I speak to my son in Italian—I am a so-called heritage speaker. Teaching your child a second language, according to many studies, increases not only linguistic ability, but also cognitive ability, critical thinking, even empathy. But that is not why I go through the trouble of speaking to him in a second language. Since when did intelligence and kindness get you anywhere these days anyway? Besides, I wouldn’t be caught dead trying to make a superior human. Too tacky. And also, hardly inspiring given the gran impegno (the considerable commitment) di tradurre tutto in italiano, leggere in italiano, guardare cartoni animati in italiano, cercare amici italiani in zona. What does move me toward the hard work of responding to his every English remark and question in Italian is the beauty of the language. The mere pleasure of speaking and hearing the open elegance of the words themselves, the vowels sinking into the body and diffusing into air really is enough.
In one of the poet Kenneth Koch’s Italian poetry comics, an Italian Cabdriver yells at the Americans, POETRY? POETRY IN ENGLISH? NAY, NAY, SIGNORE, POETRY IS IN ITALIAN. WHAT IS YOUR WORD FOR NATURE FOR EXAMPLE? Nature, Kenneth Koch, the young poet, says weakly, defeated. AH-HA, exclaimed the cabdriver, IN OUR LANGUAGE, IN OUR LANGUAGE…IT IS NATURA. IS THERE ANY COMPARISON?
Miserecordia, Scorciatoia, Gironzolare, Aranciata, Cocciuta.
Part of its beauty comes from the simple joy of recognizing the meaning of nearly every word by its sound, what a friend of mine calls onnamatta-you-know-whatta. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that Italian may be the language that conveys the most sense to those who don’t know the dictionary definition of any given word.
Apart from offering my son this beauty, I also give him another experience, another life. True it must be lived simultaneously to the one lived in English, but still it does impart the feeling that life is infinite and can be experienced in infinite ways. An Italian life prizes the senses, emotion, love of all kinds. To borrow a formulation of Philip Roth’s, who says that Jews are to history what Eskimos are to snow, Italians are to love what Jews are to history and Eskimos are to snow. The preponderance of words for love and making love beginning with the distinction between voler bene and amare shows this. Se si ama qualcuno, you literally can’t live or breathe without them. You are totally crazy in love. Ma se se vuole bene is more complex; literally, it means to want the very best for someone. But it’s more than that: you totally trust them, you are there for them at any moment. Once I was at a riveting movie with a friend, and she got half a phone call from another friend in the midst of the most riveting part of the riveting movie. She got up and left because in her words, “He might need something from her.” Lei gli voleva bene senzaltro. Voler bene, amare. This is to say nothing of affezionarsi, tenersi a qualcuno, piacere, or avere simpatia per qualcuno ch’e simpatica. Who wouldn’t want to impart these values to their child as encoded in the smallest parts of the language?
Briciole, Scarafaggine, Frutta di Bosco, Cianfrusaglia.
Josh, who lived in Italy for years, loves the word lungimirante which describes a person with exceptional foresight. Arianna, my best friend in Italy, can only bring to mind parolacce, swear words—vaccaboia or mannaggialaputtana. In our dialect, both Arianna and I like the word una scianta, which means “a little bit.” Swapna likes the word jugnu which means firefly in her native Hindi. Katya likes the Russian idiom Kak dela? Kak saja bela! How are things? Like ashes, black. Jeremy in Jamaican patois, likes the noun broughtupsy as when a friend delivers a package from another friend by hand and you fail to even say thank you (no broughtupsy). Marwan’s favorite word in Arabic is Al Baraka, a blessing. Jean Michel likes the word goutte in French, which means a drop of something. Henri Cole told his class, he likes the English words Coca-Cola and ochre.
It might be that everyone thinks their language the most beautiful, the way every mother quietly suspects her baby might be a genius of some sort when in fact these children are all quite special. My language is a child as my child is a child to whom I speak this language. I grow them both. By guiding my son through his days, and by studying Italian at night. Yes, studying. Because early on in a blind repudiation of my native tongue, I refused to speak it. I came home one day from nursery school after being teased for speaking it to a teacher and told my mother not to speak to me in Italian anymore. And that is what she did. Now, I come to the study of my native language with the stubborn pride of someone determined to win back a rightful inheritance. And not a little shame either, for having lost this inheritance by the wayside. Che vergogna, I should already known Italian. I was born there; my mom is from there. I might as well be a bastard in a Shakespearean play gunning for the throne. And if that is overstating the situation, perhaps it’s that I am merely trying to plant an uprooted tree, or flower, hoping it turns out to be a tenacious weed.
As a teenager, I spent summer after summer in Italy basically memorizing the dictionary. I filled notebooks upon notebooks with words I had to look up while reading Corriere della Sera, Espresso, and novels like La Bell’Estate by Pavese or Se Questo e Uomo by Primo Levi. Because I came to love that moment when you can stop looking up words and your effort yields to the flow of sense, as if one had been trying to crack a code to a safe and it suddenly clicks open, when you stop having headaches at the end of the night from thinking too hard and start dreaming in the other language, when you (mostly) don’t have to think of the words you are trying to say or understand, I took Italian Lit as a minor. I threw myself into any Italian conversation with hesitation, courage, and later, instinct. Right now, as I teach my son Italian, I shuttle between these three stages, the hardest, of course, the one that requires the will to throw yourself into the fray if you make mistakes. Which inevitably I do. Mixing up genders, missing the right preposition with the right verb, and probably worse. Courage, in any context, is complicated by pride and how one would like to be seen. I would love to pass as madrelingua, a native speaker of Italian, but in order to buttarmi dentro qualsiasi discorso I have to be willing to look like a fool and fare la brutta figura, a real offense in Italian society. I have to be willing to betray myself as merely Italian-American, one who for most of her life, spoke no Italian at home. Though now there is Italian in my house per forza. I speak Italian to my son. My mom speaks Italian to my son. And my mom and I speak in English and halting Italian, Italian being a second language even to her, who spoke dialect first. Nonetheless, in a felicitous reversal of roles, she loves to correct me, as my sisters and I once corrected and sometimes lovingly mocked her English.
