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First Person

Italian at Dinner

Newton pediatrician and author Naomi Steiner, 42, says raising children to be multilingual makes table talk a little more interesting.

By Susan Chaityn Lebovits
March 15, 2009
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You sound British. Where are you from? I was born in London, moved to the French region of Switzerland when I was 8 years old, then attended medical school in Zurich.

Did you ever struggle with language growing up? Yes. I learned to get by in French in elementary school quite quickly, but it did take years to get to be at par with the more complex written school language.

What languages do you speak? French, German, Italian, and English.

You have two children at home. How are you raising them to be multilingual? My husband is from the Italian region of Switzerland and speaks to them in Italian, I speak with them in English, and my husband and I speak with each other in French.

Does this ever get confusing? Not at all. We've been doing this since they were born. We both make a point to follow the "one parent-one language" rule, and we don't derail. Do you know that even bilingual infants, as they start to talk, will speak in the correct language to the correct person?

You spend your days working as a pediatrician at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center, but you recently published a book called 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child. What is the best language for a kid to learn today? Bilingualism is going to benefit the brain from a linguistic and academic standpoint, whatever the second language choice. Because of the amount of people who speak Chinese, and the extent of globalization, chances are that 21st-century kids will have many opportunities to use Chinese, beyond business. While French and German are critical in the European Union, they're not so critical in the United States.

I've heard that kids soak up other languages like sponges. If I enroll a 4-year-old in language classes, how quickly might he be fluent? The "learning like a sponge" concept is not quite correct. If your child is in a Mandarin Chinese-speaking day care, he will pick up his first words within days. If you go for a Chinese class one day a week, he'll learn some, but the progression is slower. Raising a bilingual child spans years.

Why did you decide to write the book? I really wanted to urge people not to listen to myths, like learning an additional language causes academic confusion.

What do most people not realize about having bilingual children -- good or bad? Parents focus on job opportunities and underestimate the cultural gift of raising a child bilingual. Studies show clearly that kids that learn a second language are culturally more aware.

I imagine that your kids must have language mishaps, mixing the languages, like Bonjour, mamacita. Yes, I think that bilinguals love to play with languages. We have quite a few household words that we've invented, too.

Like what? Kids make "mishaps" when they slip a word into another language and pop on an ending from another -- like "Andiamo bowl-are" for "Let's go bowling." It sounds kind of funny, but the brain is amazing, and if someone understands both languages, they just get it!

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