Friday, December 02, 2005

Dutch vs. Italian: 1-1

I read in an article that when a baby reaches the age of 10 months, it's good to start naming objects in front of him, to help him build up is vocabulary. At the time, I shared the bit with Milo's dad, who enthusiastically welcomed the suggestion, and begun immediately naming in Dutch everything at hand.

Recently this habit has gotten a little out of hand. What happens is that we find ourselves wanting to provide Milo with the two versions (Italian and Dutch) of any given item almost simultaneously. Sometimes the exchanges are almost comical:

MUM: Milo, adesso mangiamo una bella mela...MELA! Prova a dire MELA...
Milo is about to open his mouth when..
DAD: APPEL...dat is en APPEL en neederlande..APPEL
Milo is about to open his lips to say A...
MUM: MELA! La mamma la chiama MELA!
Milo looks at us as you would look at a dog with two heads, he frowns and looses completely interest in the topic.

So we decided to refrain ourselves from these silly competitions and avoid providing him with the same name in the two languages at the same time, he's too young. What we try to do, is to come back on the topic a little later and always provide the framework:

MILO: Appel! Appel!
MUM: Si, papá la chiama APPEL, ma la mamma dice MELA.

What's interesting is that for certain items he retains the Dutch and for others the Italian, although he understands both perfectly.

An appel is an apple, after all!


Alice in Austria said...

yep, that's the way to go! ;) We have the same "linguistic mess" going on at our house but in the meantime we're quite used to it...You will find that they change language preferences a lot. So for now your son might prefer the Dutch Appel, but in a couple of weeks it's going to be Mela!

Isabella still keeps switching her language preferences all the time, and I think it doesn't have anything to do with understanding the other language.

Now suddenly German is "in" - probably because of Kindergarten. But as soon as Abuelita comes for a visit everything is suddenly in Spanish. Quite fascinating, really!

giovanni said...

Amusing... and interesting. Even if the two of you would not compete, which I find amusing since my dream is that I would have had exactly such parents as you are, a Dutch-speaking father and an Italian-speaking mother, or vice versa, there still remains a problem. Yes, indeed, een appel is een appel (in het Nederlands), but how will the words appel, apple and mela (and pomme and manzana) sink into the kid's brains? Will he be able in future to reproduce not only these different words without making errors in spelling or pronounciation but also know the grammar that belongs to each individual language? I am not a language expert, but I've seen problems with kids growing up in a multilingual environment. I even see this problem with my wife who studied Dutch literature (and comparative literature theories) and still sometimes has difficulty in finding the right word in Dutch as she was brought up with the dialect (language) of her province in the north of the Netherlands. And, to mention just a minor or even negligible problem: will your kid "feel" that "appel" is masculine when all the other languages he is learning tell him that pomme, mela, (manzana) is feminine? I think you realise all this, and other problems of multilingual kids, but since I like languages so much and would have preferred to be a multilingual kid myself, I have a special interest in your writings. I look forward to your next post! Un abrazo, Giovanni

Clo said...


I look forward to the next stages! Your children are older, and in fact this post was inspired also by your entry on a typical dinner conversation! Your experience is very comforting and reassuring!

You pose avery pertinent question, and I am not a linguist either to be able to answer correctly. What I have read on the subject suggests that by the simple fact of being exposed to the languages from his birth, and also being able to identify one language with one individual, the kid should develop seamlessly a linguistic/grammatical competence in each of the languages spoken to him.
In other words, he will know automatically that MELA is feminine in Italian while APPEL is masculin in Dutch, etc. Theye say it's very important NOT TO MIX, and so, as tempting as it is sometimes to show off the little Dutch I know, I refrain and only address Milo in my own maternal language. Thanks for your readership and support! I am curious myself how Milo will turn out to be...

giovanni said...

Yes, at a distance (but that's the nice thing of blog posting that you feel close to other bloggers whom you get to know) I am curious too how Milo will develop. I like Milo's name; it's the name my wife (she is a writer) gave to a person who looks a bit like me. By the way, my other comment, on your French blog, is similar but slightly different. Did you see it? It's under a post about what language at table, if I remember well.

giovanni said...

Oh yes, I also left a comment on your Italian blog some time ago, but you might have seen that already.

Clo said...

I am majorly late in translating the posts of my Italian and French versions...I'll catch up during the holidays, hopefully!

Eddie Lin said...

if and when i see milo, i am going to further confuse and frustrate him by speaking in my broken chinese with a heavy southern california surfer accent. that would confuse even the most cunning linguist.

Anonymous said...


I think it should be noted that the idea of one article being "masculine" and another "feminine" is a completely made-up concept; obviously, there's nothing masculine nor feminine about a chair. They're simply different noun classes that happen to (usually) had different articles for the different sexes of people (I mean, just look at German - "das Maedchen" for "girl" - girls certainly aren't neuter!).

And anyway, as the child is learning these languages natively, there shouldn't be too much of an issue of him confusing the languages' articles. It should be no more confusing for him than it would for any other native speakers learning the language.

As for your wife forgetting the "right word" in her native Dutch... that happens to us all. :) I was visiting Spain once, and I was only gone for a week, when I saw someone with a suitcase and turned to someone from my school and could only think of the Spanish "maleta". In English we call times like that a "brain fart".

And, as for the "problems" you saw with kids growing up in multilingual evironments - mostly likely, these problemswere social in nature, not linguistic. It is certainly true that a child's development of language depends a lot on the child's desire to learn the language, or his motivation to use it.