I didn’t think too hard when the taxi driver in Sorrento (Italy) asked me what I had for dinner. The words just rolled off my tongue.
“Pasta ai frutti di mare.”
I don’t remember how my travel companions responded. All I remember is what Bartolo the taxi driver said next.
“Buon italiano!” “Good Italian!”
I was a little surprised at his enthusiasm. He made me laugh, but I felt as if it wasn’t much more than saying I had pizza for dinner. Which isn’t saying much, as pizza is one of those words adopted from Italian and now used universally in every language to mean only one thing.
But the next morning it happened again. This time the server, in a traditional short white coat, went through his list of drinks for breakfast. Anyone can understand these, cappuccino, espresso, or caffè. My drink wasn’t on his list.
“Cioccolata calda?” “Hot chocolate?”
For that he responded, “Complimenti per il tuo italiano!”
Cioccolata calda worked as if I had just said abracadabra to break the spell restricting server and tourist to a stiff professional relationship at the elegant old world style hotel. It broke a barrier.
“Da sola?” he asked. “Are you alone?”
I was busy denying it, scoping the room for my travel companions as he started to joke with me in Italian. In the end, I had to give up and agree, “Da sola.”
That’s the kind of foreign language lesson that works. But it’s not always that easy. Seven years in Norway, and I am afraid I can’t claim that I am fluent in that language despite my efforts and those of the Norwegians around me. But I made the mistake of choosing to live in a country where the natives speak English better as a second language than I do having grown up in the United States in the Midwest.
I told our driver Pasquale the next day, “All of this excitement over just saying what I had for dinner in Italian? It’s not even like I was speaking Italian. That’s just what the dish is.”
It’s not always my experience. Sometimes Italians look at me strangely when I speak to them in their own language. I can’t tell if they don’t understand, what I say sounds funny or something else is going on.
Pasquale answered, “You look Italian but they’re not sure so it’s a surprise.”
That doesn’t sound good for us Americans. Pasquale’s explanation was that it isn’t a tremendous advantage to be able to speak Italian outside of Italy. So if you already speak English, Italians don’t expect you to spend time learning their language.
You don’t have to look any further than my last name for a reason why. Growing up, I heard a distantly related version of Italian, a Sicilian dialect, my father spoke with his parents. He claimed no one would understand his dialect so he never spoke it to us. But there were the odd Sicilian words that would creep into our vocabulary. I knew artichoke as “cacocciula” (pronounced like gagochula) until I started to study Italian.
My neurons, or at least my heart was destined for learning the language.
My take on the over-the-top enthusiasm of some Italians for my limited language skills is that they are Southern Italians. They make jokes, tease each other, but according to Pasquale, Southern Italians often feel empathy for those at a disadvantage because they know what it means to struggle. So they behave as gracious hosts to their cities.
What’s your experience in a city where you are trying to learn the local language?
©Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com
Looking for a scientific editor or writer? Contact Janice Nigro at Janice Nigro Ink. I have published in Cell, Science, and Nature, and articles I have edited have appeared in Cancer Research, PLoSONE, the Journal of Surgical Oncology, and Oncotarget.