Before my first child was born I decided that I would speak Italian to him. I thought that speaking Italian to my baby would be the most natural thing to do, as I had always spoken Italian to every one of my family members.
I knew that being the only Italian speaker in our new home in England would mean that I needed to make an effort to expose my child to Italian, but I was prepared to do it. I got together with other Italian families and we met every weekend for years, I travelled as much as possible to Italy, I always chose to read books and watch cartoons in Italian. My son’s language development was fine, and I had no reason to worry. I could see he could understand everything we said both in English and in Italian, even though he mostly used English words at the beginning.
I didn’t see anything strange in that, as I knew that whenever we visited the group he immediately reached out for his favourite toys and books. The speech and language therapist continued asking me questions about his language and finally asked me how many words he could say. I wasn’t too sure, but I estimated that he could say about 20 words, some of which were animal sounds (like calling the sheep “baa-baa”). I told her that these 20 words included a mix of Italian and English words, too. She was not too impressed and suggested to put his name down on the waiting list for speech and language therapy. This was based on my answer on the number of words he could say and on the fact that he was playing with a book quietly in a corner of a very busy room.
After a few minutes, I went to talk to the speech and language therapist and asked her why she thought my son should be put on the waiting list. She claimed that at 18 months all children can say at least 50 words and that if they speak two languages they should have at least 50 in each language, so she said that he was a typical case of language delay.
I had at least 10 friends whose 20-month-old children definitely used lots of words… but I also had at least 10 friends whose 20-month-old children said just “mama” and “dada”.
I also knew that it is important to observe a child’s development over time, and rather than placing a 20-month-old child on a waiting list for speech and language therapy, she should have advised me on how to take notes on his new words and how to expand his vocabulary.
When later I asked colleagues who work in the field they said that she should not have given a diagnosis without fully assessing my son, and she should not have assumed that he had language delay based on my report on number of words he could say.
I went to talk to the manager of the toddler group and asked more questions. She told me that this specific speech and language therapist was newly qualified and she had already told many families with young bilingual children (and that was the majority of children at the centre) to stop speaking their mother tongue in order to “fix” their language delay.
She also told me that many parents had gone to her in tears, and felt that they had done something wrong to their child by speaking their mother tongue. The manager told me that she looked into the issue. I did attend the group again, and never saw that speech and language therapist again. I do wonder if the mothers who worried about their child’s development did follow the advice of giving up their mother tongue.
Even though I know how important it is to keep speaking my mother tongue to my child and I know what speech and language therapy involves, I did get very worried and I did question my parenting choices and my own ability to understand my child’s development.
So was she right? Was the language delay real? In our case luckily there was no issue in his language development, but we definitely kept a close eye on him until he was about 4. It was a process that seemed slow and not consistent at times, but I continued to speak Italian to him and now that he is 9 I can say that I don’t regret this decision at all.
What I would say to other families in the same situation is to ask questions, consult experts (public health nurses, speech and language therapists) but never accept the advice of someone who claims that to fix any problem or overcome any difficulty it is necessary for parents to stop speaking their mother tongue to their child.
Author: Francesca La Morgia