Part 1 - Learning Italian In Italy: The Role of Language in Easing Our Transition to Life in Turin
Updated: May 9
It is nothing new to say that learning the local language is one of the most important aspects of moving to a new country. Language is the key to accessing so many areas of society; and becomes invaluable when children are involved. This piece will look at how investing in language acquisition early improved our family’s experience in Italy.
Subsequent posts on Learning Italian in Italy will reflect on what our family did right and will offer ideas on how to support your family’s language-learning journey while abroad, as well as upon your return home.
What Learning Italian Meant For My Family
When Fernando and I began narrowing down where we would spend his 2-year academic sabbatical we knew that we wanted to go somewhere where the children could learn a language.
Spanish has always been spoken in our home - my husband, being born and raised in Mexico City - but our children were not fluent; and although I could hold my own, I was eager to gain more fluency.
In the midst of researching international schools in Spain - following a brief flirtation with Cartagena, Colombia - my husband confessed: It had to be Italy, the country of his mother’s birth and a country to which he and his Mexico-based extended family still maintain close ties.
I was happy to go anywhere that the kids and I could learn a new language, so I happily agreed. After some back and forth about where we might call home for the next two years, we agreed on Turin - the capital of Piedmont - a city that I had visited for work a decade prior.
Italy sounded like the perfect challenge.
Fernando grew up being spoken to in Italian and hearing it at home, but he faced various blocks and gaps when trying to speak it. His dream of learning Italian was unfulfilled.
I spoke French and Spanish, having formally studied (and spent time living in) both languages. Four years prior I had completed a semester of Italian, while I was home full-time with my children. I knew that Italian wasn’t easy, but I also knew that it was within reach. Studying romance languages was my idea of fun and I looked forward to two years of full immersion for all of us.
It was easy for me to say, I knew that my days would be unstructured and that I could spend entire days not speaking Italian at all if I wanted to. Our school-aged kids, however, would be in a completely different boat.
When we arrived in Turin, our children did not speak any Italian at all, with our 7-year-old only attending a very introductory class at our local community center the week before our departure.
Knowing that the young have remarkably absorbent minds when it comes to language learning, Fernando and I were in complete agreement that the four of us return from the sabbatical fluent in Italian.
To support this goal, we decided to send the kids to schools where Italian was the primary language of instruction. We also arrived in Italy well before the start of the academic year and enrolled all four of us in 3 weeks of instruction at an Italian language school. Our job was to equip them - and ourselves - for this challenge as much as possible.
To return to a metaphor I sometimes use when describing our time in Turin, sending our children to school in Italy was entering “new waters” but sending them to school primarily in Italian was essentially throwing them into the deep end. As their parents, we had to ensure that they were learning how to swim.
When the kids entered school that September, they were attending at least 6 (or even 8) hours of school every day; a very small portion of instruction time was conducted in English or French. In the very beginning, both of our kids’ schools pulled them out of class during the English lesson and gave them private lessons in Italian. It was a welcome respite, but could never balance out the amount of Italian they were taking in, on a daily basis.
Adapting to living in a foreign language can be exhausting. Our kids’ brains were working overtime to process words, facial expressions, and hand gestures (we are talking about Italy, after all) at dizzying speeds. Watching (and hearing) our children go through this experience provoked strong emotions. They demonstrated such determination and commitment which we greatly admired, but in a household that welcomed openness, hearing of their ongoing linguistic struggles (which affected nearly every aspect of their lives) weighed heavily on us all.
Remaining Encouraged During Language Learning Challenges
One belief that Fernando and I clung to in our most challenging moments parenting these two language learners was the idea that Italian was slowly seeping into their minds. We did what we could to support them in their schoolwork, but there was only so much we could do at home. We encouraged them to keep an open mind and tried to convince them that as slowly as it sometimes felt, one day Italian would *click*. We also told them that the speed at which they acquired the language was correlated to the amount of effort they put into learning. It wasn’t always what they wanted to hear.
Over time we saw our children growing and becoming more open to the experience of living in Italy and speaking Italian. It became evident to them both that knowledge of Italian gave them an advantage and that making an effort was in their best interest.
As they improved their language skills the kids grew more confident to speak in class and to approach their fellow students. There was less resistance to school in general. And as things at school got easier, so did things at home.
A Year to Plant and a Year to Harvest
Fernando and I always saw our two years in Italy as an incredible opportunity. For us, the second year was never optional; although the kids long held out hope that we would eventually give it up.
We, parents, always knew that the first year would be the year that we would plant the seeds of our experience and that the second year would give us the chance to harvest and to enjoy what our efforts produced. This statement proved to be true in so many different areas of life, but most especially when it came to learning Italian.
By the beginning of the kids’ second academic year in Italy, the frustration over Italian had gradually diminished.
Our daughter began to help her new English-speaking classmates acclimate to school in Italy. Our son entered the eighth grade speaking Italian with greater ease and confidence. Both kids began to correct us on grammar and pronunciation. One of my kids is particularly aware of my impossible-to-lose American accent. I’ve made peace with it.
Being able to understand and speak Italian was especially important as the kids transitioned to online instruction in March of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Do The Kids Still Speak Italian?
A question I often receive from people who learn that we lived in Italy for two years is whether our children still speak Italian. Nearly two years after our return to California, I can confidently respond that they do. Our son, now a sophomore in high school, can carry on conversations, read, and write in Italian. Our daughter, who learned Italian at a younger age, but resisted it for a longer period of time, can understand a good deal of spoken Italian and can translate many words. We strongly suspect that if push came to shove, she would start speaking Italian again without much difficulty. She is committed to improving her level of Italian and - unlike before - she submits to flash quizzes on verbs and vocabulary.
Fernando and I still speak Italian as well. It is a priceless souvenir from our time in Italy and it took no space at all in our overstuffed luggage.
Creating a Foundation for Language Learning
One of the best things that came out of our kids living and studying in Italy was that it sparked a love of languages.
Children will often resist what parents push - especially at the ages that our children are today; but because they learned Italian on their own and successfully completed two years of school in Italian, they embrace this accomplishment.
They also have experienced what it feels like to be able to break through barriers, communicate, and build relationships in a new language. They remember how much wider and more welcoming their world felt by the acquisition of a language. I don’t know if they imagined that they would develop such strong language skills when we arrived in Turin, but I do believe that they regard themselves differently knowing that - if they had to - they are even more equipped to do it all again.
Update: I will add to the Writing in Turin collection periodically, to allow me to explore other, non-Turin-related subjects as well.
Thank you for reading; I hope you’ll be back!
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Future Learning Italian in Italy posts will include:
Learning Italian in Turin and What We Did Right (coming soon)
My Favorite (Free) Italian Language Learning Resources (coming soon)
Interested in more Writing in Turin: Unpacking Two Years with Two Kids in Italy? Check out these posts!