The evolution of language

I am following a very interesting conversation about bilingual children on the Facebook page of Expactclic (a wonderful resource for all expat women and, possibly, men too!) and, as it often happens, it made me realise how much my perspective has changed over the years.

The discussion was started by an italian mother living abroad and wondering (and worrying a bit also) about how her daughter’s italian language and culture will develop and grow.

I remember all too well how I used to be concerned about the exact same issues and went from feelings of helplessness, about not being able to do anything about it, to guilt, for not trying to do something about it.

I knew that, inevitably, my girls were going to be Australian and english was going to be their primary language and I tried to accept this. At the same time I saw parents (with better parenting skills then mine, obviously!)who spent time after school doing italian grammar and I couldn’t help feeling inadequate and a touch guilty.

Nevertheless I did nothing about it. My girls kept talking to me in italian but I never sat down with them trying to teach them the beauty of the subjunctive or the meaning of adverbs and other little grammatical treasures.

I thought of them growing up without knowing the existence of Dante and Manzoni but never mentioned to them the existence of the Divina Commedia and I Promessi Sposi.

I guess I just wanted them the same experiences I had growing up but obviously wasn’t prepared to bring Dante back into my life and sharing it with them!

Was it laziness or was it simply not important enough for me? I imagine it was a bit of both and ultimately they grew up very well and they are caring and intelligent human beings. They can talk to their family and friends in Italy and everyone is thrilled with how they have  mastered the language. They talk in Italian to me and I love that we have this “special” language that is just ours.

I guess I’ve just stopped worrying. I am not sure when this happened exactly, when I left behind helplessness and guilt and started to see my daughters for what they are, individuals with their own experiences and stories.

They didn’t grow up in Italy in the ’70’s and therefore they did not have to sit to analyse sentences and learn poems by heart. But I’ve managed to pass on what is important to me, a sense of belonging to a small town on the other side of the world and the ability to communicate in my mother tongue.

The other day we were in the car chatting and Sofia told me: “E’ ficcato dentro properly? Puoi check?” (Is it in properly, can you check?). I promptly “checked” without thinking twice to what she had just said but I was surprised to hear Julia laugh. All of a sudden the weirdness of the sentence dawned on Sof and I and we all started laughing.

Speaking two languages we always tend to choose what it’s easier, I am aware of doing the same with the girls and with my italian friends, and such mixed sentences are all too common. In this case I think that “ficcato” could be seen as a bit of a slang word, a word that only someone who has grown up speaking italian would use and together with properly conjugated verbs and english words it made for a very complex sentence 😉

Julia wrote it down and I had to share it with you, now it will become immortal!

Dante is possibly turning in his grave but this is a different era and a different country after all!

 

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Orgoglio di mamma!

Ogni occasione e’ buona per parlare di bilinguismo, cosi quando Magica mi ha chiesto di participare alla sua rubrica Bilingui in erba su Radio SBS ho accettato con entusiasmo e ho trascinato anche le ragazze, che hanno accettato…con molto meno entusiasmo!

E dunque eccoci qui, Sofia ed io:

http://www.sbs.com.au/yourlanguage/node/30013

E Julia:

http://www.sbs.com.au/yourlanguage/node/40204

Il fiorire del bilinguismo

Dal momento in cui Julia è nata è stato evidente che non avrei mai potuto parlarle in inglese. Nonostante avessi sempre desiderato che i miei figli fossero bilingui, non mi ero mai soffermata a pensare come avrei fatto per raggiungere il mio scopo. Ma appena Julia approdò tra le mie braccia mi fu chiaro che il nostro rapporto sarebbe stato in italiano e cosi è stato, da quel primo istante.

Mi sento dire spesso quanto sono stata brava ad “insegnare” l’italiano alle mie figlie ma ho semplicemente parlato con loro nella lingua in cui sono più a mio agio e che trovo più naturale. Questa era la parte più facile! Il fatto che loro abbiano accettato l’italiano come la “nostra” lingua rimane per me un mistero. Sento cosi tante storie di bambini che smettono di parlare la lingua minoritaria e mi chiedo spesso come questo non sia successo a noi. Si tratta solo di fortuna?

C’è stato sicuramente un elemento di fortuna. Ho avuto la fortuna di stare a casa con loro negli anni prima della scuola. Le bambine andavano all’asilo un paio di giorni alla settimana ma il resto del tempo erano con me in un ambiente completamente italiano. Parlavamo italiano, leggevamo libri italiani, cantavamo canzoncine italiane e guardavamo video italiani. Avevamo anche amici italiani con cui giocare, un gruppo dove le bambine potevano interagire e giocare con altri bambini esclusivamente in italiano. Con tutto questo italiano ovunque come potevano scappare?

