minority language (in this case English) would be spoken at home by both parents. For us that meant that instead of speaking to each other in Italian, we had to switch to English. It means that Marco has to use a second language with his own daughter, but we wanted Adeline to get as much English as possible.
And even then it seemed we weren’t doing the “right” thing – more than one person told me that Marco should stick to Italian or else Adeline would pronounce words incorrectly. As if pronunciation was all I was worried about. As if all her English teachers from here on out won’t be Italians or British English speakers. As if I could never gently correct her as she grows older. Let me start with the language as a whole here, people!
I pushed forward, calculating the amount of hours that she was around English each day, reading books on bilingualism and fretting. Some days I would teach for more than eight hours then come home, wanting only to lay on the couch in silence and rest my throat, and instead I’d crawl onto the floor with Addie to repeat blue, purple, pink, cow, duck, chicken and wondering what kind of outside help we could get to help her develop her English.
Should we send her to a bilingual preschool or save the money for elementary school? Which one? Where? What age range is more important to spend the money on a pricey private school if we can’t ensure a bilingual education for her entire life?
Raising a bilingual baby is about making constant decisions, each one unique to you and your family.
For my colleague, it got to a point that her decision was do I continue forcing English on my daughter at the risk of our relationship, or do I let that go to meet her where she needs me? Some things are more important than a language.
My mom regularly asks me if Adeline speaks to me in English. If she’ll know English by the time we go visit them. If she understands the things I say. For a long time the answer was….Adeline doesn’t speak anything because she’s a tiny baby. But I understand my mom’s fears. We don’t want Adeline to learn English to show our wealth or someday help her get a job. We want her to learn English because it’s one half of her entire identity, because it’s the only way she’ll be able to communicate with half of her family. It’s a question of the heart, not of social status, but I also don’t want to lose my hair stressing about it.
I’m lucky to be able to not take on more work, and instead take advantage of my summers off from school to be with Adeline more. All of our books and media are in English and we have regular dance parties to her favorite English children’s songs.
Certain things in Adeline’s world exist only in English or only in Italian, but slowly she’s starting to realize she has an option for both and interestingly she’s also realizing which language she should use with which person. Grazie is much simpler than Thank You and Adeline exclusively uses grazie, even if I ask her to “say thank you.” One day, a bit frustrated, I asked her, “can you say thank you like mommy says it?” She looked at me – basically rolling her eyes – and said “thank you” for the first time ever, no problem.
Adeline’s primary language is still Italian. She’s forming sentences in Italian whereas in English she’s still speaking word-by-word and she usually chooses the Italian word first when given a choice. That said, she doesn’t bristle at English, she responds to everything and she understands it all – even if she pretends not to when it’s convenient for her.
Raising a bilingual baby isn’t as easy as 1, 2, 3 …. but despite all my worry, we’re learning our numbers.