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CASE STUDIES OF THREE BILINGUAL FAMILIES

The Fantini Family (Fantini, 1985)

Alvino Fantini is a sociolinguist who documented the bilingual development of his son, Mario, from birth to age ten. Alvino was born in Philadelphia of Italian parents who had immigrated to the U.S. While both English and Italian were spoken in his home during his childhood, the use of Italian diminished in later years when the family moved to a suburban neighborhood, and after the death of his Italian-speaking grandmother who had lived in the same home. To Alvino, Italian was an intimate language spoken with family, relatives, and friends while English was a public language (see Alvino Fantini’s characterization of Italian as a private language in “Out of the Mouths of Bilinguals” 3.1, p. 59).

But Alvino’s enthusiasm for Italian faded when he entered high school. Speaking Italian was considered a social stigma, and he actively avoided Italian during those years. Building on his knowledge of Italian however, Alvino later acquired proficiency in Spanish quite easily. He spent two semesters in Mexico and another in Colombia and traveled extensively in Italy, Spain, and Latin America. He settled in Vermont just before his marriage to a woman born of Bolivian parents in Rome. She grew up mostly in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru, was educated entirely in Spanish, and spoke Spanish as her dominant language.

The couple spoke Spanish throughout courtship and after marriage. When their son, Mario, was born, they decided to both speak to him in Spanish so as to bring him up bilingually in their Vermont home. The Fantini household had a series of monolingual Spanish-speaking nursemaids from either Bolivia or Mexico who lived with the family and took care of Mario and his sister, Carla, born four years later. Mario in fact spent more hours each day with the nursemaids than with his parents. Mario also spent time visiting his grandparents, aunt, and uncle, all of whom were bilingual in either Spanish and English or Italian and English.

Given the abundant Spanish input, Mario was Spanish dominant when he entered kindergarten. He also had a clear Spanish accent when he spoke English. Noticing his phonological “deviations,” a special education teacher in his school prescribed speech therapy for Mario. But his parents knew that Mario’s accent was not of pathological origin, and opposed therapy. Mario soon learned to speak English without a foreign accent—only two years later, his third-grade teacher was surprised to learn that Mario spoke another language at home. Mario was educated entirely in English in American public schools, except for summer vacations spent in Mexico and a semester spent in a Bolivian private school during fifth grade. English became the dominant language of his environment outside the home and his vocabulary and stylistic options in Spanish began to fall behind his developments in English. Most of his peers at school were monolingual English speakers who had not traveled outside the area.

Although Mario became more dominant in English due to schooling in English, Fantini (1985: 77) reports that unlike many language minority children, Mario did not experience any negative social attitudes or prejudices for being bilingual:

At no time was Mario noted experiencing a difficult or embarrassing situation because he spoke one language or the other, nor did he ever report such incidents. If anything, many of the persons with whom he associated valued his ability to speak two languages and their comments consistently reflected this .. . Mario’s self-confidence, in fact —in either language—was so great that he spoke spontaneously and naturally in Spanish to his parents even when they visited him at school, this often being the acid test. The only effect produced when he spoke was amazement in his classmates who seldom—if ever—heard other languages.

Fantini (1985) states that Mario has been fortunate in having had positive experiences in each of the communities in which he has participated. His parents actively valued bilingualism and had the means to provide him with a variety of opportunities to hear and speak Spanish. His English-speaking world also seemed to consider his bilingualism as an asset, which motivated him to maintain his Spanish. It also probably helped that Mario had a great deal of self-confidence and was quite sociable.

 
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