When we came back from our summer holidays in Germany this year, Scarlett was perfectly fluent in German and never mixed in a single word of Italian. Back in Italy she switched beautifully between the two languages, but after a month, slowly but surely, she started slipping into speaking Italian to me.

At first it was only the odd moment. In the morning Scarlett spoke German to me, but when I picked her up from school in the afternoon, her stories came bubbling out in Italian. I listened to her but kept speaking German and after a short while Scarlett switched back to German. But every day the Italian got longer. By Christmas Scarlett would have spoken a lot of Italian to me, as I knew from the years before.

In the past I was never really concerned about this, but this year I felt a bit different for two reasons. Firstly Scarlett’s little brother Quentin is struggling much more with German and I would like him to be exposed as much as possible to German, also from his sister’s side. And secondly Scarlett has reached a good level of German and I suppose it now needs more effort than before to refine her language.

So I decided to impose our first language rule ever. German at home, free language choice outside. Maybe rule is a big word, I simply ask Scarlett to speak German when we (and Quentin) are alone at home. I don’t even have the feeling I am actually forcing her to speak German as she switches without the slightest effort and she communicates as easily as she does in Italian.

In our daily routine this approach works well. When I pick Scarlett up from school she tells me all about her day in Italian. The moment we walk through the door of our house I ask her to speak German. Initially she needs a reminder from time to time, but after a short while we are fully back to German.

I have the impression that both Scarlett and Quentin are benefiting. Quentin uses at least some German words in his Italian sentences and Scarlett always speaks German. When we went to Germany for Christmas Scarlett switched to German without any problem.

Introducing a language rule of this kind might not sound a big thing but for me it actually was. I am generally not a friend of forcing children to speak a language. I have always spoken German to my children and they answered in whatever language they wanted to.

There are however people who believe that you should push your children to speak the weaker language from an early age. I talked to people who told me you should pretend not to understand the children if they don’t speak the right language. According to them the children struggle initially but benefit in the long run.

I am not so sure this is the right approach. I wouldn’t do it with Quentin, as his German is simply not good enough to communicate properly. I believe it would inhibit him from talking freely to me and thus be a strain on our relationship.

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