November 05, 2005
Bilingualism - Book review and personal update
I have decided to start a new blog category about raising Guido Jack bilingual, in hope our experience will be useful to others.
Let's start with a book review: The Bilingual Family - A Handbook For Parents, second edition.
The book is divided in two parts: the first half is a general discussion of bilingualism and language learning as a whole, the second is comprised of 18 short case studies (one to two pages each) of bilingual families: who they are and where they live, how and why they raised their children bilingual and how it turned out. The second edition has some "15 years later" short interviews with the kids, in which they reflect on their bilingual upbringing.
I would give the book a 3 out of 5 rating overall: it's well written and well researched, but it just didn't do it for me. The first half is extremely academic, but offers very little practical day-to-day tips. Basically the authors spend 80 pages trying to convince you that bilingualism is THE BEST and YOU SHOULD DO IT and REALLY, IT'S FINE and those who think that your baby will speak later or will be confused DON'T KNOW BETTER and did they mention that bilingual babies ARE THE BEST? All through very long descriptions of how the brain works and of how this study showed this and this other study showed that. In other words, it seems like they were fighting a war of ideas with people I don't know and don't care about: if I didn't want to raise my child bilingual, would I have bought this book in the first place?
The second half is a little more useful, but none of the case-studies mapped our situation at all, which was also frustrating. Their examples are very Euro-centric, which is understandable. At the same time I can't help but feeling that raising an italian-english bilingual child in California (only what seems like a million miles away from Italy) will be harder than raising one in France or England (only a 1- to 2-hour, 30-Euro flight away).
Once again, in each case study, the author's not-so-hidden mission to convince you to DO IT transpires, basically saying that whichever way you do it IT WILL WORK IN THE END AND YOUR CHILD WILL LOVE IT.
Now, I agree with all those statements and I understand (I think) how great it will be for Guido Jack, but I don't like being preached to. I was looking for some practical tips, like "what to do when you just can't think of a particular word in Italian" or "will your kid be embarrassed of you in front of his friends since you speak some alien language"? Oh well, now at least I know that IT WILL BE GREAT NO MATTER WHAT, GODDAMIT! ;)
Which brings me to part two of this post, my personal feelings about raising The Guids bilingual. I need this post mostly to clear the thoughts in my head than for anything else, so bare with me.
First of all, at this moment in time I feel a great deal of anxiety about it (GJ is only 3-weeks-old so I think it's OK, I haven't totally screwed this up yet).
Let's see, why the anxiety:
- my feelings about my italian: having lived abroad for almost 5 years now and rarely using my italian (only with my family once or twice a week), my command of the italian language has gone downhill. I went from being OK to not being able to think of some words to translating word-by-word from the english thoughts in my head to dreading the thought of having to talk to my parents about certain things (mostly work-related, a vocabulary which I only acquired in English: how do you say "sales channel" or "product management" in Italian? Not to mention my computer programming lingo, which not even my english friends understand...). Right now I am really embarrassed about my Italian, so how can I teach it properly to my son? Incidentally, I have reached a plateau in my English, which is good enough but much lower than I want it to be. I know it's good because I have STARTED to misspell words --- while I was the only person of my year who didn't make a single spelling mistake in the dictation part of the TOEFL, lately (though still rarely) I caught myself spelling things phonetically, which is wild to me. So now I tell people that "I DON'T speak either language".
- my feelings toward being an Italian citizen. All my life, in Italy, I felt like I didn't really fit (it's no surprise I ended up in San Francisco, the city all the people who never fit anywhere move to). I never looked Italian (people thought I was German or Swedish since I was very little), I was never very proud of being italian (this Flash cartoon, which I find depressing more than funny, can give you an idea of the things that annoy me about italians). So I am afraid that these mixed feelings I have for my home country will interfere with my determination to teach Italian to the little one. In case you're interested, I also have mixed feelings about living in the US, especially under this administration. I will never want to become an American citizen (pledge allegiance to the flag? one nation, under God? are you kidding me?), and I could never live anywhere in the US but San Francisco -- OK, maybe I could retire in Maui ;) Plus, italian-americans are not a minority that I am proud to be part of...let's not even go there.
- my feelings toward the italian language. I like the language as a whole, very melodic, expressive, long history etc. etc. But how useful is it in the current World economy? 57 million people speak it, pretty much ONLY in Italy, an aging country with a stagnant economy and 8.6% average unemployment rate. Aside from being able to speak to his great-grandparents and understand that there are different cultures in the world yadda yadda yadda, what will Guido Jack gain by speaking Italian?
- my feelings toward being bilingual: this goes back to my first point. How can I make sure that Guido Jack doesn't end up having my same feelings of frustration with not being able to master any language, while speaking both of them at 80%? How can I set it up so that the student will surpass his masters?
- the fact that it's been hard in the last 3 weeks to speak italian to him. Aside from me not finding the words or naturally starting to speak in english to him (Italian just "doesn't come up" without some effort on my part), there's something about speaking to an infant: I quickly realized that when you speak to a baby you're really communicating with others in the room: "do you need to be changed?", "are you tired?", "maybe mommy can feed you now". You see what I mean? Luckily Mariah understands a lot of Italian, but is still at that stage where she is too shy to speak it. I don't think we will ever speak Italian to each other, and that's OK. We now speak a mix of the two, which is maybe 98% english and 2% italian, and that's fine and fun for us. Will it confuse The Guids? Certainly, but the book assures me that IT WILL BE OK IN THE END, JUST TRUST THEM. ;)
So overall, because of all these mixed feelings, the thing that worries me the most is my ability to really commit to it and give it all the effort necessary to succeed. I can't help but feeling that if I was proud to be Italian, or we lived closer to Italy, or my english wasn't as good, or Italian was this great language for business...things would be easier for me. As it stands, I feel like I need a little more motivation than what I have before I can be religious about always and only speaking italian to my son.
Wow, that really helped. I don't know how I am going to deal with these feelings just yet, but having them written down will be good.
In the meantime, here are some short-term measures I will take:
- go out and buy MYSELF a couple of novels in Italian to read in bed
- go out and buy the baby a bunch of italian children's books
I have Googled around and an Italian bookstore in North Beach (Cavalli Italian Bookstore), I will go check it out this week and stock up.
Also, for Christmas all I want for the Guids is Italian toys (no batteries, no plastic please) and Italian children's books.
One last thing: I would love to hear from other parents are raising or have raised their children bilingual in the US (I can imagine a lot of asian-americans living in the Bay Area). Any tips / words of encouragement will be much appreciated!
Posted by patata at November 5, 2005 01:26 PM
I think you are doing the correct thing going bi-lingual with Guido-Jack. I think one of the biggest reasons to teach him Italian is so he can have comfortable conversations with his Italian grandparents and family. Also as a mono-lingual Japanese American I always wished I could even speak passable Japanese.
Posted by: Robert Tatsumi at November 7, 2005 12:07 AM
Noah's learning German and English (and some ASL). His pediatrician says this may have slowed down his language development, but that he should catch up soon enough. We use the method of German at home and English in public. Guess y'all will be using the one parent one language system... At any rate, I wouldn't worry about any deficits Guido might have. Most of the research I've read says that kids can master both languages (and not just 80%). Just stick to one or the other of the above methods.
Posted by: Anonymous at November 8, 2005 05:08 AM