Sunday, February 11, 2018

Moving to Italy: Reflection on Language

Visiting the doctor’s office in Italy left a permanent change in me. The doctor was a kind man, and we were treated well, but my inability to convey to him the cause of my pain and how it had happened left me frustrated. But I was relatively lucky in that I had an adult fluent in Italian to translate for me.
When we returned to the U.S., I developed a new respect for immigrants who were disadvantaged in not speaking English. Not only did they have to adjust to different customs and expectations, but they had the huge handicap of not being able to listen to the local populace and learn from what they heard. Just like me in Italy, they had to struggle to understand what was being said and then grope for the correct words to communicate with the natives.
If they were parents they faced, as I had, the prospect of losing verbal contact with their children as those children soaked up the language and merged into the new environment. Some of these parents were told by teachers to forbid their native language being spoken at home so that the children could learn English more quickly. In Italy no one told me to stop speaking English around our home, and if they had, I would have objected loudly. Even so, my boys were so young that they absorbed Italian, and as I have mentioned, they began to forget English.
After that visit to the doctor, I appreciated even more Cousin Luigi’s patience with me, his willingness to wait for me to find the right words, and his ability to fill in what I might have misspoken. When visiting Gabi later in life, I found this same kindness in another of George’s cousins, Rosemma. She too speaks no English but is always patient with me. Between hand signals and my recall of words I thought I had forgotten, we have always been able to communicate somehow. (Although I am not certain how much of what we say gets lost in the gaps between us!)

Cousin Rosemma on the right.

My encounters with Luigi, and later with Rosemma, were to shape my responses to others. When the company I worked for in California hired three Hungarian engineers for six months, they spoke English with heavy accents, and remembering my struggles in Italy, I went out of my way to communicate with them. But I watched what happened when the Hungarians tried to start a conversation with others in the company. Our employees would be polite enough, smile, and answer questions, but at the first opportunity they slipped away. Perhaps it was shyness, perhaps it was a fear of not understanding the foreign accent, but when my co-workers hurried off, I recognized the Hungarian’s look of bewilderment. I had felt that same way in Italy.

I understood then, twenty years later, what had happened when we interacted with Italians in social gatherings. I had tried to join the conversation, but when they didn’t understand me, or I didn’t understand them, the back and forth flow of words was blocked, and it was difficult to continue. At an early age we learn social language skills: I say something, you reply, then I reply to your comment, and so on. If your reply doesn’t fit with what has gone before, I have to try to understand where you have taken the conversational thread.  For instance, if I ask what you had for lunch and you reply, “Mel’s Diner,” I might stop, interpret, then say, “No, not where did you go for lunch, what did you eat for lunch?”  Usually we can restart the rhythm without too much effort. Not so when one of us is struggling with the language. When misunderstanding constantly interrupts communication, the rhythm never gets established, and it becomes frustrating for everyone. Most people don’t have the time or patience to keep trying. In social situations in Italy, it was far easier for the Italian to turn to George and let him translate, or easier for me to simply listen and not try to enter the dialogue. Learning a new language as an adult is hard, much harder than it would appear if you’ve never tried it!

I encountered a similar dynamic when teaching university writing to a diverse population of students. Often they were the children of immigrants, the first ones to attend college, and they wrote of being the family translator from a young age. With a limited child’s vocabulary, they were forced to translate to bureaucrats, while their parents silently listened not understanding the words that flew past them. I would feel for those students and the responsibility they bore for translating correctly. And I felt an affinity with their helpless parents, as I remembered the same sensation with the doctor in Italy.

The story of our move to Italy starts with "Arrival" on the June 26, 2017 blog post.

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