Alessia Zannin

Alessia and Martino are both Italian, live in London, and have three children. A handful of their closest friends from Italy live just around the corner. They have access to books, cartoons, and free babysitters. In a way they are living the dream for balancing languages. So how come they have to face challenges, too?



We tend to speak just Italian to our children, mostly in the evening. I would say it’s 90% of the time. Maybe 85%. But sometimes there is stuff that we know they don’t know. They will have the English vocabulary but not necessarily the Italian vocabulary for it and vice versa. An example for that is maths. My six-year-old knows his numbers really well in English but he gets confused when I say them in Italian. Is it 17 or 70? When we ask a maths question - and I would normally answer it in Italian - he looks at me and goes “In English please?” It’s just small things like that and I think he’s improving. His sister knows her numbers in both languages but she’s also two years older and has had more practice than him.


On whispering words when language delays


I went to Italy for two months when I had my second child because we were doing some works in our house, and put our eldest in a local playgroup just for the mornings. Our idea was to encourage her to speak Italian because she wasn’t really talking at the time. She was two and a half  and everybody went “Oh, it’s the two languages!”


Did they mean it as “proof this is normal” or “proof this is too much”?

Proof this is normal. The talking would come. And at one point, just before she was three, our daughter started speaking English. The funny thing about that was, because she was shy and a bit self-conscious, she wouldn’t speak out loud, she would whisper. She would converse with her key person at nursery and quietly communicate what she wanted to say. I suppose it was because she was worried she wasn’t right. She was doing the same with me in Italian, at least for a couple of months. And then obviously when she became more confident she stopped doing it and she is fluent in both languages now.


Has she ever said “Oh mum, please speak to me in English?”

No. My daughter speaks maybe 90% of the time to me in Italian. Even when we are at school she comes out and asks “What did you bring to me today?” in Italian. She wouldn’t ask that in English.

Interestingly, her brother doesn’t do that, he basically only speaks English to me. Then again, it was different for him, he always had a sister who spoke two languages around. I don’t know if that’s an age-related issue either.

When I compare my two oldest children’s language abilities at age 5, I find that my daughter’s Italian was probably slightly worse than my son’s, although now that she’s nearly 8, she is much better than him at age 6. Maybe it suddenly clicked or maybe another year just brought her more maturity. I think she knows at the back of her mind that it’s in her own interest to learn it. Most of my friends from my hometown have kids roughly the same age. When we go on holidays and spend three to four weeks in Italy, she wants to be able to talk to them. She has quite a few friends around.


On Reading Strategies for Biliteracy


We tried to focus on English literacy at home first because our daughter didn’t pick up reading straight away. We thought this would be advantageous for her. Also, because they teach reading through phonics at school in England, it’s really easy to translate. If you learn to read phonics you can practically speak Italian by remembering a handful of exceptions such as “ch” is pronounced “k” and the “gl” is pronounced “j”. That’s it!

We’re just starting to focus a bit more on reading and writing in Italian now. Something that is really difficult for our children is the double “l” as in “bella” but they get used to it. Sometimes when I explain an English word to them I use Italian.


Are they at a normal skill level expected of a child their age in Italy?

It would probably be a bit less than an Italian child of their age,definitely . But they try and will become more confident readers in a year or two.


Do you have Italian books around?

Yes, but we don’t have Italian chapter books. We have a few very simple books and they can read those, but it’s nothing more complicated than a few sentences. My family gave us lots of Roald Dahl in Italian.


That’s wonderful!

Yeah but I…  Italian authors, Italian books. I don’t want English authors translated into Italian!



Who is Python? When Dumbledore turns Silente


Funny you say that, we have a couple of Roald Dahl’s books in Greek and my thinking was “Oh brilliant! I can read the story in Greek and my children can still talk about it with their friends on the playground”. Greek books are much more useful to them that way.

Ahh, we did read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in Italian. And we read the first Harry Potter in Italian, the second in English, the third again in Italian, and I think we started the fourth in English.


I don’t understand, why do you keep changing languages with this one?