Ma una volta fuori dalla nostra “bolla” italiana ho trovato molto sostegno intorno a noi. Amici, vicini e anche perfetti sconosciuti incontrati per strada mi hanno sempre incoraggiata, ripetendo, sia a me che alle bambine, quanto era bello ed importante parlare italiano. Spesso a casa parlavo italiano anche con le amichette venute a giocare, naturalmente non dicevo nulla di troppo profondo ma tutti capivano quando era ora della merenda!

In quegli anni prescolari le bambine parlavano italiano anche fra di loro e in generale l’inglese era usato solo alla sera quando Nigel tornava a casa. Erano sempre molto chiare sulla lingua in cui parlare e con chi parlarla e non apprezzavano affatto che qualcuno parlasse nella lingua “sbagliata”. In quelle occassioni in cui una persona di lingua inglese si rivolgeva a loro in italiano, rimanevano perplesse e un po’ sconcertate, indecise sul come rispondere. La stessa cosa succedeva quando un italiano si rivolgeva a loro in inglese.

Una volta cominciata la scuola la loro relazione passò dall’italiano, all’inglese. Successe lo stesso con gli amichetti del gruppo gioco. Ma tra di noi la lingua è rimasta sempre l’italiano e non si sono mai rivolte a me in inglese. Anzi, ci volle un po’ perche’ capissero che in certe circostanze, per educazione, era meglio parlare inglese.

Ogni viaggio in Italia, quasi ogni anno quando erano ancora piccole, costituiva ovviamente una bella spinta alla lingua. Quando erano alle elementari abbiamo passato sei mesi in Europa e in quel periodo hanno avuto modo di frequentare la scuola in Italia per sei settimane. Un’esperienza splendida per entrambi anche se, per tutto quel periodo continuarono a parlare inglese fra di loro!

Julia ha portato italiano come materia ai suoi esami finali (VCE) l’anno scorso. Ovviamente sapeva che sarebbe stato facile per lei e avrei voluto studiasse di più. Ma nonostante il poco impegno ha avuto degli ottimi risultati. Dopo l’esame orale ho ricevuto la telefonata di un’amica, insegnante di italiano. Voleva dirmi che un delle sue amiche che faceva parte degli esaminatori le aveva parlato di una studentessa, con mamma italiana e papà australiano, che parlava italiano divinamente, pur essendo nata e vissuta in Australia. L’insegnante era molto entusiasta dell’italiano della ragazza e disse alla mia amica che avrebbe voluto che sua figlia crescesse parlando proprio cosi e ora sapeva che era possibile. Dopo alcune domande chiarificatrici la mia amica ebbe conferma che si trattava di Julia e, pur essendo non troppo etico, mi chiamò subito per dirmelo. Uno dei miei momenti di puro orgoglio materno!

Devo ammettere che ho pensato spesso a cosa farei se le ragazze smettessero di parlarmi in italiano, oltre che avere il cuore spezzato! Ma a questo punto sono sicura che non succederà mai, il nostro rapporto è forte e può solo essere in italiano, la lingua che amo.

(Versione inglese/English version The nurturing of language)

 

The language of others

For years I struggled with my accent and the fact that I would never, really, linguistically belong here. If I had to make a formal phone call I would practice what I had to say, worried that the person on the other end might not understand my accent or that I would make a mistake. When I met someone new I always felt a little bit of apprehension about the way I talked, nervous about not being clear enough or sounding a bit “funny”.

Finally I accepted that my accent was here to stay and told myself that I never have a problem when people speak italian with a foreign accent. On the contrary, I love the fact that they made an effort to learn and often the accent makes them sound a lot more interesting. I told myself that if I felt this way possibly some people would feel the same about my accent and I stopped worrying.

Nevertheless there are still a lot of occasions in which this language tricks me and I find myself wondering if I will always completely master some of its subtleties and stop sounding weird, funny, cute or simply incompetent!

