When you listen to our family conversations it is not easy to understand what our language background is. On a typical family day out Scarlett and Quentin are speaking Italian to each other while Penny and I are talking in English; then suddenly Scarlett addresses me in German while Penny says something in Italian to Quentin. We all switch languages all the time. The only who doesn’t is Quentin. He speaks Italian no matter who he is talking to. And, thinking about it, this is not a bad idea. Quentin understands what everybody else says while he himself always talks in his strongest language. He has become a receptive multilingual, a person who speaks one language and understands the others.

Quentin’s level of understanding the different languages obviously differs. Italian is clearly his strongest language, he is perfectly in line with his peers. Especially when it comes to technical descriptions Quentin’s speaking is very detailed and eloquent: “Sai che in Germania il sistema della spazzatura è diverso. Non c’è una persona dietro il camion, ma c’è un gancio attaccato al lato che alza il bidone…” (Italian for: Do you know that in Germany the rubbish system is different. There is no man behind the lorry, but there is a hook attached to the side of the lorry that lifts the bin…). In Quentin’s passive understanding of Italian we never noticed any shortcomings.

In German Quentin’s passive understanding has become pretty good. He understands everything I say to him and when I read stories he follows without problems, even though there are always words he doesn’t know. Quentin is behind his German peers but he has reached a decent level. He hardly says a word though.

I wasn’t so sure about English, despite the facts that it was Quentin’s preferred language when he was small and his English grandmother has always said that he understands everything. As I never hear Quentin speak English I simply assumed that his level was lower than in the other languages. One day however I realised that he was much better than I thought.

We went by car to Umbria to see the Italian grandfather. Scarlett wanted to listen to an abridged English audio book version of “Oliver Twist” for children. As always she was totally absorbed in the story, but this time also Quentin was absolutely quiet and concentrated. I asked him what the story was about and to my surprise he was able to tell us quite detailed what was happening (in Italian of course).

So Quentin understands German and English, but doesn’t speak it. This, of course, is already a great accomplishment, but I obviously wonder how his passive knowledge can be transformed into active speaking skills. It is often said that children (and also adults) speak when there is the need to do so. In Italy there is no real need for Quentin to speak German, his language strategy works perfectly. But if he found himself in an environment where he has to speak German in order to communicate, Quentin might turn his language skills active. Our hopes rest on our next long summer holidays in Germany.

There are however things that make me look with optimism to the future. Being able to speak German seems important for Quentin. At the kindergarten he tells his friends proudly “Mio papà parla Deutsch con me” (Italian-German for: My dad speaks German to me). And one day, he came to his mum all downhearted and said: “Non riesco a parlare in tedesco” (Italian for: I am not able to speak German). And Penny could feel that he really meant it. Maybe it is because his sister speaks German. Maybe he perceives that speaking German is important for me. Maybe he feels that he is limited when we go to Germany. Whatever it is, Quentin seems to have the will to become an active trilingual.

And finally Quentin seems to be rather gifted when it comes to pronunciation. The few things he says in German and English, he always pronounces them well. Generally he seems to have a good ear for music and this might help him in his language learning. One day Quentin even came back from kindergarten and said an arab word he had picked up from his Maroccan friend. It was so well pronounced with this strange guttural ‘ch’ that we all thought he could have been a native arab speaker.

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