It was really difficult for our son. There are some words which are quite particular, like cauldron. We wanted to make sure he gets both sets of vocabulary. And then they translate the names in Italian! Albus Dumbledore is Albus Silente and Severus Snape is called Severus Python in Italian. It gets so confusing. Sometimes you don’t know who is who? I can’t imagine my children talking to their friends about it. The others would go Python? Who is Python? It adds an unnecessary layer of complexity.

We read Pinocchio last year. The original one. It’s not too thick, so it’s not too bad, but it’s quite an old book written in Tuscan at the end of the last century. Some words are a bit complicated. Not complicated, just not so common anymore.



On the convenience of a dense Italian network


My best friend has two kids roughly the same age as ours and they always play together when we go to Italy. Their children don’t speak English so our children have no choice but to speak Italian if they want to play with them.

We have lots of Italian friends in London, too. There is a family whose dad is Italian, the mother is British but they’ve hired an Italian nanny now. There are also a few friends from high school and my sister-in-law who live close by. We all meet regularly in different constellations over the weekend. Everybody babysits for us from time to time. My children are exposed to a lot of Italian and I think that helps.

When the families get together, I hear them having little conversations in Italian from time to time, but 90% of the time they play in English. Sometimes even the adults speak English to the children. Maybe this happens out of laziness or because they want to explain something and assume the kids will understand it better if it’s explained it in English, which is not necessarily the case.


Has this made life easier for you? Just imagine you had never had anybody around you who spoke Italian, do you think you would have done the same?

I would have looked for other Italians! It sounds odd to say this out loud, but I’m very proud of my roots and will never give it up.



Growing up somewhere else


I grew up in Italy and my parents literally only spoke Italian. We lived in a village. My mum even stopped going to school when she was 13.

I started learning English when I was 11 and was shocked to fail an exam. I saw this movie on TV which said “If you want to learn a language you just have to think in that language” and from that moment on, for a year or so, whatever I was doing, even when I was singing in my head, I started to switch to English. Even if I didn’t know enough vocabulary. Let’s say I was thinking “I want to see that friend today” and missed the word “friend”. I would fill in the gap with another word but I was still constructing a phrase in English in my head. That’s how it became my best subject.

The first time in my life I took an aeroplane was when I came to London with Erasmus a couple of years later. It was 1998 and that’s how I met my husband.

He was born in Geneva, but his mum is English, and his dad is Italian, and they spoke French between them. The first seven years of his life were just French and English. Then all of the sudden, his father got a job with Ferrari University in Italy and they moved. He says he still remembers playing in French with his sister for a few months but it slowly disappeared because his mum learned Italian and they learned Italian and everybody started talking Italian. He complains that his vocabulary has remained that of a seven year old.



On London’s charm


13 years into your English adventure, do you want to stay or leave?

Ideally I want to go back at one point. It’s what we’ve always said but it’s becoming more and more difficult.

There are lots of things I like about London. All those things we can do for our children. Going to wonderland, and being there in half an hour. The parks. The thousands of activities. It is quite diverse as well.

And then I hear stories from Italy. A friend of mine was telling me about an incident that happened when they were giving another child a lift to a birthday party. In the car the child exclaimed “You know what? Your daughter sits next to a black girl! And this black girl has black brains like all black people” My friend was shocked, driving her car, and didn’t know what to do. There was only the child, there wasn’t the mother, so what do you say to a six year old? You try to explain of course, but you also don’t know where the problem comes from. Is it their imagination and the mum is on top of things, telling them off? Or is this the mother’s opinion we’re hearing through her child’s mouth?

Or take this other story: A child invited everybody to their birthday party, except for this one muslim boy. I think he was in tears for weeks! My husband said “I wouldn’t have sent my children to that birthday party!”

It is this kind of mentality which I don’t think you will find in London, possibly in another small place, but I don’t think I would be able to accept it.

Madalena Xanthopoulou

visual storyteller / founder of @the_alma_collective / structuralist / home in many worlds / #raisingmultilingualchildren