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Communicating across countries

Photo: Zack and Dylan are growing up bilingual, speaking English and Italian

When twins Zack and Dylan (8) were diagnosed as severely to profoundly deaf at birth, mum Deborah didn’t know that spoken English could be part of their lives, let alone Italian too.

As her two-year-old twins Zack and Dylan ran around happily chatting in Italian with other children in a playground in Brindisi, a town in Puglia in southern Italy, mum Deborah couldn’t have been prouder of them. They had all worked very hard on the boys’ speech since they were diagnosed as severely to profoundly deaf at birth, but Deborah was particularly proud that day in the playground because Italian wasn’t their first language.

“That was a breakthrough moment for me,” says Deborah, recalling Zack and Dylan’s first visit from home in Britain to her family in the south of Italy six years ago. “I knew that bringing the twins up to be bilingual was right for them when I saw how well they were speaking with children in another country.”

Before the boys were born it was clear to Deborah and her husband Alessandro, from Milan, that both English and Italian would be part of their children’s lives. They spoke Italian at home and their hearing daughter Keisha (now 9) was growing up to learn both languages. It would be no different for her younger brothers.

A diagnosis of deafness had never crossed their minds and they thought it would change everything for them. “When we were given the news, we didn’t imagine that the boys would speak English, let alone Italian as well,” says Deborah. “We knew nothing about deafness – it wasn’t part of our lives. We thought it meant that Zack and Dylan would communicate through sign. We had no idea about hearing technology and that they could have communication options.”

Assessing all their choices, they felt that cochlear implants may give the boys the chance to communicate in English with British friends and in Italian with family back at home. With the operations a success when the boys were six months old, Zack and Dylan quickly started responding well to spoken language – first only in English.

“I was unsure at the start whether to introduce Italian when our lives in Britain would mean that Zack and Dylan’s first language would be English,” says Deborah. “But I knew that I could support them better by speaking the language of my heart. My native language is Italian and I just wouldn’t be able to support them with English in the same way.”

As the boys’ listening skills began to develop, Deborah and Alessandro took the leap and decided to establish Italian as their main language at home, just as they had with Keisha. “The boys showed an understanding quickly, in the same way they did with English,” says Deborah. “We were so happy that our native Italian might be part of their lives.”

With weekly auditory verbal therapy sessions to focus on their listening and comprehension, speech – in both languages – began to flow. The boys’ first words in English came at about 12 months and their first Italian words followed a few months later. “When they said ‘mamma’ – ‘mummy’ in Italian – and later ‘nonna’ for my mother, I had to text all my family back in Italy. It was really exciting,” says Deborah.

As their speech developed, Zack and Dylan switched easily between both languages, using English out and about, a mix at home, and turning to Italian mode with grandparents and during visits to family in Italy. “Family members would often forget that the boys were deaf!” Deborah recalls, but starting school was a stark reminder. Being the youngest in a class of 30 children, their hearing loss began to affect them once again.

Deborah remembers six difficult months when Zack and Dylan, then aged four, struggled and found school overwhelming. The introduction of an FM system (a type of radio aid), to help reduce background noise, was a turning point. “The system helped them to focus on the teacher or on their group work,” says Deborah, who also uses the system at home to help the boys watch television or to reduce the noise of the road on long car journeys.

“We’ve had to make adjustments,” she says. “But the adjustments we’ve made, like the FM system, would have been in place whether we were bringing the boys up to be bilingual or not. Speaking Italian as well as English hasn’t required additional support. Zack and Dylan have been amazing.”

Now, completely fluent in both languages, the boys are learning French at school and picking up snippets of Korean in their taekwondo classes. They even pull their parents up on Americanisms that slip into their English after many years of living in New York. “They’ll tell us off for saying ‘sneakers’ instead of ‘trainers’,” says Deborah, laughing. “They actually teach Alessandro and I British English!”

Next, the family would like to begin learning Spanish too. “We’d like to give the children as many options as possible,” says Deborah. “Maybe they would like to learn sign language as well one day. We’re so proud of what they’ve done so far and they haven’t let deafness stand in their way – it’s part of their strength.”

Looking to the future, she says Zack loves learning about space and would like to be an astronaut, while Dylan enjoys fixing things and he in particular loves learning new languages. “Whether either of them will use languages in the future we don’t know,” she says. “But learning them has definitely not held them back.”