Part 2 - Learning Italian in Italy: How We Supported Our Children
Updated: Apr 29
In my #writinginturin series, I have referred to challenges my family faced during our two years in Italy, including what Fernando and I faced as the parents of two children dropped into a new country and a new language.
In A Call From Strasbourg, I described how parenting took on a whole new dimension when we moved to Turin. Building a new life in Italy created emotional, social, and linguistic obstacles for all of us. Each week, our children had to contend with 35-40 hours of Italian at school while Fernando and I had to learn new approaches to parenting against the background of these dramatic changes.
In Part 1 of Learning Italian In Italy: The Role of Language in Easing Our Transition to Life in Turin I discussed how the decision to send our kids to Italian schools (versus an English-speaking international school) was essentially throwing them into the “deep end”, and that our responsibility as their parents was to provide them with resources and encouragement to help them “learn to swim”.
For many years, I made a habit of tallying up my mistakes and shortcomings; especially when it came to parenting. Identifying my weak spots was second nature. My automatic thoughts have shifted in the past couple of years, and now I tend to tally up my victories - no matter how small - and (gently) acknowledge my losses. Today when I look back on our children’s Italian language journey, I can celebrate the things we did right.
Our Starting Point: How We Approached Learning Italian in Italy
As we prepared to move to Italy, Fernando and I agreed on three points:
Learning a new language would be more difficult for the kids than it would be for us parents. (Fernando is fully bilingual in Spanish and English, while I have nearly 20 years of experience speaking and learning Spanish, and even more years of French).
Formal language instruction was a priority that merited an investment of time and money. Because our children would be attending school in Italian, we worried that waiting for them to “pick up" or absorb Italian (as 7 and 13-year-olds) may have taken too long, leaving them confused and lost at school. (If our children were much younger, formal instruction may have been less urgent.)
Speaking Italian would contribute to their well-being, their appreciation of Italy, and their overall satisfaction with our decision to spend two years abroad. Contrary to how our children may have (occasionally) felt towards our move to Italy, our intention was never to inflict two years of suffering on them. We wanted to do what we could to help them on the path to cherishing the experience as much as we did.
What We Did Right
We Used Our First Summer To Attend Intensive Italian Lessons
The summer months are incredibly valuable for a family moving abroad. In our case, it gave us the chance to unpack and decompress, following the intercontinental move. It also gave our family time to study Italian and to begin getting used to our surroundings before our children started school in September (over 8 weeks later).
As a college student, I spent multiple periods of time abroad, mostly to study languages. I knew how much more fun and enriching the experiences had been in places where I had a strong command of the local language. With this in mind, I was adamant that we enroll the entire family in intensive Italian classes as soon as we arrived in Turin in June of 2018.
The Monday following our arrival in Turin, we began attending daily Italian classes at a small, local language school run by two sisters. The language school sent Fernando and me placement tests which we completed while we were still in California; and returned via e-mail. With our test results, the school determined the appropriate level and reserved our spots in class for three consecutive weeks.
We also found age-appropriate Italian lessons and day camps for our children. By making these arrangements from California, we were able to get started with learning Italian almost immediately; making our transition that much smoother.
Another advantage of enrolling in summer classes is that it immediately took our family out of isolation. Although our supportive friend Veronica lived in Turin, and Fernando had family in different cities around Italy, the four of us were mostly on our own.
We were happily surprised that our Italian classes provided us with the opportunity to befriend our Italian teachers as well as fellow language learners from around the world. This exposure gave the four of us much-needed camaraderie outside the home as well as kind teachers who also served as local resources and guides to Turin, and to Italy in general.
Using our first summer in Italy to build our language skills and prepare for the year ahead was a decision that had a long-lasting impact on our time in Italy.
2. We Made Learning Italian a Family Affair
In an effort to pull the thread of Italian that began at school, through our front door, and into our everyday life, Fernando and I looked for ways to activate our kids’ knowledge of Italian, at home and beyond.
We competed to see who knew how to say certain words or phrases. When we went to restaurants (which we did a lot in Italy), we gradually insisted that the kids order their own food, rather than depend on us to order for them. We wanted them to get used to hearing their own voices reproducing this new language, and to demonstrate in small ways that their words could be understood by Italian speakers.
Often, we would make connections to words in English, Spanish, or even French, to help them understand that as a language with Latin roots, the lexicon of Italian overlaps with other languages, and therefore, might not be as difficult as it initially seemed.