One of my biggest problem has been mastering the dreaded “H” at the beginning of words. In italian we don’t have words starting with “H” and when we do, it is silent. It sounds strange but generally I don’t actually hear the “H” at the beginning of a word. To me “armless” sounds just the same as “harmless” and this is why, when my dear friend Christian pointed out that I wrote in one of my posts about my “armless friend” it took me a while to understand what his problem was! Then I had to laugh, particularly when I realised that I never new “harmless” had an “H” and, being a word I use regularly, I wonder what people have made about all my “armless” statements over the years!

ghostbuster-logoBesides the pronunciation problems I often bump into other small obstacles. They are often in the form of “misunderstood words or sayings”. I hear them, I like them and I make them mine. The problem is that what I hear is sometimes not what has been said. Only recently, chatting with Julia in the car, I used what I always thought was a great word “the booze buster”. In my mind this has always been the police bus that checks if you have been drinking. I imagined it had something to do with the Ghost Busters and loved the humour in it. Police busting those drink drivers! Obviously I have managed to hide my mistake for years and was only when Julia started laughing at something that I thought wasn’t at all funny I had to come to terms with the fact that…there are no “booze busters” but only very boring “booze buses”.

There are many of these incidents but for now I just want to share the joy I felt a few weeks ago when, during an aqua aerobics class, jumping at the sound of Abba in the pool, I heard the lovely Martine behind me singing “wanna do”. A kindred soul who, like me before her, had no idea that the song was actually “Waterloo”!

I guess my family and friends have stopped correcting me (but not laughing at me!), and they just accept that this is the way I speak so the fact that I am now writing this blog in english hopefully will help me modify some of these awkward slip-ups!

I have thought about having someone else proof-reading my posts and editing when necessary, as very tactfully suggested by Christian, but I came to the conclusion that what I write here is who I am and, although I will try not to make too many grammatical mistakes, I will have to accept that this blog has an accent and a lot of “misunderstood” words. However please feel free to come forward and let me know if anything I wrote sounded funny or out of context, it was possibly one of those “Hs” gone missing! 

The nurturing of language

From the moment Julia was born it was apparent that I could never speak to her in English. I always knew that I wanted my children to be bilingual but I never really stopped to think how I would achieve this. As soon as Julia was in my arms I knew that our relationship would always be in Italian and it has been, from that very first moment.

People often tell me I have been so good to “teach” my girls Italian but I have simply spoken to my children in the language I am most comfortable with and I find more natural. That was the easy bit! The fact that they accepted that Italian was “our” chosen language is more of a mystery to me. I hear so many stories of children who stop speaking the minority language and I can’t help wondering how this never happened to us. Could it have been just luck?

112-1236_IMG

Pesciolino Arcobaleno/ Gruppo giochi italiano

There was certainly a luck element. I was lucky to be able to stay at home with the girls in the pre school years. The girls went to kindergarden a couple of days a week but the rest of the time they were with me in a full immersion italian environment! We talked italian, read italian books, sang italian songs and watched italian videos. We also had italian friends to play with. We had a lovely italian playgroup where the girls learned to relate to other children in italian. With so much italian everywhere how could they possibly escape?

But when we did get out of our italian bubble what I found was a lot of support. Everyone around us has always been very encouraging and often people in the street would stop to tell us how wonderful it was to hear the girls speaking italian. When the girls had little playmates coming to our house I would often speak italian to them as well. Of course it was nothing too deep and meaningful but they always understood when it was time for afternoon tea!

In those pre school years the girls always spoke in italian to each other and english was spoken only in the evening, when Nigel was home. He became the language minority in his own country!

They were always very clear what language to speak with who and never warmed to people who were trying to speak the “wrong” language! If an english speaking person would say something in italian they would look perplexed and not really sure how to reply. The same happened in Italy when people tried to speak to them in english.

IMG_1288

At school in Pieve San Paolo

When they started school it didn’t took long for them to start talking and playing in english. The same happened with their italian friends from playgroup. But they never spoke english to me. In fact it took them a while to understand that on some occasion we had to speak english to be polite with people who could not understand.

We travelled to Italy often and that was always a boost to their language. When they were still in primary school we spent six months there and they had the opportunity of going to school. It was a fabulous experience for them both, but they kept talking english amongst themselves!

Julia took italian as a VCE (final exams) subject last year. It was always going to be easy for her and I would have liked her to study more. Still she managed to do very well. After her oral exam I received a phone call from a friend, an italian teacher. She told me that her friend was one of the examiner and she told her about this girl with and italian mother and australian father who spoke so well she could not believe she wasn’t italian. She told her that she was hoping her daughter would grow up to speak just like her. My friend asked a few clarifying questions and she understood that it was Julia she was talking about. It wasn’t too ethical but she couldn’t help telling me. It was one of my proudest moment!

I have to admit that I often thought of what I would do if they stopped talking to me in italian, beside being broken hearted! But now I am confident it will never happen, our relationship is strong and it can only be in italian, my own language, the language I love.