What’s The Point of Speaking a Dialect with our Multilingual Children?

by contributor · 6 comments

By Isabelle Lazonde

I asked myself a question the other day: Am I quadralingual? I speak English, Italian and French, but what about the Sicilian, does it count?

Indeed, it is quite different from Standard Italian. The question is less about me, as I am a fluent speaker, but what about my children? Should I teach or expose my children to Sicilian?

I am Australian with Italian origins and my mother speaks to my children in Sicilian as do other relatives. In fact, when they speak English to my children it is with a strong accent and they tend to make English grammar mistakes.

My family says that the language is part of their origins and that their grandchildren should be able to speak Sicilian.

For practical reasons, I don’t see the need.  It is only a dialect. My children won’t be able to use it at school or in university and there doesn’t seem to be a point in teaching them to read in it. So what’s the use?

What would you do? Should we teach our children a dialect as well as the standard form of the language?

I really had to search this out.

Lets look further into the issue…

As we have often read about and heard, dialects, and those who speak them, may be treated as inferior. Even within the English language a dilemma can arise. Some teachers and policy makers in the US view dialects as incorrect English rather than regional differences which can make things very difficult for these children. For example, teachers may develop low expectations for these students. Hence the importance of educating the teachers and making them more aware of dialect differences to accommodate these children. (see more information at Reading Rockets).

I can recall a funny experience speaking Sicilian to a gondolier in Venice. When I was done speaking, he looked at me and just laughed literally in my face. I was so naive back then, thinking my excellent grasp of Sicilian would impress him. Not only did he laugh, he said in his own Venetian language, that he didn’t understand a word that I was saying!  Far from being the romantic scene I had hoped for! Yet it now a wonderful example of how regional a dialect really is (even when spoken well)!

Research indicates that a dialect should be treated as another language in itself. As we all know by now, multilingualism enhances our ability to communicate, can help us form better social interactions and can lead to enhanced educational and employment opportunities.  Therefore, it would follow that my children learning my family’s dialect would not impede their grasp of standard Italian but rather compliment it.

I do believe that it is culturally important for my children to speak their dialect.  (However, I strongly believe that standard Italian should come first, being that it would be the language of use if my children ever wanted to work or study in Italy.)  The Sicilian dialect is part of their heritage and their grandparent’s heritage.  We even have family living over there who still speak Sicilian. In terms of travel, my children would be able to use Sicilian with their younger cousins and extended family. This would be a wonderful experience for all of us.

Photo Credit: ImNotQuiteJack

It would be great fun if readers could include some expressions in the standard language and some equivalent dialect forms in the comments below. Here’s mine for Sicilian, Italian and English: bedduu (Sicilian) – bello (Italian Standard) – beautiful (English).  Now your turn to share!

Isabelle Lazonde is Australian, trilingual (or perhaps more accurately quadralingual!), and lives with her family in French Guiana.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Christiane Williams June 25, 2010 at 12:03 pm

I believe language diaspora make people revert to a non-dialect form of a language, if they can (for reasons mentioned in the article).
My grandmother grew up in the German colony of (then) South-West Africa and was taught “pure” German rather than dialect. So when she returned to Germany, my mother grew up learning the “Hochdeutsch” and the local “Hessisch” side-by-side. My sister and I grew up speaking a slightly dialected German, however when I had kids and lived in the US, I taught them a un-dialected version of German again. Our family has come full circle. I think teaching a dialect might be a luxury that not many bilingual families can afford unless they are completely comfortable in the non-dialect language.


2 LNS June 25, 2010 at 8:49 pm

I agree that learning dialect is important to preserve family heritage and find it interesting how different families deal with it. Growing up in the States, my family’s Italian *was* dialect. They came to the US poor and were pretty much illiterate so standard Italian wasn’t even a consideration. So a lot of things come to me in that dialect (Caserta-area) first. Oddly, it’s never crossed my mind to teach our daughter that. I’m sure a little bit some day – besides the expression or two that comes out on occasion – but now we’re focused on standard Italian/American English in our house.
For my husband’s family, it’s a different story. He’s from Piemonte and his parents both speak dialect regularly. Since I’ve joined the family, I’ve been “trained” in it – quizzes at dinner and such. I understand enough because it’s similar to French in a lot of ways. They are also bent on teaching our daughter, which is fine with me. The interesting thing is that when my husband was younger, they never spoke to him in dialect. They spoke dialect amongst themselves and with neighbors, relatives, ect but always in Italian with their sons. So it’s intruiging that after all these years, they feel its important to teach our little one. She’ll never have a Piemonte accent (she’ll most likely sound Bolognese) but she’ll still say “a droché” with the best of them.


3 rafa August 24, 2010 at 8:55 pm

funny you should say that, my italian greatgranny came from caserta and she’d often say a bunch of stuff that most italians had never about


4 Isabelle June 26, 2010 at 12:14 am


I have got family in New York and there is a large community or varoius communities of Italians there. My family there tell me that those that have immigrated there (1950’s) have kept there dialects but like your husband it would be interesting to see if they have or haven’t passed on their dialect, and why/why not, to their children. I haven’t been able to find any studies on this specifically, statistics etc. so if anyone does, can you please provide me the link? lizheltort0812@orange.fr


5 Krista Grothoff June 27, 2010 at 11:59 pm

It is also worth remembering that the distinction between “language” and “dialect” is a largely political distinction. No one argues that Japanese is a dialect of English, but there are many instances where two officially distinct “languages” are so mutually intelligible (and sometimes so difficult to differentiate) that they are barely even separate “dialects”, and others where speakers of two “dialects” of a so-called “standard language” are really not able to understand each other at all. And there’s everything in between. Sometimes the distance between one language and another language is smaller than the distance between that language and something which is labelled a dialect of it.

I know nothing about Sicilian, but I wouldn’t worry about it. If it connects your kids to your family and brings you closer together and makes you feel good, pass it on! I mean, it’s not like it’s harming anyone, and it does wonderful things for your children completely aside from the actual specific language skill!


6 smashedpea July 14, 2010 at 5:35 pm

I think it is important as well, though it might be easier to say/do in my case as my dialect is subtle and will generally be understood by speakers of the non-dialect language without a problem.

I certainly don’t shy away from it with my kids, and totally enjoy hearing my eldest (who just turned 5) begin to sometimes also use the dialect version. It would also feel quite strange to me, if it were even possible, to make sure I tried to keep everything pure and clean.

As for an example (from German): “Guten Tag”, the non-dialect version to say “Good day/afternoon”, for me usually is “Guten Tach”. As I said, quite subtle and easily understandable. According to a friend from a different region, however, it is more weird regional grammatical constructions that might cause ‘problems’ or maybe more likely chuckles for those from other areas. As an example, whereas I would say “Trinkt doch was!” (literally ‘Drink something!) which is grammatically correct, a friend from another region would say “Trinkt Euch was!” or ‘Drink yourselves something!” which sounds quite weird and is absolutely unheard of in the area from which I come.

But like I said, it’s easy for me to say and do. With Italian/Sicilian, I would definitely put Italian first as well. Good luck, I hope you manage to give your kids both.


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