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My wife and I both grew up bilingual. For her it was Russian and Ukrainan, for me German and Italian. We live in a German-speaking country and we speak German to each other.

When our child was born 8 months ago, we decided that my wife would speak Russian to him whereas I would speak German.

The reason for picking German over Italian is that it has always been my primary language, even more so over the last 15 years, whereas I'm merely using Italian to talk to my parents which seldom requires a particularly sophisticated way of expressing myself. The consequence is that my Italian vocabulary, and with it the spoken flow, has suffered quite a bit. I did not want to teach my son a rather mediocrely spoken language as his main language.

However, I more and more feel sorry for eventually missing the chance of at least giving him a basic feel and understanding of the Italian language. Now I am struggling with how I would go about it. I don't think that deliberatly switching between the two languages would do him any favor. I have heard about the technique of using a language situation-driven, however, I don't know which situations would be appropriate or would qualify in order to implement this method consistently.

So, my question: Keeping in mind that my wife speaks Russian to our boy, how would I go about teaching him both German and Italian (with a stronger emphasis on German) without creating too much of a confusion for him?

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    I'll let the experts weigh in for actual answers. But I can't help but think that "it doesn't matter, the child will sort it out regardless". In other words, there's really no chance of "confusing" him when his young mind is so plastic. He'll learn it all. And even may end up speaking Italian better than you. :-) – Jeff Y Jan 14 '16 at 23:10
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My advice would be to teach your son as many languages as you can, as early as you can - he will sort it out eventually. At first, he will be confused but keep explaining that there are different people who use different words for the same things and teach him the words for the same object in different languages all the time.

Your son will likely have a primary language (the one he'll use in day-to-day interactions) and at first, he'll mix the various languages in a single sentence - just be patient and keep correcting him and he'll pick up the logic of each language over time.

At first he may have a harder time with reading and writing than other kids of his age because he'll have a higher load on his mind but as he grows, he'll catch up and eventually come out ahead.

I did this with my daughter and by age 5 she was using both of her languages well (she was better with her primary language but that was because of lack of opportunity to practice the other language as much as the primary.)

  • Your advise is encouraging in that the child should be able to figure things out eventually. Now I need to figure out how and when to switch between languages in order for me to be persistent about it. Or it will be me who gets confused... (Sorry, can't yet upvote on this site) – symphonic Jan 18 '16 at 11:07
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    @symphonic I'm not really encouraging that the child should figure it - it's more like it just happens so (at least it happened in my case). I tried to be consistent with my daughter but I couldn't do it as much as I wanted to for various reasons but at the end she still ended up separating the two languages well. It's lucky that childrens' minds are as flexible as they are and hers filtered out my inconsistencies. Could it have been even better if I did a better job at being consistent? Perhaps but I won't know that. – xxbbcc Jan 18 '16 at 18:18
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    When my older brother was 3 and a half, he said he had a booger in my mums native language (ofc they didn't know what he meant, but they were alarmed anything was in his nose when he said!). They told my mum to only teach him English to not confused them (and thus only teach me English) meaning I cannot speak my mum and dads native tongue. They robbed me of a language :( – user3564421 Feb 11 '16 at 10:28
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My children grow up multi-lingual, with one language spoken by me and the grandparents, which is also what my wife and me speak together, one language spoken by my wife, and finally the language spoken at day care, which is in the same language family as the one I speak with them. The level of proficiency in each of these three languages closely mirrors the amount of exposure and need to speak them. The lesson there is that with you being the only one speaking Italian to your son only a minority of your time together, he will probably refuse to speak it, in favor of German, which he will pick up fluently, even with no effort at all on your part, at day care. So if you are serious about wanting to share your Italian, you should try to speak it 100% of your time together. That way you will also regain your prior proficiency the quickest and best and it will start to feel natural such that you will not accidentally fall back to German.

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