Whenever my wife and I talked about starting a family, the question “How do we teach our child Italian?” used to come up as frequently as “What names do we like?”, and we rarely could agree on neither.

We have been living in Britain for almost half of our lives, but we still call ourselves an Italian family, if only just. We always wanted to teach any child of ours both English and Italian, because not doing so would been such a wasted opportunity, but we had not idea how to go about it.

As always the Internet is full of opinions and advice, and you can find a lot in there about raising bilingual children. The general consensus seems to be that, however you approach this, children can learn any languages you throw at them, assuming they are sufficiently exposed to them and have a chance to practice. But the Internet is also full of words of caution regarding the risk of mental confusion or speech delays that learning a second language as a child may cause; some even claim it could lower your child intelligence!

If I dig a little deeper I’m sure can find someone online who thinks that teaching my child a second language could get him blind, so I decided to stop reading the opinions of strangers on the Internet and listen to what the experts had to say.

After a little research, I picked up the book “Be Bilingual” by Annika Bourgogne, and in there I found an answer to all my question, and then some, only this time they weren’t purely based on personal opinions or hearsay. I loved the cover image too:

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Surprisingly, the author is not a linguistic expert in the traditional sense of the word, but a Finnish mum of two children, married to a Frenchmen, who found herself facing the same questions we were. She started researching bilingualism by studying the traditional literature on the subject and by meeting with other families with bilingual children in their teen years. She distilled all that she learned in a how-to guide full of practical tips, which later became the basis of her book.

Reading the book you quickly realise that, however there are only two prevailing methods to experiment with, there is nothing straightforward about teaching a child a second language.

All the theory is explained in the first part of the book, but even tho this part is about theory, it is surprisingly easy to read. Some sections are marked with the label “Words from the wise”; these generally include the view of experts and the conclusions of various studies. For each “Words from the wise” section there is another one marked “View from the frontlines”, which include the experience of both the author and other people interviewed on the same subject. Interestingly the two don’t always concur.

The second part is all about strategy, the “putting it into action” part. This part gives very practical ideas to keep your child engaged with the language as they grow, and it offers lots of tried and tested solutions for common problems such as “My child refuses to speak my language”, or “My child mixes languages”. The last part of the book includes some ideas on how to add some fun in it; we are talking about children after all. Some ideas are incredibly simple and still so clever, like the one of having a furry pet toy, and pretend it only speaks in the minority language.

I loved the way the book guides you into setting up your own strategy, one that may work for your specific case. There can’t be a one-size-fit-all kind of strategy in teaching children a language, because there are too many possible variables. For example: how many minority languages are spoken in the family? Or how many of them are understood by both parents? How much time can the parent dedicate to teaching a language?

We read this book at the very beginning of our adoption training, and at that time we came up with such a complex strategy, that it had to be written down. As we put the plan in practice, it quickly got a lot simpler, and easier to stick to, but it’s good to have a plan. Time will tell how much of the Italian language and culture we’ll be able to pass on to Ben, but having a strategy gives us a bit more confidence we won’t mess it up completely, or God forbid, that we might even get it right the first time for once.


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