Thursday, October 16, 2014

After Babel: Language As a Source of Embarrassment

A typical Venetian scene of two first-graders walking home from school, though these two are perusing a Des Moines, Iowa Used Automotive & Recreational Vehicle Marketplace free newspaper
The night before Sandro's first day of first grade last month, Jen suggested she and he quickly run through (in Italian) a few of the questions he might be asked the next day. Simple ones like nome (name), cognome (last name)... So simple that Sandro rolled his eyes as he answered.

Then she asked, "Dove sei nato?" ("Where were you born?")

Sandro replied, "Err, I don't think I'll answer that one..."

"Parli tu Inglese?" Jen asked next.

"I don't think I'll answer that one either," Sandro said.

And thus was confirmed what Jen and I had been noticing for the previous few months: that the carefree cloudless days of Sandro's bilingualism really were over. 

In truth, he'd spoiled us rotten as parents with his inclination as a toddler to charge intrepidly into pretty much any new context we introduced him to. Shortly after turning two years old, he adapted without a hitch not only to his first preschool, but in a place (Piemonte, Italy) in which none of us had ever been before, and in a language (Italian) he'd never heard.

He was our first and only child so Jen and I could easily have taken this adaptability for granted, but we knew enough other kids his age who, understandably enough, weren't so cavalier about such things. In fact, neither of us had been anywhere near so cavalier at his age.

Yes, "spoiled" is the right word for it. Sandro indulged us shamefully in his willingness to interact with toddlers everywhere, regardless of language: Asheville (in North Carolina), Piemonte, Brooklyn, Florence or Venice.

Here in Venice, he became friends with two American boys from different ex-pat families who'd been going to Italian schools here longer than he had but still refused to utter a single word of Italian, though they understood what was said to them. Playing with Sandro was a welcome and rare respite for them from the foreign language and culture that otherwise oppressed them. He was as American as they were.

Except, of course, when he was playing with other of his friends with whom he happily spoke only Italian.

I marveled at his ability at the age of four to switch, sentence by sentence, from speaking Italian to his friend who spoke only Italian at that time, to speaking English to his friend's American mother beside him.

I noticed this particularly because his friend's mother, a long-time resident of Venice, is actually fluent in Italian and Sandro could easily have spoken Italian to her regardless of what she spoke to him. But Sandro, by four, automatically--stubbornly, even--spoke to bilingual adults in whatever was their native tongue. Thus, he would also reply to the Italian father of another friend in Italian, even when the Italian father (also fluent in English) made it a point to speak to Sandro in English.

With the clear, direct and slightly merciless logic of a young child, he hewed to what he knew about these bilingual adults, and what the accent of the second tongue revealed to him, and he responded--for the sake of sociability or to show he wasn't fooled?--in their native tongue.

Yes, he spoiled Jen and I horribly. It was all so easy. Sure, there was a brief period after about a year of living here that he claimed he preferred to speak Italian. And, around the same time, the night he told me (boasted, really) that I was only a "little bit Italian," while he was truly Italian. But these were blips in an otherwise smooth transit between tongues and cultures.

Those days are over. In America in August he kept his mouth clamped shut when his American grandfather, who's studied Italian for years (though he's not of Italian descent), spoke to him in Italian. And a brief exchange of Italian between the same grandfather, Jen and myself one afternoon in a diner in Wisconsin was enough to make him squirm uncomfortably in his seat, then threaten to actually flee the table if we didn't switch back to English.

Like all falls from Eden, this one, too, is marked by the sense that one has something to hide; and that to have it exposed is positively mortifying.

There are barriers now, or at least borderlines, that were hardly marked out before. In contrast to three or four years ago when any kid anywhere was a potential playmate, our nearby playground, though crowded with kids, can now be empty of anyone he's willing to play with. And it's not just between English and Italian language, American and Venetian culture that borders have formed, but within the Italian language itself and within Venetian culture itself. How Italian is spoken. How one plays and relates to one's parents.

Sometimes the barrier between Sandro and some kids in the neighborhood is that they are too much of the neighborhood and he not enough. There are cultural distinctions too various to lay out here, but any idea I had that our son could slip fairly easily into the local scene has been disproved.

One of the long-standing paradoxes of the Venetian Republic was how a place and people could be, on the one hand, so worldly and cosmopolitan--early visitors were astonished by the exotic variety of foreigners living here for the sake of business--and, on the other, so provincial. Writing in the early 1960s, Jan Morris noted how many Venetians still typically displayed in their daily life all the insularity one expects to find in an island people. And a native-born friend here told us that she and her two siblings often felt that many of the people they grew up among in Castello regarded them from a certain distance, if not with a certain suspicion. Though their father was (and is) what might be called an alpha-Venetian, their mother is Swiss, and even her slightest variations from the local norm of child-rearing were remarked upon and remembered. As I know our own are by certain of our neighbors.

