Sitting in the living room, I could hear some mysterious movements in the kitchen: first, the dragging of a chair across the tiled floor, then, the filling up of a container with liquid, and finally, the banging of a metal object against a hard surface. After a few seconds of silence, I heard quick footsteps back and forth and the metal object being set down on the table.
“What are you doing?” I called out to Pata.
When she came into the living room, I saw that her t-shirt was wet. I asked her why.
“I was giving some water to the plant because it didn’t have a nice face. But then I spilled some water so I cleaned it up with nakkins.”
While Pata’s English is good, it exhibits a few quirks of usage that betray its status as her second language. She often imports idiomatic expressions from one language into the other, and given that she knows more of them in Italian due to greater exposure, the habit has a more profound effect on her English.
Thus when she speaks to me, her sentences are peppered with odd phrases like the one above about the plant that didn’t have a nice face. ‘Una bella faccia’ translated literally means ‘a beautiful face,’ but the expression is used often to convey the idea that something, even a thing like a plant, that doesn’t have a face, has a pleasing physical aspect.
Last December, as her fifth birthday neared, she excitedly told everyone she encountered how old she was going to be. Speaking to my sister on the phone, she said, “I’m going to have five years!” That’s how age is expressed in Italian, and despite my telling her every time that she was going to be five rather than have five, the correct English usage wouldn’t stick. She remembered that there was a difference, but not what it was, and without a default way of speaking about it, she would try something new every time. Her most creative attempt, “Mommy, what numbers do you have in your old?” demonstrates the degree to which the Italian way of expressing age dominated her thinking, pushing her to transform an adjective into a noun in order to make it something I possessed, rather than something I was.
Pata has some difficulty with prepositions, specifically those of direction of location. She confuses ‘to’ and ‘at’ when they’re used to indicate indirect objects. In Italian, both are expressed by the same preposition. “Mommy, I am angry to you,” she tells me when I refuse one of her requests. In Italian, that would be “Sono arrabiata a te.” Instead, if she wants something back, she says, “Give it at me,” which would be “Dallo a me” in Italian, (though more often contracted as “Dammelo.”) Up until recently, she used ‘at’ exclusively to express movement toward a location, so she would ask, “Do I have to go at school today?” Now she seems to have corrected herself, using ‘to’ most of the time.
It should come as little surprise that in many cases, Pata’s confusion between the two languages is caused when usage in one is only slightly different from the other. A persistent example of this is the formula ‘something + adjective,’ which in Italian is expressed with an intervening preposition, so ‘something good’ is ‘qualcosa di buono,’ literally, ‘something of good.’ That’s how Pata continues to say it in English, despite my modeling the correct usage for her. I wonder if she finds it particularly tricky because it’s an odd case of an adjective being placed after a noun, and as such, a trigger for the Italian passageways in her brain.
Recently she has begun to insert Italian words into English sentences more often. At first I thought it was a sign that her Italian vocabulary was outpacing her English, but without exception, the words she replaces are ones that she knows and uses regularly. “Mommy, can you please make a ventaglio (fan) with this?’ she asked me this morning, presenting me with a piece of colored foil my hairstylist had given her.
Later, as we were about to leave the salon, she noticed a painted silk fan at one of the stations. “Oh, look at that ventaglio,” she said, “it has a picture of a girl on it.”
The hairstylist, a British expat, smiled and played along. “Do you like that one? That’s a different kind of ventaglio.”
Every so often, if the Italian word happens to be an adjective, she’ll even put it after the noun, following Italian usage. “Mommy, that’s the queen cattiva (bad,)” she told me once, pointing to a cartoon character on television. If the Italian word is a noun, any English adjective modifying it is placed in the correct position, before it.
Not being a linguist, I have no explanation for this kind of code-switching, but I find that I do it too, and in both languages, so I don’t think it’s evidence of the weakness of one in comparison to the other. Rather, I wonder if, when done by speakers who are confidently bilingual or multilingual, it’s a sign of true comfort with languages.
I know that while her grammar isn’t perfect, Pata certainly feels comfortable with English. Often when I dare to correct something she’s said, she tells me that she wants to say it her own way, and then she reminds me, “I speak English too, Mommy!”