Yesterday we went to renew the kids' US passports. As their mother, I was required to be present, and to raise my right hand and swear to tell the truth. But, as a European citizen when we travel to the US I have to stand in a different line at passport controls.
In our family we handle our bilingual and bicultural differences easily and smoothly. We, in fact, feel enriched by them. But when we encounter bureaucracy our different nationalities are a problem. And it's strange at international borders to have our family distinguished and split up.
Coincidentally, Tom and I met twenty (!) years ago today, in a foreign land for both of us.
When Rebecca spoke her first word, we all cheered. After health issues, intensive care and hospitalizations that set back her development each time, we didn't expect her language skills to come along roughly on time: by 12 months she could say "NO", always loud and clear. After that first word her language development seemed to came to a halt. But more hospital and more health issues got in the way, and we didn't worry (about that).
Then, at 22 months all of a sudden she said "NO WANT", and after a little debate in the family we decided that she had spoken her first sentence and we had little celebration party. "NO WANT" replaced the more linguistically simple "NO", and for a few months that's all she would say. Then we became worried. We didn't worry about the fact that at the same age both boys could already speak well, we worried about what she'd chosen to communicate to us, the single refusal sentence good for all occasions.
One day she surprised us by uttering something different: "gweem". Not once, but many times, each time the pitch in her voice rising. She wanted "gweem", but what was "gweem"? We frantically searched the house offering her many types of gweem, to no avail.
Gweem, it turned out, was water. Water in the green cup. Colors rapidly filled her vocabulary, as she began to ask for water in specific-colored cups. Bilingualism followed, as she'd ask in English or Italian, depending on whom she was addressing: she'd say "su" to me, and "up" to her daddy, for instance. Finally, she started a phase of constant chattering.
Now we have a talking two year old, except that most of the times no one in the family can understand what she's saying, either in English or in Italian. She often doesn't say a complete word, and changes the order of syllables. Many of her consonants sound alike. The result?
The result is this at times: NOT a young girl having a temper tantrum on the floor in the lounge, her brother throwing slippers and her doll around to make her snap out of it. The result is an often frustrated little girl with so many things to say, but not enough words to express them yet.
When we were expecting our first-born, we considered the issue of bilingualism. At that time, we didn't know any bilingual families with young children, so we read several books on the matter. Most agreed on one point: in order to avoid syntax confusion that might hinder language development, we had to be a monolingual family for the first few years of our child's life. That made perfect sense to us.
When Nicholas was born, though, it became immediately clear that the advice of the experts didn't come naturally to either of us. So we ignored it. I speak Italian with the kids, Tom speaks English with them, Tom and I speak English to each other, they speak mainly Italian among themselves. It sounds quite confusing, but it actually works very smoothly. It works well with books too: the English ones we read in English, the Italian ones in Italian -- translating has never occurred to us.
We hit a big hitch, though, when it came to Scrabble. Tom and I have an English Scrabble board that we got when we first met. The boys weren't comfortable spelling words in English, and the game never caught on with them. Because the letter pieces in the two languages are different, we eventually decided to invest in the Italian version of the game. Now Scarabeo is one of our favorite after-dinner family activities.
A dictionary, a Scarabeo board, a Scrabble board (waiting for the right night) - and we're in for an exciting game, which often ... gets continued the following night!