But perhaps the old Venetian Republic thrived insofar as it was able to abide this paradox at the heart of its success. Abide it in a way that today's xenophobic Lega Nord can not. In a way that raving free marketeers, sacrificing all democratic integrity in the name of unbounded trade, can not. And in a way, too, that those multiculturalists who fantasize about a coexistence between cultures as comfortable as a warm bath can not.  

I'll admit that that night before Sandro's first day of first grade a part of me wondered what in the world I was doing to my son by raising him in a way that doomed him to never be entirely of his place here in Venice, and never be entirely American if we were to return there. But to think that way is, I realized, to lapse into the worst kind of insularity: as if to keep him as isolated as possible from challenging differences would be to keep him more "whole", rather than, in fact, reducing his opportunities in life to a fraction of what they might otherwise be.

He'll have to learn that his differences from others are nothing to be ashamed of--and nothing to shame others for. (Those two troubling sides of the same coin.)

Not that it will be easy for him. Or others.

At dinner the other night he enthusiastically recounted a dispute he had with a classmate. Proudly he told us he hadn't resorted to fighting--there'd been a couple days of scuffling with a group of three other boys that he seemed to rather enjoy during his first week--but responded "only with words: I said to him, Shut up, worm!"

He pronounced the command with relish, twice, obviously happy for the chance to use a phrase he'd recently learned from a British kids' show. 

"In English?" Jen asked, as surprised as I was that he'd used a language at school that he wouldn't even admit to knowing in the same context a month ago. "Does he understand English?"

"No," Sandro said. "So I said, 'Shut up, worm! O che vuol' dire, Chiudi il becco, verme!'" ("Or that is to say, Shut your beak, worm!") He beamed at us triumphantly.

I suppose this might be considered progress....


  1. Well, we'll be waiting to see what the next year or so brings. Your lad seems to have a good head on his shoulders; I wonder what thought processes are running through there?

    This post touched me, very much.

    1. Thank you, Yvonne. I have no idea what's going on in his head, aside from his boat/mechanical obsession he likes to talk about, and his new affection for learning how to write. We shall see...

  2. Same thing happened to my kids, at one point they hated to speak Italian in the States. I am happy to report that they are now aware of how lucky they are that they can speak a second language, they are both in high school. It is so fun to use it when they fear embarrassment and they don't want anyone to understand them.

    Love that he understands the power of knowing a second language, even if it means he can easily use offensive words.

    1. Offensive words or uses of language always seem to be the first attraction of a second language, Laura, don't they? So attractive, in fact, that some people never bother to learn anymore.

      Interesting to hear about how it's gone with your (older) kids. Have they also found Italian useful as a gateway to Spanish?

  3. My son was attending a Georgian kindergarten in Moscow - it was the only one still accepting children at that date, and they needed a couple of locals to show some degree of diversity. Strangely, he didn't learn a word of Georgian. But being there for that year was one of the factors that combined somehow and resulted in his ardent interest in languages. How he speaks Russian, English, Spanish, Italian, some German and Turkish, good Estonian. Like that experience had triggered something in his mind.

    1. I find children's capacity for language, and different languages, fascinating, Sasha, especially as someone who grew up in a culture in which a second language was considered "unnecessary" at best. My son has shown an interest in other languages beyond English and Italian--I'd be happy if he ended up with a portion of the aptitude of your son. At least he seems to be in a context in which some such aptitude is not out of the question.

  4. I lived in Peru for two years (although was much older than your son) and I'm happy to say that I picked up a lot of the language, but really, it was the epithets which I learned first. I can still swear in two languages (although I don't). But, I can mostly talk to the workers who show up at my house when they lapse back into their native language of Spanish. Loved your story--thanks.

    1. Funny how it's the curses that seem to come first in a foreign language, and are not forgotten!

      Recently I was in a gym here and overheard from the gymnastics room loud "gangsta" rap blasting from speakers. I knew it was a class for young kids--6 & 7 yr olds--and I saw a mother I knew waiting. I asked if her 7-yr-old daughter was taking the class, and she said she was (the class, she told me was, "Rap Dance"), and then I asked if she'd heard the music playing and noticed that the current song was an almost uninterrupted litany of the foulest language one can use in English. As the mother knows English pretty well (and is no stranger to foul language--she's taught us various Venetian terms), I was able to cite a few examples and watch her eyes round into the size of saucers. She immediately went to speak to someone in the office.

      The next week the music selection was much tamer, lyric-wise. Of course the little girls in that class probably already caught the choicest English phrases from the previous session, even though they didn't know English. Few words are pronounced with such relish (and so memorably) as curses!

      Thanks for your comment.