Last week was my first on American soil in more than two years, and my 20-month-old son’s first-ever visit to his fatherland. The boy has had a U.S. passport since he was five weeks old, but before this trip it had never been stamped by the INS. I looked forward to exposing him to America’s sights and sounds, especially the language that till then he’d heard almost exclusively from his father and a handful of Disney DVDs.
Yet as we waited in the passport control line at Dulles airport, I noticed something strange: nobody in earshot was using English. The people behind us were talking in Spanish; those ahead of us in what might have been Turkish; my wife and I in Italian. And this was in the U.S. citizens’ line.
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The day after our arrival, we left the kid with his grandparents (so much for the cultural tour) to make our obligatory visit to the shopping mall. As we marveled at all the variety, stunning after the cramped and understocked shops of Italy, we stopped for some typical American refreshment: iced cappuccinos in plastic cups the size of ice buckets. The African man behind the counter, after hearing us talk, asked for our order in Italian.
It always intrigues me to hear that language from foreign lips, considering how rarely the Italians themselves bother speaking it (instead of one of their regional dialects), so I asked the man where he was from. Libyans, Somalians and Ethiopians once had reason to speak Italian, but he didn’t seem to be from any of those countries, and was in any case far too young to have known Fascist colonial masters.
“I am from Ghana,” he said, “but I used to live in Italy.” Then he named the northeastern city of Vicenza (population 110,000) where my wife and I had ourselves spent three years.
“Paisà!” I wanted to say (dialect for “fellow villager”), but I wasn’t sure he’d find it funny.
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Almost every day during our brief stay, as the First Lady would be pleased to know, my dad did his bit for literacy by taking the baby to the public library. One time I tagged along and was happy to find the place just as I remembered it. The children’s section, I mean: the same little tables and chairs, the same low bookcases packed with fare spanning the age range from Goodnight Moon to the tamer creations of Judy Blume and her successors. The adult section was another story, dominated by videos, CDs and PCs with Internet access. Still, they hadn’t tossed out all the books, and it made me proud to be an American, or at least a former resident of Montgomery County, to see this well-appointed facility. Most Italians have never been inside a library, and could never dream of checking out books to take home. No wonder Americans are prodigious readers by comparison.
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Yet our visit to the States turned out not to be much of an English lesson after all. As always when spending time with their grandson, my mother addressed him in her native Spanish and my father (at my urging) in the Japanese he learned as a graduate student. My wife continued speaking to the baby in Italian, and I in English.
Under these conditions it’s not surprising that the kid has yet to utter a word, but a linguist friend assures me that he’ll sort it out eventually, and once he does, will make his talking debut in at least two tongues. Although I’m not worried, I must admit I can’t wait. I’ll be especially interested to hear when and in what contexts he uses one language or another. Perhaps he’ll follow some version of the rule established by the Emperor Charles V, who said: “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.” For horse we might substitute car, but I have no plans to give the boy a BMW, so maybe the German can wait.