In promoting the learning of Italian at home, it was important for us parents, to behave with humility. (Although, I can’t promise that our children always saw it that way, or that we always succeeded). Fernando and I asked our kids questions about Italian, especially about what they were learning at school. It wasn’t uncommon for either child to know things that we didn’t. When it came to pronunciation, both kids surpassed me. Our middle-school-aged son became our local guide to Italian slang and pop culture, while our daughter taught us vocabulary related to topography and other specialized subjects. Encouraging our children to share the knowledge they acquired with us gave them a welcome boost of confidence; as they began to see themselves as teachers as well as students. The fact that our children had one another meant that they had a fellow English speaker with whom they could commiserate. Despite their four-and-a-half-year age gap, I think they took comfort in being able to share observations of Italian classrooms with one another.* Finding a like-minded person at home alleviated their initial loneliness. *Italian school culture could not be more different than the school culture they had come from in California, but that's a whole different essay.
3. We Shared Our Highs and Lows
Fernando and I made a point of discussing our challenges with Italian when our kids were around; generally at mealtimes. We would explain why it was so easy to confuse words in Spanish with Italian, or how we accidentally used the wrong verb with a shopkeeper or consistently conjugated a verb incorrectly. Sharing our mistakes provided us with excellent opportunities to teach - or reinforce - a grammar lesson. But it also modeled what it looks like to brush off a mistake and learn from it.
By acknowledging our own occasional fatigue or confusion with certain aspects of the language, we simultaneously recognized that their exhaustion at the end of a long school day (or at the end of a weekend-long soccer tournament) was well-earned and that we empathized with the uphill battle they fought during the week. Compared to what our children faced, our examples were small, but I still hoped that sharing these moments would make them feel a little less alone and a little more understood.
4. We Selected Schools That Offered Additional Support for Students Learning Italian
Hoping to give our kids a softer landing in Italy, we decided to enroll them in private schools. These schools proactively organized Italian lessons for them, which were held while the Italian-speaking students were studying English.
While these classes did not last the entire academic year, they were offered for a couple of months and did help our kids improve their Italian. These classes also helped them feel welcomed and valued by their new schools.
5. We Demonstrated the Value of Speaking Italian
As much as possible Fernando and I led by example. We spoke Italian as much as possible when outside of the home. We made friends with Italian-speakers, broadening our social circle and our community of support. We also reached out to and visited Fernando’s Italian family, some of whom did not speak English.
By putting ourselves in linguistically challenging situations we demonstrated that it is okay not to speak a language perfectly and that more often than not, people would meet you halfway. Daring to meet people "in the middle" of linguistic fluency had a profound impact on our time in Italy. Making the most of our less-than-perfect language skills fostered a great deal of goodwill with people from every area of our life. The kids witnessed this and I believe it left an impression on both of them.
Summing up my family’s experience, I offer the following thoughts to families facing the project of learning a new language:
Strong language skills are one of the most important elements in helping kids (and adults!) adjust to life abroad.
Plan proactively and prioritize language learning. While much of our children’s experience in Italy was in their hands, planning to equip them as much as possible was something only we parents could do. Placing value (time, money, or both) on language study can make a real difference in your kids’ experience in a new linguistic setting. In many ways, their school year starts as soon as they land in their new home country.
Invest in language acquisition sooner, to reap greater benefits. By attempting to build a positive relationship with a language early on, parents may be able to assist their families in enjoying their new home country more, and more quickly.
Language proficiency is empowering and gives children agency to advocate for themselves when the parent is not around.
Language proficiency promotes inclusion, and inclusion communicates that a person is valued. For a child in a new country, feeling valued by their new teachers and peers is essential to enjoying their time at school.
Learning to speak Italian was one of the main reasons we chose Italy as my husband's sabbatical destination. Having made this life-altering (and family-altering) decision, Fernando and I knew that it would serve the family best to make Italian accessible and attractive.
Over time, we saw that learning Italian did not magically equal happiness for our children, nor did it eliminate all discomfort at school. But as each of our kids grew more confident in their Italian, we did see a gradual and consistent shift towards openness to Italy, and a new appreciation for their surroundings. As they began to feel increasingly less isolated at school and in social situations, they came home happier and less stressed. And as any parent will tell you, the happier the kids, the happier the family.
Our investment in Italian improved how our family experienced Italy. It opened doors, helped us build relationships, and enabled us to participate more fully in the life of our city. While some of our difficulties abroad were harder to address, language acquisition was one area where specific and measurable improvement could be made.
If you and your family are living or are planning to live in a second-language setting, I'm sending you good vibes, and I hope you find this piece helpful!
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