Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Language Teacher

About a month ago my 3-year-old son corrected my pronunciation of a simple Italian word.

"An-chee-o," he instructed--not that I'd asked. I thought I'd said it correctly.
I tried again.

Still not quite right. He demonstrated again.

He's actually a pretty good teacher. Even last year when he was two, and after only a couple of months at an asilo nido in Piemonte, my Italian cousins said his accent was very good.  And in contrast to my Italian instructor here in the state-sponsored language course for stranieri (foreigners) he doesn't yell at you if you make a mistake.

It comes as no surprise that one's child develops a life distinct from the one he or she has with you at home, but a second language only emphasizes this. To us he has always been "Sandro". At school they call him by the name on his birth certificate, "Alessandro," or, quite often, "Ale" (Ah-lay)--a common Italian nickname we'd never heard before.

This afternoon he brought home a painted bas relief figure of a person (& tree) made of dried dough on paper enclosed within a shallow cardboard box (framing it like a children's puppet theatre) labeled "Il Folletto dell' Inverno" (or "Elf of Winter"). He just made it, so my wife and I were surprised that it was not an elf of spring--but only because we have no clue yet about this elf's story. Like La Befana, the witch of the Epiphany (whose appearance on his class's Christmas-themed calendar first struck my wife and I as some mistaken leftover from Halloween), this winter elf's appearance in our home at the end of March is a small reminder that our son is being educated in a culture not our own.

We're in the fortunate, even luxurious position of being able to accept such differences as invitations for us, as much as for Sandro, to learn something new. But it's not hard to imagine that for other parents in other places--or, of course, even here in Venice--such differences in culture and language could easily take on a more worrisome aspect. And for other kids as well.

I suspect my parents' own history of being able to speak only Italian when they started first grade in two different small towns in California had a lot to do with their unwillingness to teach any of their own kids the language. But perhaps because he started at an earlier age, in an atmosphere of mostly play, Sandro hasn’t seemed bothered by the fact that he does not—or did not—speak the same language as his classmates.

He understood Italian before he could speak it much, and now as his Italian facility increases he seems quite content to combine the languages as necessary. Though he does seem to be aware that they are two different languages with different words for the same object. So when I recently referred to a tartaruga in a pond, he responded by telling me that, no, there was no tortoise there.

This past weekend my wife was on a bus on the Lido with Sandro, his 4-year-old Italian classmate (who knows very little English), and her Italian mother. Sandro has really started to use a lot of Italian lately around his Italian friends—but not only Italian. He was telling his friend things like: “Guarda that rossa macchina” (“Look at that red car”).

And “Non si gioca with the toy cosi” (“One doesn’t play with the toy like that”).

“Ah,” my wife’s Italian friend joked to her, “Sandro speaks English like you speak Italian!”

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