Empty-nest syndrome – a linguistic side-effect

I became an “empty-nester” when my daughter moved away in September to attend Leeds College of Music. Harry, our son, had left two years earlier. So lots of changes — emotional changes and practical ones too (for example, loading up the washing machine far less often and struggling to get to 30 items to qualify for the cheap rate with the ironing people).

But wasn’t until a telephone conversation with my Italian sister-in-law, Ada, that a much more profound change hit home to me. Ada had called from Rome for a chat and, in passing, asked me what language I speak with Vito. “Why, Italian of course”, I told her, “we’ve always spoken Italian to each other”.

When Harry and Olivia were born we were still living in Italy. From day one, I spoke English to them and Vito alternated between English and Italian. Vito and I spoke Italian to each other when the kids weren’t around. But English was definitely our main household language. That continued when we moved to Scotland. The kids would speak Italian when it was just them and Vito, but as a family, at meal-times, say, we’d all sit chatting (bickering?) in English. If Vito didn’t catch something, or — overwhelmed by teen-speak — went off into a dwam, then we’d switch to Italian to bring him back into the loop.

But now that it’s just the two of us, we’re once again, after 20 years, a fully Italian-speaking household (except for phone calls, of course, or when we have visitors). At home, here in the very Scottish Bearsden, I speak only Italian. I’m finding this really weird. Disorienting, in fact. It’s such a radical shift.

Has anyone else experienced this?

By Marian Dougan

17 responses

  1. Thought-provoking article, Marian. I’ve been thinking about it too, as I have two bilingual teenagers and a Spanish husband. Our household will go back to being monolingual (Spanish) sooner or later, and I think I’m really going to miss the English (“He’s hogged the X-box all afternoon… who’s scoffed the last ice cream… who put the red T-shirt in with the whites…).
    I can see in your case it must be strange speaking in Italian and living in Scotland. Still, not to worry, it may not be long before the next English-speaking generation comes along…

    1. Thanks, Emma. I can’t wait for the next generation to come along (but don’t tell my kids). It would be great if their spouses/partners were of other nationalities, bringing more languages into the family mix. I think it’s a wonderfully enriching experience to be part of a bilingual household, and I’ve got plenty of English to keep me going. But it’s a weird experience to be catapulted back to our pre-1992 situation, in language terms too!

  2. My husband and I don’t have children, but we’ve always spoken French together (he’s a native, I’m not). Most of our time together has been spent where French is spoken, but during the three years we lived in South Korea I always found it rather weird every time I left our French-speaking home and stepped outside the door into a world where Korean – so totally different – was spoken and written.
    On another note, most bilingual couples I know have one predominant language they speak together in. I know very few couples who switch languages when talking with each other. What is other people’s experience with this?

    1. This is such an interesting topic, don’t you think? So many different family/language situations. When Vito and I are alone, it’s always Italian. Not, I hasten to add, for any male/female-power reasons, but because we met and lived for many years in Italy. So Italian is our “default” language.

      1. I did, but only to a basic, ‘survival’ level – it’s very difficult to learn for speakers of European languages as it’s so very different from what we know. It has an alphabet so it’s easy to read, and I know a lot of vocabulary, but my problem was the grammar. I would have had to put hours and hours of learning into it (at the expense of other things), knowing that we were only in the country for a fixed period of time, not indefinitely. But even the small amount I learnt was a valuable insight into the culture, as a language always is.

      2. I’ve spoken about my expatriation and travels on an EPT talk (Endless Possibilities Talks) “This is my journey”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StV0-ovRyb0. It’s quite long, so if you want to skip to where I talk about how I ended up in Réunion it’s at 8′ and in S. Korea at 14′.
        I’ve written different articles about living in and visiting Reunion and Korea on my travel blog http://travelssmart.blogspot.com, and I’ve blogged about the languages at http://tinyurl.com/ca6yy4r and http://tinyurl.com/c5rzsu5 respectively on my language blog!

  3. I can’t say I’ve had a dominant language in my home for the past 20 years. Or if I have had, I’m not sure what it was. In the US, I made it a point to speak German to the children so they could maintain their ability to communicate with family in Germany. My wife and I switched back and forth without paying much attention to the language used. Later, with an American partner in Germany we moved back and forth between English and German without much thought, though some activities tended to draw more of one language than another.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Kevin. I’d find it a bit odd to speak to my husband in English when it’s just the two of us. But whichever language we speak at any given time, I love living in a bilingual household – I think it’s very enriching. For the kids, of course, but for me two (and I hope for Vito!).

  4. In the early days of our relationship, my French husband and I spoke to each other in our mother tongues. I wonder whether we’ll revert to that once the children leave home?

    On the subject of several nationalities, my parents have five grandchildren: two half French, two half Czech and one “just” English. It’s a fun mix!

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