Are DVDs and a Native-Speaking Babysitter Enough Language Exposure?

by Madalena · 10 comments

Dear Madalena,

I am the mother of two beautiful children 3 years and 18 months. I am absolutely determined to raise them bilingually in English and Italian.

Both of us parents are Italian and we live in Rome. I would say that both of our kids are already bilingual (with the help of my poor English, DVDs and babysitter). By this I mean that my older child understands English, says a few words, numbers and various songs and my younger child certainly understands and has begun to say a few words like ball, mummy, etc.

My question is this: since the international kindergartens here in Rome are very expensive and 70% of the students are Italian, do you believe that I could spare my family this big expense and continue with dvds, babysitter and then take my children for two months a year to England to attend summer camps or even enroll them in the months of May and June in British schools? Or do you think it would be better for them to be exposed to English throughout the year, at least for the first 2 or 3 years?

Thank you for your attention!


Dear Alice,

The policy that you chose to adopt in order to raise your children bilingually is already showing good results, as you report, so I see no reason to change it. Children will develop the languages that they perceive as important around them, and your children have understood that both Italian and English matter to them.

All the suggestions that you propose to continue developing their English sound good to me. I particularly appreciated your attention to giving your children exposure to English through meaningful interaction with human beings, which is the natural way to acquire languages. As you may know, there’s controversy about exposing children to a language exclusively through electronic means, such as TV, DVDs or the internet.

I would add one further suggestion, in case it is feasible: try to arrange playing sessions, for example starting at your home, with English-speaking children the same age as yours. Invite one little friend at a time for a couple of hours, and leave the two children entirely on their own. Do resist the temptation to “help out” or organise their play — or to peep in to check on how things are going. Children know best what to do with one another, and using a language to play and organise play with peers is an infallible way of boosting a child’s interest in it.

Do feel free to contact me privately, if you wish to discuss these matters in greater detail.


Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, PhD, University of Manchester, UK, is a multilingual parent, educator and scholar, and the author of Multilinguals are...?, a book on myths and misconceptions about multilingualism. Her blog Being Multilingual deals with multilingualism at home, in school and in clinic. Her contact, and details on her work, are at:

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Antonia July 27, 2011 at 10:58 am

Good advice from Madalena as always.
I would only like to say that at 3 years and 18 months your children may need some intervention when playing with English-speaking children to keep them on track language wise and just because at 18 months children don’t really play together (they play alongside each other) though the 3 year old should have some social skills.
A word of warning – if the children attend a nursery with the play mates you choose to boost a language or know them in the context of another language outside your playdates they will very quickly revert to the language of the playgroup, which may not be your target language.
If you can get a few families together and do your own informal English-speaking playgroup on Saturday mornings, or whenever, this can work well. We did this in Spain and took turns to host and prepare some activities such as a story, songs and games all on a different theme each week. (e.g. colours, animals, counting). The parents joined in and kept the language on track. Then we finished up with some free play for the kids and a coffee and chat for the adults – always in English! Once children start school they tend to revert to the school language when playing with other children outside school. It’s a matter of context which we as parents have very little control over. Do as much as you can now, it doesn’t get any easier!


2 Antonia July 27, 2011 at 11:03 am

In the second paragraph I meant to say ‘they will revert to the language of the nursery’ not ‘the playgroup’.
Also try and get at least 10 families involved if you start a playgroup as then you will always have at least half turn up each week. If you don’t know many English-speaking families don’t be afraid to approach total strangers when you hear them speaking English to their children in the park and tell them you are looking for families to join your playgroup – you may end up making some great friends!


3 BookishIma July 28, 2011 at 11:21 am

I think it depends on what degree of bilingualism Madalena is looking for. It certainly sounds like her children understand the minority language, which is a great achievement. If the three-year-old is not really speaking English (whole grammatical sentences), though, she may want to do more. Does he speak English with the baby-sitter? How long are the children with the baby-sitter? In my own experience growing up, and what I seek for my own three-year-old in our current situation, she will need to do all of the above: keep some form of English-language child care, provide lots of materials in the language (books, music, DVDs), and visit an English-speaking country regularly. DVDs won’t teach a child a language, but they can support it. We limit screens but almost everything my son does see is in the minority language, and I believe it helps. About playgroups, yes, they’re great, although I’ve also experienced what Antonia describes. My best tip is to have the moms get together during the playdate and speak the minority language (which was do naturally anyway), and then the kids tend to do it spontaneously. Good luck, Madalena!


4 BookishIma July 28, 2011 at 11:22 am

Oh no, sorry, Alice and Madalena, I confused your names!


5 Ana Lomba July 28, 2011 at 3:34 pm

I agree with Antonia that children will not necessarily keep on using the target language if left alone. I have experience organizing playgroups for my children as well – it is the parents that make sure the language stays on target (no matter the children’s age). Also, as Antonia says, children this young are at the parallel play stage, so they probably will not play much interactively (maybe the 3 year old). As for the baby-sitter, not all baby-sitters are created equal 🙂 Some baby-sitters I’ve known don’t have much education to start with. Their language skills, even in their native language, are not always that great. Also, baby-sitters don’t necessarily know what to do to help a child learn their language. They kind of need to be trained for this…


6 Antonia July 29, 2011 at 2:53 am

Ana – exactly! I have a nice Spanish girl who looks after my child once a week and does a little housework and when she started I said just get her involved with whatever you’re doing and talk to her so she learns lots of vocabularly. So every week when I come home she shows me a sheet of paper where she (not the child) has drawn a picture of a scene and labelled all the things in it. Very nice but not what I meant! The child can’t even read yet! I think the fault there lies with the Spanish education system which the sitter experienced (plus a lack of imagination on her part) but I agree that some training would help – it’s not always easy to transmit what you want someone to do and how to do it and once they have started it’s even harder to ask them to do things differently, as it can come over as criticism. Anyway, some exposure is better than none and my child’s Spanish is being kept up to a basic level.


7 Annamari @MommyPlaysEnglish July 30, 2011 at 3:31 pm

My experience: DVDs can be great tools if you want your child to learn another language – but only tools, if you get what I mean. They can pick up new words but to use these they need other people to communicate with. If I were you, I’d try to improve my English and sing songs, do fingerplays and other actions and play in English with my child. The most important thing is to have fun with/in English. If your child sees you are enthusiastic about it, he/she will be too. 🙂


8 Cristina August 23, 2011 at 2:44 am

Alice, I am raising my 19-month child in English in Rome too and I really know how expensive the international kindergarden are! I am a non native speaker but I can speak fluenty in English so I decided to go for it alone.
I don’t know where you live exactly, but I found a playgroup for English-Italian children (€500 per year) and I am just curious to know how it works. It is in San Giovanni. But really I had no time to visit…. 🙁
I think there are a lot of opportunities to meet with English speaking children here in town. In any case feel free to answer to this message and maybe we can exchange our information. Good luck!


9 Corey January 3, 2012 at 6:51 pm

Thank you, everyone, for such great comments! It is wonderful to have feedback from different people’s real-life experiences and offers of support!


10 Babysitter Singapore October 23, 2013 at 2:16 am

A very good advice from you Madalena! It is generally observed that children tend to grasp things which they observe being done in their peer groups. So to raise them bilingually, it will really help them if they remain in contact with friends who speak other languages as well. Using only the electronic media in my opinion is waste of time as it will confuse the child.


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