Only two month ago Scarlett’s German was completely pushed aside by Italian. Like a small furry animal in a world of dinosaurs, German only survived in a niche of evening stories. During the day it sometimes peeped out timidly, but then disappeared again when a mighty Italian dinosaur came near.

Now Scarlett wouldn’t even dream of speaking Italian to me. Her German has become fluent again, she is able to express almost everything she wants to say. What has happened?

At the start of July Scarlett went with her grandma for ten days to Umbria in middle Italy. Italian was still very present, but English became the main language as grandma was Scarlett’s main attachment figure. Scarlett’s English improved day by day. Eventually about a quarter of the words she used were English. Surprisingly Scarlett also said words that Grandma could not remember ever having used. Sometimes Scarlett would also ask for words: “How say you correre in English” (English-Italian). On the telephone we could clearly hear how strong English had become: “Ho mangiato a plate of pasta” (Italian-English for “I have eaten a plate of pasta”). When I picked her up in Umbria and we had spent some hours on the train, she said “non vergessen die bottle” (Italian-German-English for “don’t forget the bottle”.)

A couple of days later we took the plane to Germany where we spent  the next three weeks. In the airport Scarlett already spoke quite a lot of German to me, with some Italian intruding “Die Flugzeuge sono im Flughafen” (German-Italian for “The planes are in the airport.”) or “Dopo das Flugzeug fliegt in die Wolken” (German-Italian for: “Afterwards the plane flies into the clouds”). She even said proudly: “Auf Deutsch si dice Flugzeug” (German-Italian for: “In German you call it plane”). After having been exposed to a lot of English, Scarlett seemed to speak more German. This backs up my hypothesis that any change from the dominant language surrounding heightens a kid’s language awareness and helps the other languages to emerge.

The first few days in Germany Scarlett spoke a mixture of Italian and German to me and the grandparents. Italian was still very present as Scarly’s mum was still with us. But already after four days she spoke a lot of German. She spoke more slowly and hesitatingly and had a slight Italian accent: she rolled the ‘r’ , she had difficulty pronouncing the ‘h’ and struggled to say the umlaute. But generally her level of German was already quite impressive.

Three days later Scarlett’s mum had to go back to Milan. Ten days of full German immersion followed before the family was reunited at a seaside resort in Holland. By then Scarlett would speak German all the time, she was fluent and able to express everything she wanted. Penny noticed that Italian had even become slightly less fluent than before.

Back in Italy Scarlett saw our housekeeper, understood that Teresa only speaks English and spoke English to her. What she said was rather basic but she was able to make herself understood. She said things like “enough”, “Come, come”, “this is a crocodile”, “crocodile eat”, “This is nicht hat” (English-German for “this is not a hat”).

Then we went for another ten days to Umbria. Scarlett was once more facing a Babylonian confusion of languages. I spoke English to mum and grandma, Italian to granddad and German to Scarlett. Grandma spoke English to Scarlett, mum and dad but Italian to granddad. Whenever there were Italians around we all suddenly switched to Italian. Scarlett mastered this situation with ease. She spoke Italian to granddad, turned around, spoke German to me, turned again and spoke English to the grandma. And for the first time we really heard her say proper English sentences. She said things like: “We go to Nonno Nevio’s”, “Why do you sleep in Manila’s room?” or “I see the moon through the window.”

Now that our summer holidays have come to an end, Scarlett is on a good way to becoming trilingual. Of course there are still big differences between the languages. In Italian she speaks like other children of her age. In German she is very good and able to express everything a three and a half years old kid wants to express. German native speakers however will notice something foreign: a slight accent, an unusual word order or the odd Italian word that slips in. English is still the weakest language and she is far from being fluent. But also here the foundations are laid.

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