When I met A what seems like eons ago (aka 1998), he didn’t speak a word of English. I was studying abroad in Venice, he was my Italian adventure, and thankfully my Italian language skills were good enough that having conversations weren’t incredibly difficult.
After we got married, we initially lived in Italy and my Italian improved leaps and bounds…but still, no need for him to speak English. Whenever we visited the U.S., I would dutifully fill the role of translator for 2-3 weeks, turning my relatives’ five minute conversations into a two sentence synopsis. Inevitably, my head would be pounding after trying to translate from Italian to Farsi to English and back again—making the two-sentence synopses into two-word ones—but the trip would be over before there were too many communication break-downs.
In 2005, we made our big move to the U.S., and A couldn’t get by not knowing English anymore. True to his disciplined, practically Germanic personality, he stopped speaking to me in Italian on day two of the move here.
It was, to say the least, difficult.
“Pass the salt please. Pass the salt please. [Wildly gesturing.] Salt. SALT. SALT.” He stuck with it though, rarely faltering. He loved trying out his new language skills on me.
One Saturday morning as we were making our ritual trip to the wonder that is Fairway Supermarket, he turned to me and proudly proclaimed, “This morning for breakfast I eat bread, cheese, and….a lawyer.”
He meant avocado (the Italian word for “lawyer” is “avvocato”). I was gasping for air and practically rolling on the ground laughing.
Amazingly, we now pretty much speak English to one another all the time, although we do still fight in Italian. Because, well, fighting in Italian is so much more dramatic.
We are trying to bring up P to be tri-lingual, though. My parents speak to her (mostly) in Farsi, we speak to her in Italian, and everything else is in English—and she’s got quite the vocabulary now for a twenty-month old.
So as I calculated, there are seven language combinations she can have with these three languages: Italian, English, Farsi, Italian-English, Italian-Farsi, English-Farsi, and all three. Of course, there are the jumbled together combinations, as well as her own toddler language. The kid is quite verbose.
I’ve been trying to make a list of all the words and phrases she knows at this point. This morning on the train I was feverishly writing them down, but I can’t help shaking the nagging feeling that I’ve still missed a few. But here’s what I remember. P, if you read this when you’re 18 or 20 or 60, I sincerely hope you still speak all these languages, and many more.
And I realize that this will be totally boring except for linguists and maybe the world’s expert on bilingualism, but I just had to make the lists, because there are few things I still remember after a few weeks these days.
- Numbers one to ten, although she somehow skips over seven and eight in all three languages. Really doesn’t like them.
- Farfalla (butterfly—one of her first Italian words)
- Pesce (fish)
- Fante (elefante)
- Latte (milk)
- Uva (grape)
- Sata (insalata-salad)
- Caca (poop)
- Caro (although she really says calo. It means “dear” and she says it when petting things/people she likes. As in, “Calo mama”)
- Pera (pear)
- Papa’ (A would die if she started calling him daddy)
- Fragola (strawberry)
- Riso (rice)
- Faccia (face)
- Gamba (leg)
- Schiena (back)
- Capo (again)
- Nonni (grandparents)
- I love you
- I did it
- Boogy (booger)
- Pretty (which she uses instead of “flower”)
- Big heavy (always used together)
- No good
- Itsy-bitsy (initially used only for spiders, but now used for all insects)
- Beeful (beautiful)
- Patu (blanket)
- Gol (flower)
- Akhei (old lady term to mean something like “poor thing”)
- Biya (come here)
Italian & English
- Body parts (most, some only in Italian—see above)
- Munchy (formaggio)/cheese
- Nun/pane (bread)
- Didi-look (or as she says, hook)
- Dada (to go outside)
- Nummy (food)
- Panti (pants & pantaloni)
- Socka (socks & calza)
- Scimonkey (scimmia & monkey)
I’ve coined P’s language Farsengtalian. Not quite Esperanto, but we’re working on it.
I had friend in college whose father was Italian and whose mother was Spanish. She was perfectly tri-lingual, but her conversations with her family happened in a bizarre amalgam of all three languages. It was hilarious to listen to.
Aahhh that gives me hope. Although Italian and Spanish are much closer to one another than Italian and Farsi. Alessandro is also picking up words in Farsi. Finally.
Yeah, I think the similarity of Italian and Spanish was the only reason that worked. But if you could figure out how to blend all the languages in your household, that would be all kinds of sonic awesomeness.
So cool! Fred Genesee has done a lot of research on bilingualism in early childhood (mostly French&English; he’s Canadian). Found this stuff doing a quick google search on him:
Sweet! Thanks Tim!