The evolution of language

I am following a very interesting conversation about bilingual children on the Facebook page of Expactclic (a wonderful resource for all expat women and, possibly, men too!) and, as it often happens, it made me realise how much my perspective has changed over the years.

The discussion was started by an italian mother living abroad and wondering (and worrying a bit also) about how her daughter’s italian language and culture will develop and grow.

I remember all too well how I used to be concerned about the exact same issues and went from feelings of helplessness, about not being able to do anything about it, to guilt, for not trying to do something about it.

I knew that, inevitably, my girls were going to be Australian and english was going to be their primary language and I tried to accept this. At the same time I saw parents (with better parenting skills then mine, obviously!)who spent time after school doing italian grammar and I couldn’t help feeling inadequate and a touch guilty.

Nevertheless I did nothing about it. My girls kept talking to me in italian but I never sat down with them trying to teach them the beauty of the subjunctive or the meaning of adverbs and other little grammatical treasures.

I thought of them growing up without knowing the existence of Dante and Manzoni but never mentioned to them the existence of the Divina Commedia and I Promessi Sposi.

I guess I just wanted them the same experiences I had growing up but obviously wasn’t prepared to bring Dante back into my life and sharing it with them!

Was it laziness or was it simply not important enough for me? I imagine it was a bit of both and ultimately they grew up very well and they are caring and intelligent human beings. They can talk to their family and friends in Italy and everyone is thrilled with how they have  mastered the language. They talk in Italian to me and I love that we have this “special” language that is just ours.

I guess I’ve just stopped worrying. I am not sure when this happened exactly, when I left behind helplessness and guilt and started to see my daughters for what they are, individuals with their own experiences and stories.

They didn’t grow up in Italy in the ’70’s and therefore they did not have to sit to analyse sentences and learn poems by heart. But I’ve managed to pass on what is important to me, a sense of belonging to a small town on the other side of the world and the ability to communicate in my mother tongue.

The other day we were in the car chatting and Sofia told me: “E’ ficcato dentro properly? Puoi check?” (Is it in properly, can you check?). I promptly “checked” without thinking twice to what she had just said but I was surprised to hear Julia laugh. All of a sudden the weirdness of the sentence dawned on Sof and I and we all started laughing.

Speaking two languages we always tend to choose what it’s easier, I am aware of doing the same with the girls and with my italian friends, and such mixed sentences are all too common. In this case I think that “ficcato” could be seen as a bit of a slang word, a word that only someone who has grown up speaking italian would use and together with properly conjugated verbs and english words it made for a very complex sentence 😉

Julia wrote it down and I had to share it with you, now it will become immortal!

Dante is possibly turning in his grave but this is a different era and a different country after all!


Orgoglio di mamma!

Ogni occasione e’ buona per parlare di bilinguismo, cosi quando Magica mi ha chiesto di participare alla sua rubrica Bilingui in erba su Radio SBS ho accettato con entusiasmo e ho trascinato anche le ragazze, che hanno accettato…con molto meno entusiasmo!

E dunque eccoci qui, Sofia ed io:

E Julia:

Time to travel solo!

Sofia, like her sister before her, started her intercontinental travelling very early in her life. The first time she flew to Italy she was three months old and since then she has always been an excellent flyer but a reluctant traveller.

Giochi con il cuginetto

Giochi con il cuginetto

Unlike the rest of her family, she is not interested in visiting new places, she likes Melbourne and Vallecrosia. Home. Over the years she has been happy to stay at my parents’ house while we explored bits of Europe. During our last beach holiday in Queensland she never came to the beach, a beautiful tropical paradise, because it was not Bordighera’s beach, the only beach she likes!

Sof has always known what she wanted and has never been shy to express it! From the moment she could talk she made it clear that she had two homes, her one in Melbourne and her nonni’s in Italy so it didn’t come as a surprise when, at age 12, she announced that at 15 she would go to Vallecrosia with her friend Abby, for a month of the summer holiday. We barely acknowledged her statement, expecting that in three years time she would have changed her mind but we should have known better. Last year, at not quite 15, her and Abby went to spend a month at my parents’ house and had a wonderful time.

Fare i pelati con la nonna

Fare i pelati con la nonna

On Monday Sofia left for Italy again. This time she will be there for three months. This time she went by herself. She is going to school and spending time with her  italian family.

In the weeks before her departure I went through a lot of emotions and different thoughts came to my mind. I have felt incredibly happy that she has such a strong sense of belonging to my home town and my family. When asked what was her favourite thing about going to Italy she said it was her family and spending time with them. Although I have a small family we are very close. I grew up with my beloved auntie just down the street, my grandparents an everlasting presence in the first years of my life, my brother and cousin always available for a new game or a fight. We lived in a small town and were in and out of each others houses all the time. I took all this for granted but Sofia doesn’t. Her childhood in Melbourne has been very different from mine and she certainly has enjoyed every minute of growing up in a big city, with all the opportunity that this has given her. But at the same time she has been able to grow up experiencing a different lifestyle and gaining a different perspective.

