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Thursday, 19 July 2012

Ute's multilingual story

We only moved in a few months ago, and until recently I wasn’t really able to meet many of my neighbours. But during a party, I could to talk to some of them, and have some great conversations. One of my neighbours is Ute. Ute is a very interesting person, and I asked her whether she’d be willing to let me tell you her story. She was, and we had a very nice chat, together with tea, delicious chocolate and cherry cake (for us), and rice snacks (for Julia).

Ute’s parents are German but they lived almost 30 years in Italy. Ute was born in Lugano (the Italian part of Switzerland) and was raised to speak both German and Italian. She likes to call herself “Expat since birth”, as she never lived in her parents’ country. She then went on to study Romance languages and literature at the University in Zurich, and also specialised in bilingualism.

Ute is married to Rolf, a Swiss man who comes from the German-speaking part of Switzerland. They have three children: 9-year old Francesco, and 6-year old twins Alice and Lucia. As you see, those are all beautiful Italian names. Ute and Rolf had planned to apply the OPOL method (Ute prefers saying One Person, One Language rather than One Parent One Language and I agree). Ute spoke to their children in Italian. Rolf used the Swiss dialect of German, which is different from the Standard German Ute and Rolf adopted when addressing each other. They also sent their children to a Dutch daycare where they learned Dutch.

This seemed to work out well, with Francesco quickly adapting to the multitude of languages. The twins, however, were another story. Ute explained that the twins suddenly started speaking “Twin”, a language that nobody understood apart from themselves. Ute read that twins develop their own language only if they’re neglected which definitely was not the case with her girls. But as the children had to deal with 3 or 4 languages per day, Ute decided to reduce the amount of languages in their household. Italian was put off for a while, and Rolf dropped the Swiss German dialect.

This worked out perfectly, and communication improved. Even if Ute agreed to stop talking Italian to her children on a regular basis, she still went on reading them Italian stories and letting them listen to Italian songs and nursery rhymes. Italian is very present in their family as Ute’s sister and family live in the Italian part of Switzerland and they meet several times per year. I think the way Ute and Rolf dealt with it is just fantastic. Ute tells me that when she is angry with the children, she found that her words have a better effect when she speaks Italian. Also, the children are more and more interested in speaking and reading in this language.

I asked Ute to tell her story because I think it is unusual. First, Ute’s children are multilingual, and while there is ample research on bilingualism, multilingualism seems to be much less common, and not as many studies have been conducted so far. Then, I thought that there is even less research on multilingual twins, and maybe some of you are in a similar situation, and you can comment, and share your own experiences.

Ute’s story is an example of a situation in which “more” doesn’t necessarily mean “better”. After all, every child and every family is different, and Ute responded to her children’s needs in a way that allowed for communication between the family members. But in the end, it is a story of success in raising multilingual children. And I find it very uplifting, and exciting.

Thank you, Ute for letting me share your story!

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  1. You are so right. There really is not a lot available for the multilingual kids. It is so hard to know what the real milestones should be and whether your kids are ahead or behind or on track. More work should be done on this. Thanks for sharing the great story!

    1. Lynn, maybe this post would help? http://onraisingbilingualchildren.com/2012/07/19/building-your-bilingualism-library/ I've asked a question in the comment, and Eowyn told me two books on multilingualism. She might tell me more, when she has the time.

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  3. Yes, there is a lot about bilingual (including diglossia...) children like in the "Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development" you can find all sorts of general approaches. About studies on babies with bilingual mothers (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-bilingual/201206/born-preference-two-languages), but I really miss studies about children (and twins!) of bilingual mothers, with a dad who speaks the third language, living in a fourth-language environment... And what I found really interesting with my children: they all have different reactions and preferences to the languages they're exposed to. - Guess we should start a study on that.

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    2. Thank you Ute for the link. It was most interesting! Also, each multilingual family is unique, and studies don't even start to do us justice!

  4. I've met François Grosjean several (!) years ago while I lived in Switzerland and he has an interesting site about bilingualism etc.: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-bilingual.


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