Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sentio, sensi, sensus est--or--My bilingual family

Dear Readers,

The following is commonly heard in my house: "Hear this, Mommy," (holding out forkful of food for me to taste). "I don't want to hear that!" (me holding forkful of food for one of my kids to taste). "Can you feel it now, Mommy?" (adjusting the volume on the television). "Hear this flower, Mommy, isn't it a nice profumo?"

My two children were born in Florence and have been bilingual since the beginning. My husband, though Italian, speaks English like a second-generation immigrant--and our home has become an English-speaking island of sorts. Since the Italian language surrounds us here like oxygen, I always felt it was important that the kids get a solid exposure to English--and in any case, I could not speak to them, my own children, in anything that wasn't as visceral and vital to me as my mother-tongue. It's who I am, after all.

My son Giacomo was translating Italian into English and vice-versa since he could form simple phrases. He almost never mixes the two; rather, he's always moved easily and fluidly between languages like a fish who swims equally well in salt- and fresh-water. (An osmoregulator, for the curious). His accent in English is perfectly American with just enough of a Midwestern twang to betray the origins of his mother. My daughter Gemma (the youngest), on the other hand, is a great mixer of the two languages, and speaks English with the accent of a newly-disembarked Italian immigrant from Bensonhurst. I am aware that she has a fluent understanding of both English and Italian, so the mixing does not concern me--I know she'll sort it out eventually--and to tell the truth, I think it's terribly cute. "Mommy, can you help me to aprire?" "Mommy, sometimes Irene [her classmate] is a little birbona." "No, you have to do it veloce!"

The thing is, our house has, in reality, become an English-speaking island wherein Italian-speaking pirates have stormed the beaches. We all do a good bit of linguistic plundering. I find myself saying things like, "Honey, have a little more insalatina, I know you like it," or "I don't appreciate being controllata by your mother or anyone else," or (and this, often) "Mannaggia, [insert anything implying a situation gone awry]!"

I'm sure there are linguistic theories about why we do this, scientific reasons that have to do with synapses and the cerebral cortex, etc. But the truth is, living two languages makes me believe that mixing is more about expediency and musicality--the poetry of language in motion, if you will--than anything else. Italian words pop up in my English sentences because to me they express the thing better, in that moment, than their English counterpart. Or perhaps I simply like the sound better. To me--a linguistic urchin who thinks language is a plaything--I much prefer arruffato to "unkempt," or sguazzare to "wallow." And what better way to say "murmur" than bisbiglio? Of course, at other times, it's the English word that is just so good, just so right. Like eviscerate or shyster or guttersnipe, for instance.

I have some American friends who have experienced real worry over their bilingual households, and, on the maddeningly contradictory advice of pediatricians and specialists, have attempted to superimpose all sorts of linguistic templates onto the organic organism of language in their homes. As far as I can tell, this fiddling with and agonizing over the natural expression and growth of language in a bilingual home causes more confusion and heartache than just letting language flow (barring any real developmental issues, of course). I think it's basically a matter of attitude, or worldview even, towards the second language itself: some people see it as a sort of interloper rife with potential problems, and others see it as de facto enrichment, in whatever form it chooses to take, or however bumpy the ride at times. The thing is, kids are amazing. Their brains are unfathomably elastic--they can bounce words around, volley verb conjugations, and juggle meanings like pro-ballers. I have seen this first-hand every day for the past eight years.

So I don't worry if my children get mixed-up occasionally--the little glitches will get straightened out eventually. In the meantime, I'm rather fascinated by it all. Language is a river whose flow follows the contours of history. The confusion my kids experience over English "hear," "taste," "smell" and "feel" stems from the problem of translating the Italian sentire. While we have different words for each of these sensory experiences, the Italian word encompasses them all: thus, senti un po' ("listen to this" or "taste this" or "smell this," depending on context), non sento niente ("I can't hear a thing"), senti com'รจ morbido ("feel how soft this is"), etc. The Italian my children speak is a direct descendant of venerable Latin--the centuries-old language of scholars and statesmen--and they are getting tripped up at the point where these Latin roots cross the path of English pragmatism. Sentire (sentio, sensi, sensus, sensuum etc.) is Latin meaning "to perceive with the senses, feel, hear, see, smell; to realize; to observe, to notice; to experience; to think, judge." As it was in Latin, so it is in Italian. (In my wicked moments, I like to jibe the Ancients for being so ridiculous as to have only one word for all the varied experiences of the five senses--perhaps they were too busy building their great civilization to give much thought to vocabulary-building. Rome, after all, wasn't built in a thousand-words-a-day).

My children have yet to realize--even though it's in their bones--that the English words they're learning to use form the gnarled and tangled branches of a glorious old tree whose roots lie muddled in the soil of Old and Middle English, Old High German, Old Frisian, Old French and myriad other linguistic ghosts. Growing up with these two wonderful and diverse languages, while sometimes at odds with each other, is an experience that--to my mind--can only be unutterably enriching.

Sic friatur crustum dulce,


1 comment:

  1. Glad to have discovered your blog. You make the journey of bilingualism come to life! I am so amazed by my 2 1/2 year olds bilingualism. It is always changing, but the patterns fit what you describe so vividly. The latest development is the little guy turning English words into Italian and vica versa when translating from one language to other between me (american mom) and the italian papa. 'fasta' for 'fast' and 'met' for 'put' come to mind. Both hilarious and fascinating to think of this intuitive process.


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