My husband and I are both children of immigrants: his parents are German, mine, Italian. We both grew up bilingual as a result.
Because it’s so hard to learn a new language as an adult, and it’s such a valuable skill to have, when our son was born we decided we’d give him this gift as well.
We each agreed to speak only German or Italian to our son, and to each other.
To learn each other’s language before our son was born, we both did Rosetta Stone: he the entire way through, me part of the way through. Turns out Rosetta Stone is not magic, and neither one of us was able to form a meaningful sentence in the other’s language at the end of it.
Saying something in your language and expecting the other person to get it doesn’t work either. Even after you’ve said the same thing ten million times, as I’ve let my husband know.
Still, we want our baby to know more than one language, so I speak to him in Italian and my husband speaks to him in German and we try to speak to each other in the other’s language, unless it’s something more complicated than, “what time is it”, or “where are you going with that?”.
We’ve realized that clear communication in a relationship is a good thing; compromising it to learn a new language is too high a price to pay.
There are other compromises as well, albeit smaller ones.
There are some things I refuse to say to my son in Italian. I say, “I love you”, rather than, “ti voglio bene”, because in Italian it literally translates to, “I want you well”, which to me doesn’t mean what I mean when I say, “I love you”.
My husband referred to the garbage as “garbage” with a German accent until he looked the term up and found that’s not the German word for “garbage” at all, just the way his parents pronounce an English word.
I sometimes worry about not knowing English being isolating to our son. When he’s playing with other kids, or speaking to adults, we need to translate the few words he is saying at 19 months.
But we both agree that he’ll learn English soon enough, and the value of knowing other languages, or at least the basics of them, far outweighs the seconds it takes to clear up what he’s saying for someone who doesn’t understand him.
I’ve found that most people, children and adults, are happy to learn new words themselves, and regret never having learned another language.