I try valiantly to be sure everyone speaks Italian at home. It is surprising to those who aren't expecting it, and we are a bit of a phenomenon if you don't know us and our story. I have been asked to submit a post from this blog (in a slightly edited version) to one of the translator journals that I subscribe to. I had forgotten about this post, as I have many others, so it was a treat to read about how unnerving and funny living a bilingual life can be. Here is the original post from the days just before I left Italy:
The Bilingual Brain
A different language is a different vision of life. ~ Federico Fellini
I'm trying to speak as much English as possible with my family. I know to those who have never lived in a bilingual family that should seem like a no-brainer. Speak English. What's the big deal? C'mon, you're American!
Learning, living, dreaming, reading and writing in a second language makes you realize the incredible intricacies and innuendos of your own. When I imagine my bilingual brain, it is as if it has different rooms; there is the Italian room and the English room. When I'm in the Italian room (a.k.a. Jenny's room), I do absolutely everything in Italian. I think in Italian, and even talk to myself in Italian (something that freaked me out the first time it happened). When I'm in the English room (Jennifer's room), everything is in English. When I am working, I imagine that the adjoining door between these two rooms is unlocked, and that I can go back and forth.
I've written before in this blog about how much I like my work, and how much I learn about a zillion different things that would normally fly right over my head. But I absolutely totally cannot work when I'm tired. When I'm tired, not only is the door open between the English and Italian rooms, but the entire wall disappears. My inherent ditziness (a few days ago I found my car keys in the refrigerator... don't even ask me what train of thought I was cruising on that day!) takes on a whole new persona... imbecile speaking in tongues, and I make no sense to anyone, myself included. Imbecile speaking in tongues usually makes her appearance when she's had a glass of wine too many, or is suffering from jetlag, or has a sick imbecile speaking in tongues child keeping her up all night.
Our move to the US has spurred me to speak as much English as possible with my family lately. My husband's English is OK, and since he never talks anyway unless you pinch him really hard, it's no big deal. My children's comprehension and spoken English is decent, but their spelling is horrendous, something that will surely benefit from their upcoming enrollment in an American school. When you raise a child in a foreign language speaking country, instilling your own language is not as automatic as it seems. Either that, or I just haven't been very good at it. When my children were small, we were running our restaurant business, so they weren't at home with Mom only speaking English. They were in the kitchen with Mom and Dad and their Italian grandparents making ravioli.
Yesterday we took a day off and went to the mountains. We were sitting in the parked car waiting for the children and I was speaking English. My husband was telling me how at his farewell dinner given by his colleagues, the cook got drunk and wound up burning the porchetta to a black smoldering crisp. He obviously then the wound up in the kitchen himself cooking his own farewell dinner, which seems to be the story of his life. As he recounted this scenario, I was fully inhabiting the English room, and when he finished I said, "Oh get out!" (you know, as in, oh come on... oh no way... oh you're pulling my leg...)
My husband got out of the car and stared at me as if I was nuts.
Living in two languages can at times be funny, infuriating, frustrating and exhausting. It can make me feel downright nuts. But here's the good news... this BBC article does shine one ray of light on my eternal feeling of being on the road to early senility:
Researchers from York University in Canada carried out tests on 104 people between the ages of 30 and 88.
They found that those who were fluent in two languages rather than just one were sharper mentally.
Writing in the journal of Psychology and Ageing, they said being bilingual may protect against mental decline in old age.
Previous studies have shown that keeping the brain active can protect against senile dementia.
Oh, that makes me feel so much better. And it makes me not beat myself up quite so badly for that time years ago when I asked the supermarket guy for prosciutto senza preservativi... I thought I was asking for ham without preservatives. What I had really just asked for was ham without condoms.