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Raising multilingual kids: why you shouldn’t worry if they don't speak all the languages

Jun 4, 2018

After my interview at the Congreso Online Montessori 2018, I received so many emails from parents from all over the world asking for advice, telling me their experiences, their language situations at home, and especially, their concerns.

I also worry about languages when it comes to my kids.

I speak three languages fluently, but I’m not multilingual. Multilingualism is not only speaking more than one language, it’s a superpower that wires your brain differently when you learn more than one language in the first years of your life, that gives you great ability for taking decisions, allows you concentrate for longer stretches of time, memorise more easily and adapt quickly to changes when carrying on tasks. This is what I want for my kids.

In the many years I taught English to young Spanish kids, I’ve seen the magic over and over again: one day they’d simply start speaking English. Even so, I can’t help doubting it all when it comes to my own children. Is Alex speaking too little Finnish? Will they be ab le to communicate with their Italian nonni? Are the kids exposed to too little English? How do I introduce more Spanish? Could we actually also learn French together?

I ask myself these questions ALL the time, which is why I fully understand parents’ concerns. So today I want to share wit you a funny anecdote that I’m sure will give you a smile (and maybe some reassurance).

In November 2017 Oliver was 2.5 years old and Emily almost one. Up until then, I spoke only Italian with and to the kids, Alex only Finnish, and even though Alex and I spoke English together, when addressing the kids we’d switch to our native languages. This method is called OPOL (One Person One Language) and for me it is the most efficient way (which you might know if you read my article about the importance of the first three years).

At some point, though, I started worrying about Oliver not getting enough English (I’m obsessed with English!): he was saying many words in all the languages, but he clearly preferred Italian, Finnish and even Spanish (from his favourite teacher at nursery).

So I made an executive decision: when we are all together as a family we speak English. I also asked the teachers in school to work more in English with him, and we spoke mostly English during our Christmas holidays in Sweden. I’m a firm believer in compromises and I think that each family has to find their own way of being multilingual.

In less than a month, something unexpected happened: Oliver switched to English exclusively. He understands everything we say in Italian and Finnish, but he ALWAYS replies in English. This is a typical (every day ;-) conversation:

“Mami, can I take some fruit?”“Vuoi prendere della frutta?”“Yes, mami, I want some fruit”“Perché vuoi prendere della frutta?”“Because I want to”“OK, puoi prendere la frutta che vuoi. Ne porti un po’ anche a me?”“Ok, mami. I’ll take one for you too”

This is a simple conversation, but I’m often blown away by the complexity of his speech and the variety of his vocabulary. And guess what? I’m now worrying about Italian! 😬 Which is why I’m now making an extra effort towards my native language: I’m reading image books in Italian, I’m looking for opportunities to engage conversation with Italians, and I’m often repeating his questions and sentences after him (like in the example above), which is a simple way to stimulate active learning, and to engage the brain in understanding the other language so the child will eventually use it to communicate.

But truth is, I don’t need to worry. Because if this experience has taught me (or reminded me of) anything at all, it’s this: if we parents make a conscious effort to expose our children actively and consistently to a language (especially when they’re between 0 and 3 years old), they will not only learn another language, they will gain a new mother tongue. And we’ll have given them the superpower of multilingualism (if you’re interested in the subject, here’s an infographic I prepared for the congress)

After all, kids really are geniuses at learning languages, so let’s just rub the lamp and let the magic happen.

Do you relate to this story? How many languages do you speak at home? What’s your experience with multilingualism?

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The blog

I write mainly about Montessori, parenthood, and multilingualism. Here are some recent posts.

Montessori
One day a few years ago my husband came home and said, "Why don't we put a mattress on the floor in the baby room? It'd be much more natural". "Never" was my reply. That's how our Montessori journey started. Since then we've been living, breathing and applying the philosophy at home day in and day out, starting from ourselves. Because educating children starts from the parents.
Bean and seed mosaic
I'm not perfect. I'm aware
DIY yoga cards for kids
Children at the restaurant: let's recalibrate expectations
Don't ask your children to share their toys
Those "good job" that erode our children's confidence
Our Montessori birthday
Two alternatives to screens that my kids love
Using fear and threats to control children is never right!
"Stop crying!" doesn't work
Living sustainably
Living sustainably for me doesn’t only mean to have a more eco-friendly lifestyle. It means to make decisions that are sustainable for our planet, the people on it, but also for our life, our lifestyle, and our happiness. It means to take any daily chance to evolve and be happier, healthier, kinder, more responsible and more caring human beings—the only sustainable way for a meaningful future.
Face yoga is an act of self love
Why you should wear the same outfit twice on Instagram
The power of creating habits (and why you should do it, even if you then break them!)
Responsible eating is the diet of the future (Would you like to teach it to your kids?)
The power of NOT complaining: can you do it for a whole month?
Clean up your planet, please!
Infographic: 8 steps to switch to cloth nappies (a guide for reluctant parents)
A personal note on happiness
A personal note on social media
A change of life always widens your horizons
New to La Tela?
I’ve prepared collections on various topics that I’ve written over the years. Perhaps you’ll find one that interests you.

Travel

We sold everything to travel the world for two years. We're currently in New Zealand.

Books

In 2020 I wrote 4 books for the Italian collection “Gioca and Impara con il metodo Montessori” curated by Grazia Honegger Fresco. The collection is a project by Il Corriere della Sera and La Gazzetta dello Sport.

We also implemented the workshops of the last 15 volumes of the collection with Oliver and Emily.

Podcast

On my podcast, “Educare con calma”, I talk about various topics, from Montessori to sustainability. Only in Italian!

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Why La Tela di Carlotta?
I dreamed of the name La Tela di Carlotta. One morning I woke up and in my dreams I had created a blog named just like the American novel (Charlotte's Web). Many years and endless ups and downs later, this web of thoughts and stories is my work. It took me a long time to understand what kind of online presence I wanted and today I know: I'm transparent, I show real life, I don't advertise, I only recommend sustainable brands (and not only because they pay me) and I believe in the value of my blog and my courses—because if we don't believe in the value of our work, no one will believe in it for us.
Carlotta
Carlotta dreaming of La Tela
I know! I don't want it to be over yet either.