Monday, June 30, 2008

With my Italian family here, it reminds me of how much I'd like to be a polyglot. Not necessarily fluent or anything, just enough to get by, and not just in Italian either. My grandma, the family's Italian immigrant, is fluent, and Mom is pretty good, too. On the other side, my aunt (or cousin or something) works in an Italian bank trading American securities and currencies, so her English is quite decent. The son (also a cousin or something) is shy with his classroom English, but it's way better than my Italian. What's interesting to watch are the father, who speaks four words of English (one of which is "golf") and my father, who speaks one word of Italian ("Italia")... and mispronounces it.

There's a weird psychological thing going on here, and I know lots of people think it's an Ugly American trait, but I have a feeling it's more of an isolationist thing: My dad, who's fully aware he might as well be speaking English to a brick, almost subconsciously decides he'll be understood if he talks realllllllyyyyyyy sloooooooow and LLLLLOOOUUUDDDDD. It's super amusing, if only because no one even talks to their dog like this. ("Blah blah Ginger blah blah blah Ginger blah...")

Their father just speaks normally, fast and with his hands, while I smile and pretend to comprehend.

Like I said, I don't think it's an American thing, because when I was on the Contiki tour, everybody spoke condescending, pointless English in that way to the natives — Americans, Australians, Brits, Canadians, New Zealanders. It's just a function of who's around you: if you're from a loose confederation of nations where your neighbors speak one of twenty-three languages and who knows how many dialects, I can imagine you freeze up a bit less when some incomprehensible sounds come your way.

The trick, of course, isn't to speak more slowly (although that can help) or loudly (which won't help) but to speak less, more simply, and with longer words that are likely to be cognates. Pointing helps too. Personally, I think it's a lot of fun, sort of like the world's most restrictive game of Taboo.