Learning Italian as a third language
2 years ago / in Learning
Ever since Little Claire started going to school, December has become an exciting time for our fam as we get to look forward to her schools holiday concerts. Her first performance was earlier this month at Il Concerto di Natale (The Christmas Concert) della Scuola d’Italiano. Several guests of honour made opening address at the concert, including The Consulate General of Italy (Console Generale d’Italia). But some of what the President of Il Centro (Presidente del Centro) said struck me the most:
“Learning a language is the gateway to indulging curiosity, discovering a new culture, and developing a greater understanding of the world. This morning, we’re excited to share with you the next generation of Italian speakers… Thank you to the parents for your commitment to growing your child’s greater understanding of the world, and to the children of course who have worked so hard to bring today’s performance.”
How we got started with Italian as a third language
When Little Claire was 15 months old, I went back to my corporate job and she went to a daycare for 4 days a week. It didn’t take long for us to decide that this arrangement didn’t work for us, as she would get sick every other week, and my husband and I would take turn to take days off work to look after her at home. After quite a ride and struggle with keeping her healthy, we decided things needed to change.
3 MONTHS LATER…
Instead of daycare, we hired a babysitter to help us out for 5 hours a day at our home. And instead of my corporate gig, I started working at home, helping out on a business that my husband had just started months before. Little Claire got to spend most of her time at home, within our eyesight, and give her little body a break from all the getting-sick, a health-streak that turned out to last for 28 months (more on that another time)!
We were fortunate to find an amazing lady that would turn out to be one of Little Claire’s favourite persons, a wonderful help for our fam, and a great friend. She is Italian, a Sicilian native. She was upfront from the get-go that she is most comfortable with her native Italian as English was her second language. My husband and I immediately (rather spontaneously) said, “OK great, speak Italian to her (Little Claire) then!”.
Before we knew it, we had a little trilingual, Mandarin-English-Italian speaker, in the making. Little Claire started absorbing the language like a sponge and soon developed a good understanding of everyday phrases and sentences. A few months later she started speaking a vocabulary of everyday words. Her babysitter would speak purely in Italian with her and having been a tutor back in Italy and a toddler mom herself, she has a pretty good sense of teaching to kids.
Transition to Italian language classes
As a background, Little Claire speaks Mandarin at home with a fair bit of introduction to English (mostly phonics, to set her basis for proper pronunciation). I also introduced Bahasa Indonesia to her through songs and simple phrases since she was just over a year old, just so she’d get a sense of how the language sounds.
When we moved across the globe, naturally we transitioned away from our babysitter. Little Claire was just turning 3 at the time and had already developed a relatively good order of Italian being her third language. We wouldn’t want her to lose it, and I was thrilled when we found an Italian school in Vancouver that offers weekly language courses for children from 2.5 years old.
She is just in love with these classes (which is very important to us)… her teachers are wonderful, the classroom is so much fun, and the approach is learning through immersion – song and dance, arts and crafts, stories, games, etc. We did not set any goals or expectations from these classes apart from being a weekly activity that we all enjoyed, and an avenue for her to keep her exposure in the Italian language.
We started in the winter term (January), so her first year was not a full school year (the school year ends in late May with the start of summer break). Throughout this time we did not hear her speak a whole lot of Italian anymore, and she seems to have forgotten vocab that she used to know. So for a moment we thought that things may have taken a step back for her. She did repeat words, phrases, and occasionally short songs that she learned from class but that was about it. Her maestra assured us in a brief chat that it is completely normal to see that in kids at her age, as they focus more on absorbing the language before later speaking more of it.
Improvements from first to second year
After a European-style summer break (4 months sans school!), she resumed her Italian classes in fall this year, beginning her second school year. Soon, we noticed a change. She started repeating more of what she learns in classes at home, for example repeating 2 or 3 short songs (with full lyrics) and actually remembering them for days and weeks, understanding what the words mean (and explain them to me in Mandarin), and gathered a whole load of new vocab.
The absorbent mind
Watching her perform canzone della Pace at the concert, we felt really glad that she got the chance to learn this beautiful language. We feel fortunate for the totally unplanned ‘breadcrumbs’ that led us to this journey.
We believe that it is way easier to learn a language as a child than it is as an adult, so we didn’t shy away when we had this opportunity. We were never worried that she would be confused by ‘too many languages’. In fact, quite the contrary. Especially during the first 6 years of life, a child has what Maria Montessori calls “The Absorbent Mind”: they have sponge-like brains and learn very differently, by soaking up incredible amount of information from their environment, and they do so effortlessly, unconsciously, continuously, and indiscriminately.
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