Monday, February 23, 2009

the other side of the coin

My children are mussing up their Italian. My youngest, in particular, has a tendency to tag on Italian conjugation when he is speaking English, creating crazy sentences like I forgot to turnare in my math homework... How strange to be living on the other side of the coin.
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.


Betsy said...

This was a fabulous post! Really captures the feeling of living life between the languages. My rooms tend to blur when I'm tired too-- and then just when I think all is lost I'll get a good night's sleep and the walls will appear again and keep everything neatly in its place.

I'll be putting together a post later on today and will link to this if you don't mind...

jenni said...

I was just fliping through the search engine when I came across your blog...after reading a bit about yourself, I had to stop and catch my breath. I can't believe how much we have in common. My name is Jenni, I am 40 years old, I'm from Evergreen Colorado and have now spent the past 18 years of my life living in Arezzo,Italy. I am married and have 2 kids (a girl and boy). They are both horrific spellers and say stuff like "I don't want to prendere milk for colazione." Well, being American and having my kids in "the Italian Schools" I have to say, I prefer that to when they say "Have you got a rubber, please?" How do you explain to the so called maestra di inglese your American kid should be asking for an eraser....otherwise he might be handed something else!
Anyway, my husband hardly speaks any English... except for stuff like: Brownies, cookies and peanutbutter. On the otherhand, my mom in Co. has learned stuff like: basta! che casino, and crepi. I really miss Colorado. And, sometimes I really wonder how much my life has changed and evolved. I definately think I would have been a different person if I had my family in the States. I wouldn't appreciate the comfort of a large cozy home, people that stand in line, the labor that comes from a spoonfull of oil, the taste of fresh fruit, baggers from Safeway and friendly saleswomen...(only a person that has lived their life in both Colorado and Italy could ever understant that) I find your blog funny and true...and I am sure it will become a friendly helper for the times when I feel like I belong nor here nor there.

jennifer said...

Wow- Jenni. kismet