Una Bella Faccia

Pata at Furnolo

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.

“Nothing, Mommy!”

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!”

22 responses to “Una Bella Faccia

  1. I was shaking my head “yes” in understanding and agreement and amusement while reading this post Karen. My five year old has lived in a home where his father spoke Italian to him exclusively and I spoke English to him exclusively since birth. Then during our separation divorce and continuing in the present, he is with his father and speaking Italian one week, and with me and his brothers the next week and speaking English. So like Pata, he is quite proficient in both languages. A couple recent developments have happened that are quite interesting. One is, just recently his nonni were here for a couple of months, and so I saw his Italian vocabulary grow immensely during this time. During the time the nonni were here he also started making up his own “language” a mish-mash of English and Italian sounds that made no sense, but he would babble for hours on end while playing by himself. When spoken to in either Italian or English he would answer appropriately, but was always happy to return to babbling. None of this frightens me or concerns me as I have already seen how quickly children adapt to language when there is a need. For example my two eldest had to attend school in Italy with no prior Italian lessons, and they survived it.
    My five year old will be attending Kindergarten this year, and the director of his school and one of the teachers has already suggested to me that I might need to enroll him in some special classes because “English is his second language.” I had to correct them gently and tell them English is one of his two languages, and he is able to speak English perhaps even better than Italian because he has lived in an English speaking country for most of his five years. At any rate, even if they believe he is at a disadvantage by having to speak Italian every other week, I am fully sure that once he is in a class with other children speaking English, he will learn rapidly and easily assimilate, and the director’s and teacher’s concerns should melt away.
    And now last but not least (haha sorry Karen for writing a book as a reply! but this is a fascinating subject, our little ones and their languages) but Luca has developed a very exaggerated Italian accent while speaking English- I think he is doing it for fun but he sounds very much like a little old Italian man who can barely speak English without putting an “a” at the end of each word. He is ABLE to pronounce everything correctly, and his Papi only speaks correct Italian to him, never English, so he’s not getting that accent from any of us…. it makes me wonder! And it is quite hilarious to hear him speak this way, but it also makes me understand why the director at his school has perhaps a few concerns about English being his second language. ;)

    • Yes, I think what really matters is that the right language can be understood and spoken in the right context. Pata only code-switches with people she knows will understand everything she’s saying. I think all the rest is a kind of playfulness and exploration of language.

      I wish I could hear Luca’s accent! That’s so funny. I wonder why he’s doing it…maybe he just likes it!

  2. Luigi does this too and makes a few mistakes in English. The funny thing is he sticks “che” in for “that” and “se” in for “if” so he’ll say things like, “Did you know che cats have 9 lives?” or “What would happen se you saw a big snake?”

    • That’s so interesting, Mary! I’m just realizing now that the words Pata replaces are usually nouns or adjectives, so she hasn’t done that. Does Luigi do this with only certain parts of speech as well?

      • Funny, he has more or less stopped using Italian nouns and adjectives in English and vice versa and he doesn’t use English sentence construction in Italian anymore, but he does have this idiosyncracy with “if” and “that”. I think it’s interesting how they can just switch back and forth….. And I got verification that he dreams in both languages the other night when he was talking in his sleep. One minute it was in Italian and a few minutes later it was in English.

  3. I’d be curious to know if she thinks in one language over another, or both.

    • She says she thinks in both. I’ve noticed that when she plays, she does use both languages, but Italian dominates. She says she dreams in both as well, and that sometimes her dreams are exclusively Italian and sometimes they’re exclusively English.

      • Wish I had learned another language when I was this young. I know French & Italian (past beginner phase – more early Intermediate). I do occasionally respond in Italian here, off the top of my head, which is encouraging, lol.

  4. What an insightful & interesting post. My dad was in the Navy and I lived in Italy from the ages of 9 – 16. Italian is such a precise language where English is so broad. I sometimes struggle to find the word that conveys exactly what I mean because of that.

    Growing up in Italy also inspired my imagination so much.

    • Thank you, Susan. Your comment makes me smile, because yes, Italian is so much more precise…I often hear from my husband, “you can’t use that word that way!”

  5. I hope she finds it interesting! She should also look at some of the posts I wrote about Pata’s bilingualism when she was younger…I wrote about it more often then, as there was more to report.

  6. Another thought, my son has a friend here who is married to a lady from Mexico. Their two toddlers are now conversing bilingually, I noticed at my grandson’s 4th birthday party. When they were babies, his mother was worried they would never learn English, but they were using both languages at the birthday party even though their mother speaks very little English, yet even she is progressing. It just takes time. They know more than we realize, lol.

  7. My daughter is 3.5 and does this also. She will use sono instead of sto or ho (like sono fame) I speak English to her while her father and my in-laws all in Italian (we also live in Italy) She is pretty good though about speaking in English to me and Italian to him/other Italian speakers, but we reinforce that by saying how does Mama say it or how does Papa say it. We do this because for a little while she would speak in English to Italian speaking people.

    • I think some children are very precise about that– Pata was pretty strict from the start about speaking English to native English speakers and Italian to native Italian speakers…and she was good about sussing them out. She refused to speak English to Italians wanting to practice with her. Now she’s becoming a little more flexible. I don’t think all bilingual children are this way, though. It may have something to do with individual personality, and if that’s the case, watch out! You’ve got a real precisona there!

      • Had to respond to this because Luigi also refuses to speak to people he doesn’t expect to hear English from. He just looks at them as if to say, “Who are you trying to kid?”.

  8. Quite the beautiful young lady you’ve got! This post reminded me of talking with my grandparents. All four of them were children when they landed in Ellis Island and had minimal education, if any. They couldn’t talk more than one or two sentences without slipping in an Italian word. “Macchina” was used for just about any mechanical thing, not just cars, that didn’t exist at the time they came to the USA.

    • What a sweet memory, Gil. That must have been a time of amazement and fascination for them, learning a whole new world of language like that.

  9. Lovely post! I’ve always been fascinated by how children acquire language and as a teacher in an English school in Rome it’s so interesting how they all make the same literal translations. After 7 years of learning in English the children in my class still ‘have’ 11 years. It does help with your understanding of Italian though! I know that a lot of people with bilingual children worry that learning two languages slows down their progress and confuses them, but I couldn’t disagree more. The mixing of the languages is as you say a way of playing with the words and sounds – my favourite “Alice stop giving me a fastidio!” Perfect fluency will come as they get older. I’m so jealous that I didn’t have the opportunity, I think these children are incredible!

Comments are closed.