The Gift of Language: How I am teaching my son three languages

Guestblogger: Bryce DeCora, founder of Finite Languages

I’m a recovering monolingual who is teaching my son three languages. Interested in hearing how? I thought you might be. Let me start by saying only an estimated 15% of people born in America are able to speak another language conversationally. It’s no wonder Americans are sometimes viewed as self-centered and non-empathetic. In my experience, learning other languages has drastically opened up my eyes to cultural differences and world struggles. This is something I had to pass on to my son, Atlas.

We had some immediate hurdles to get over on this new adventure. Our parents are from the Midwest, where everyone speaks English really well… and that’s it. Nothing against the Midwest, but they are not very culturally diverse and the idea of raising a multilingual child was pretty foreign to them. They said things like, “Why can’t he just grow up like a normal boy?” and “He will fall far behind all of the other kids who are just learning one language.”

In addition to the lack of support, my wife and I only spoke English fluently. I had studied Italian for 18 months by the time Atlas was born but was not fluent by any means. So how were we going to raise Atlas multilingual? Lots of hard work and good planning.

By the time Atlas had turned one I was an intermediate Italian speaker and decided to only speak Italian to him from that point on. It’s been one and a half years now and I have yet to speak to him in English. Let me pat myself on the back here for a second. I have multiple friends who do speak another language natively. People who have failed to teach their children this language because it was hard for them to switch between speaking English all day at work, to their other language at home. If it’s difficult for a bilingual to do this, just imagine the strain I go through every day. After 8 hours at work as an engineer, I keep my brain turned on to the max when I arrive home to speak Italian with Atlas. It’s not easy. At times, it’s borderline torture.

Imagine never saying, “I love you” to your child in your native language. Imagine if your spouse couldn’t understand anything you were saying to your child. Imagine never having a time in the day where your brain can rest. It’s even more difficult than you can imagine, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Let’s get into the details of how I teach Atlas Italian. Kids are very active learners. Anyone with kids knows how well sitting a toddler down with flashcards works… not well. We mix Italian into his daily life wherever possible. He loves to draw – We draw shapes and animals together and name them in Italian. He loves cartoons – He watches cartoons with me in Italian. He loves his toys – We play together with his toys while speaking Italian. He loves to dance – We listen and dance to Italian music. The only way to teach a child is through immersion.
I have recently come to realize that this is not something I can accomplish alone. Kids learn best from watching interactions between people. This means it’s necessary for him to be around other Italian speaking children and to see me interact with other Italian speakers. Recently, we have started attending an Italian story time and Italian immersion class for kids two times per month. This way Atlas is able to grow through interactions in addition to the work we put in at home.

Did I mention Atlas is learning Russian as well? One year ago, we decided it would be possible to gift Atlas with another language when it was time to select a nanny for him. Fortunately, we were able to find a native Russian girl who would take care of Atlas for 20 hours every week while my wife and I worked. Atlas soon became part of the nanny’s family. He plays with her siblings, nieces and nephews and even attends her church every so often.
Atlas is now two and a half and is able to easily understand most of what he hears in English, Russian and Italian as well as say simple phrases. His Midwestern grandparents have seen his remarkable progress and now give us their full support. I’ve gotten used to speaking with him in Italian and even feel satisfied saying “Ti voglio bene caro” instead of “I love you”.
If you’re thinking of raising your child or children multilingual, I would highly recommend it. Nothing compares to hearing your child say he or she loves you in another language. Nothing compares to seeing them grow in their language skills because of you; something they will have with them their entire life. Be prepared for the difficulties, but press on. The gift of language is one of the greatest gifts you can give a child.

Bryce DeCora founder of Finite Languages. A place for writers to write in their target language, get corrections from a native speaker and be published online for free.

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