Building the bilingual brain

My parents raised me bilingual (speaking English and French) and for as long as I can remember I have considered this a gift. It gave me the kind of layered perspective on the world that only knowing more than one language can, and made it relatively easy for me to pick up other languages (Spanish, Italian and German) later in life.

Naturally I want to give Peanut the same gift, and I feel really strongly about making sure that he speaks English properly and well, ideally without an Italian accent. Before even starting to look for advice on the best ways to do this, I had decided that from the day he was born I would speak to him exclusively in English.

This has gone pretty well so far. I very very rarely say any words in Italian to him. Inexplicably, if I bump into him by accident scusa often escapes my lips. And I still haven’t come up with anything better than ‘num nums’ as a translation for the delightful Italian word pappa, which was one of his first words, so I sometimes use that instead of saying 'food’ or 'dinner’ or the like. Otherwise, it’s English all the way.

I am perpetually paranoid that I don’t speak enough to him, however. He spends more than half his waking hours with his Italian-speaking nonna, whose ability to talk to him seemingly non-stop never ceases to amaze me. It has also given me an inferiority complex because I always struggle to know what to actually say to him! 

I am somewhat reassured by his ratio of English to Italian words. As is common with bilingual babies (and even more so for males), at 17 months Peanut still says relatively little. But what he does say is roughly half in English and half in Italian: bye-bye, acqua, apple, papa’, baby, pappa, ball, grazie (with the meaning of most of these words only clear to those of us closest to him).

I suppose as his mum whatever I say has a pretty powerful effect. But on top of being at a loss for words, I also struggle with acute self-consciousness when talking to Peanut in public, because it obviously attracts attention. And this taps into an issue that has plagued me my whole life–caring way too much what other people think of me. Fortunately, my desire to be strict about speaking only English to Peanut is basically forcing me to just get over this dumb hangup.

I have been worried about what to do when Peanut starts interacting more with kids on the playground. It’s already hard enough for me to feel like I blare out my foreignness just by talking to him; I don’t want to alienate a child who’s playing with him by speaking only in English, nor do I want to confuse Peanut by speaking in Italian. If you are raising a bilingual child, how do you deal with situations like this?

On a related note, some fascinating studies have recently emerged about the bilingual brain, including the fact that babies exposed to more than one language in the womb are even born wired differently. What’s more, not only are the brains of bilingual children more flexible, but they also develop stronger problem-solving and multi-tasking skills - certainly some excellent reasons to swallow my fear of judgment and soldier on.