Monday, August 7, 2017

Moving to Italy: Language and Simona

Towards the end of June, we could hear many more cars driving up the road as vacationers began to flee the heat and humidity of the city for their houses at Gabi and, further up the hill, at Bertola. One of these visitors was my mother-in-law's childhood friend who brought with her from Torino her granddaughter, Simona. (Simona’s great-uncle Nino had married Paul’s great-aunt Maria in Italy before they had emigrated to Endicott, N.Y. That meant my children and Simona were related through marriage.) Rina, my mother-in-law, was delighted to have a friend at the farm with whom she could converse, but none of us realized at first how important Simona would be to our family. Her arrival at Gabi signaled a huge change in the boys' adaptation to life in Italy.

Until they met Simona, the boys each spoke only a few words of Italian. When they had interacted with the uncles, everyone laughed and got along fine, and nobody cared if the words were misunderstood. Through watching his grandparents interact with the uncles, merchants, and neighbors in nearby villages, Paul had begun to realize that he needed to actually speak Italian properly for people to understand him. He started trying to learn the vocabulary, but it was slow going. As George and I tried to help him, it was obvious I was out-pacing him with my books and active listening. At just three and a half, James wasn’t so concerned with being understood. He just followed along after Paul. Once I overheard one of the uncles speaking to Paul who nodded and said something back. The uncle laughed and walked on. When I asked Paul what his uncle had said, he replied that he didn’t know. Everyone said how great Paul was doing because they thought he understood them. No one seemed to realize he was faking it!

Simona and Paul playing in the fields

Since the school year had finished, Simona’s grandmother had brought her to stay for the summer in their house on the upper side of Gabi. Because their family visited every summer, and the odd weekends during the year, they were able to take care of minor repairs as needed, so their house was in much better shape than ours. Simona was six, a year older than Paul, and when they were introduced they were shy at first, but she was a sweet little girl who was generous in allowing both Paul and James to share her ample supply of toys, kept at Gabi for her visits. But her biggest gift to them was not so obvious.

When they began to play with her, Paul, and even James, understood in a new way that they needed to learn to speak Italian to communicate with her. And learn they did, not slowly, but rapidly. Within two weeks their increase in vocabulary put mine to shame! As an added bonus, because Simona was from Torino, apparently she spoke with a “good” accent, not with the country accent that the locals used. The distinction was lost on me, but my mother-in-law was delighted that her grandsons were learning to speak Italian "properly." Simona was there for just a few weeks, but before she left Paul and James were conversing in Italian not just with her, but also with her grandmother, her parents, the uncles, my in-laws, and George. 

But I still stuttered.

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