Because I have made the decision to pass onto my son an imperfect Italian, I inevitably encounter resistance. At Thanksgiving, my German host who speaks German to his children as his wife who is Russian speaks Russian to those same lucky children teasingly calls me a phony. We are in line to get books signed at a friend’s reading when another friend says, “Still speaking Italian to your son; you’re kind of a show-off about that, aren’t you?” Are you practicing your Italian with your son, asks my best friend’s husband, who knows very little Italian. An Italian scientist in the park, whose wife’s hometown is close to my mother’s hometown, recognizes the cantilena of my accent, and then quickly recognizes that indeed I am not Italian, says, so you are exposing him to the sound of Italian? My response goes largely unspoken, but I do add, yes the sound, but also the syntax, a bit of content, too. I don’t say at night, I read all of Elena Ferrante and try out her phrasings on him in the morning. Did I mention that my son’s father jokingly told me I had to speak Italian to our son because he’s already black? I suppose that counts as encouragement rather than resistance; it is hardly inspiration. Nevertheless, I, who am white, will listen to mostly everything my father’s son says about blackness because he is black.
When my son was born, the Italian came easy. I at least knew enough household Italian to talk to a baby. I memorized lullabies I didn’t know. I played him a lot of toddler songs in Italian. But it’s gotten harder now that I have to explain God and what chemicals are made of, or have to know off the top of my head the entire catalogue of motorized vehicles. Che fatica. I don’t even know the words in English. Do you know what a Gantry crane is? I didn’t. A friend told me. Can you say it Italian? How about, “un gru di tipo Gantry?” My days are witness to about a hundred of these kinds of workarounds. A measure of my commitment, I think, to this great tongue.
When I ask my mom about the moment in which I blithely abdicated my kingdom, my mother says she thought it high time she learned English, as if one language can’t but displace the other. Still, I don’t blame her. I suspect the answer is more complex. Besides, what parent can bear a child’s suffering when it is inflicted by her peers? Any parent in this situation, in the nineteen seventies, when it wasn’t yet encouraged by pediatricians to speak to your child in as many languages as you know, would have had a hard time thinking, so what, she feels rejected, her feelings are hurt, it will build character. But it would have, had my mother insisted on speaking our language. She would have modeled strength in her resistance to social pressure. Instead, the bigots who believe one can’t be an American without rooting out all languages but English, won. And all sorts of character and characters faded or flat-out died.
Which is to say, a little bit of my story died, a little bit of my mom’s story died. (And so did a lit bit of the memory of relationships that had transpired in those languages.) It is no big thing. Native tongues in America die every day for the sake of making a viable life in a new land. Native tongues in native lands die every day as ranching, mining, and other industries goose-step across the planet promising riches and better health. Languages like beloved species die off just as everything that depended on those languages, namely culture, dies too. Extinction, it happens. The birdsong in the forest gets sparser, plainer, more monotonous. It’s no small thing.
As concerned as I am with biodiversity, however, I realize I am also running the risk of being one of those parents who tries to live out her lost childhood through her child. Relationships, especially those between parent and child, are often doomed by parents trying to get their own stories right by imposing those stories on their child. But I am not imposing a story. I don’t want my child to be the professional tennis player I never was, or the engineer I never I had the math skills to be. I just want him to have a feeling for another way of life that to a large extent doesn’t exist anymore, but still does exist. It is slower. On Sundays, you bike to a friend or relative’s house and have coffee, then you bike to another friend’s house and have more coffee. On weekends, you picnic in the mountains with your family. You go in compagnia nearly everywhere with your friends or family. You wear well-made clothes, one nice shirt, one nice pair of pants or one nice dress and pair of elegant shoes until they are consumati. As soon as get home you take them off and put on stracci to keep your good clothes good. You eat the animals you raised, feeding them hay instead of feed because that is what the animals prefer, and they taste better once they wind up on your kitchen table. Ditto eggs. Ditto milk. I can’t show my child the old places because they no longer exist—the outhouse where we peed or hid while we played fell down, the barn razed for new construction, the thick wild patches we had to pass just to get to an old aunt’s courtyard not there anymore; I can’t introduce him to the people who loved me by offering me secret caramelle wrapped in iridescent wrappers and leading me through rows of vineyards and fields of poppies and chicory, warning me against the cold rushing waters of nearby hidden canals and cooking meals for hours, rabbit ragu, fresh picked zucchini flowers, or bitter greens that had been sitting on the stove all morning they weren’t bitter any more. But I can teach him languages where a feeling of what it all was to us resides. I want him to be a part of us present and passed. To feel like he belongs to something more than his mamma, daddy, and nonna. As for all the stumbles I make in imparting my language to him, I think its beauty can withstand them. And my son, a resilient toddler with the plastic intelligence of a toddler, can adjust and adapt when I say a phrase three times to get the number, gender, and pronouns right. Because my child is some sort of genius and so is Italian.
Tanya Larkin is lecturer at Tufts University and the author of two collections of poetry, My Scarlet Ways (Saturnalia Press) and Hothouse Orphan (Convulsive Editions). Recent poems can be found at Sixth Finch, BOAAT, and H_NGM_N. Her essay “The Train to Reno and Back: The Women as Rite of Passage” can be found at Delirious Hem.