Coccole con zio Bigi

Coccole con zio Bigi

While I acknowledge that my childhood in Vallecrosia was pretty idillic, I struggle to see the positives about been a teenager there and I guess this is why I left as soon as I could! But Sofia, at 15, seems to love all the things I wanted to escape from! She loves the saturday night disco, the same disco my mum used to go and I managed to avoid, looking for more “alternative” entertainment! She loves the passion the youths have for trends and brand names printed on t-shirts, making everyone look boringly similar. I was a hippy in the ’80…no wonder I had to leave! She loves the stylish boys, all charm and  good looks who can’t have a conversation that doesn’t involve calcio. Needless to say, I never managed to charm any of those young, beautiful boys and this is why I still resent them and blame them of shallowness! I admit it, Sofia is right when she says I didn’t fit in because I was a loser and I guess I should be grateful she didn’t inherit my wallflower skills!

Shopping a Milano

Beside dancing and picking up boys, Sofia will have to do some learning as well. She will be going to school three days a week to practice her spoken italian and for a few hours a week she will work with a private teacher to master the mysteries of the italian grammar. As next year she will start her VCE (final exams) and she has chosen italian and french as two of her subjects, she is having some french tutoring as well. France is just around the corner after all!

On monday night we took Sofia to the airport and handed her over to the Qantas hostess who would take her across to her plane. There were no tears and, strangely enough, it felt very natural. I remember when the girls were little and we used to talk about the time they would go to Italy by themselves. When I packed huge bags with every possible snack and change of clothes before undertake that never ending flight, I felt like that time will never come. Little did I know, that moment was just around the corner. I don’t miss those interminable flights with toddlers in tow and when I said goodbye to Sofia I felt just a tinge of apprehension about the long flight ahead (well, perhaps a bit more then “a tinge”!).

Buon viaggio, tesoro!

Sofia has arrived safely and she is home. For the next few months I won’t have to pick up her mess around the house and wash her clothes, I will be able to see her and talk to her on Skype but not have to put up with her grumpy moods. I will miss her cuddles and smile in the morning (well…her “good” mornings!) but  I know that she is with people who love her and will look after her just as well as I would. 

I look forward to hear her stories and, perhaps, learn a few tricks about fitting in better. Who knows, I might even join her on the dance floor one day, but she doesn’t have to know this quite yet!

The nurturing of language

From the moment Julia was born it was apparent that I could never speak to her in English. I always knew that I wanted my children to be bilingual but I never really stopped to think how I would achieve this. As soon as Julia was in my arms I knew that our relationship would always be in Italian and it has been, from that very first moment.

People often tell me I have been so good to “teach” my girls Italian but I have simply spoken to my children in the language I am most comfortable with and I find more natural. That was the easy bit! The fact that they accepted that Italian was “our” chosen language is more of a mystery to me. I hear so many stories of children who stop speaking the minority language and I can’t help wondering how this never happened to us. Could it have been just luck?


Pesciolino Arcobaleno/ Gruppo giochi italiano

There was certainly a luck element. I was lucky to be able to stay at home with the girls in the pre school years. The girls went to kindergarden a couple of days a week but the rest of the time they were with me in a full immersion italian environment! We talked italian, read italian books, sang italian songs and watched italian videos. We also had italian friends to play with. We had a lovely italian playgroup where the girls learned to relate to other children in italian. With so much italian everywhere how could they possibly escape?

But when we did get out of our italian bubble what I found was a lot of support. Everyone around us has always been very encouraging and often people in the street would stop to tell us how wonderful it was to hear the girls speaking italian. When the girls had little playmates coming to our house I would often speak italian to them as well. Of course it was nothing too deep and meaningful but they always understood when it was time for afternoon tea!

In those pre school years the girls always spoke in italian to each other and english was spoken only in the evening, when Nigel was home. He became the language minority in his own country!

They were always very clear what language to speak with who and never warmed to people who were trying to speak the “wrong” language! If an english speaking person would say something in italian they would look perplexed and not really sure how to reply. The same happened in Italy when people tried to speak to them in english.


At school in Pieve San Paolo

When they started school it didn’t took long for them to start talking and playing in english. The same happened with their italian friends from playgroup. But they never spoke english to me. In fact it took them a while to understand that on some occasion we had to speak english to be polite with people who could not understand.

We travelled to Italy often and that was always a boost to their language. When they were still in primary school we spent six months there and they had the opportunity of going to school. It was a fabulous experience for them both, but they kept talking english amongst themselves!

Julia took italian as a VCE (final exams) subject last year. It was always going to be easy for her and I would have liked her to study more. Still she managed to do very well. After her oral exam I received a phone call from a friend, an italian teacher. She told me that her friend was one of the examiner and she told her about this girl with and italian mother and australian father who spoke so well she could not believe she wasn’t italian. She told her that she was hoping her daughter would grow up to speak just like her. My friend asked a few clarifying questions and she understood that it was Julia she was talking about. It wasn’t too ethical but she couldn’t help telling me. It was one of my proudest moment!

I have to admit that I often thought of what I would do if they stopped talking to me in italian, beside being broken hearted! But now I am confident it will never happen, our relationship is strong and it can only be in italian, my own language, the language I love.