Saturday, September 18, 2010

How to think in Italian

I lead a double life.

On Monday and Friday mornings I’m a confident English teacher. I drill my students on the use of the present perfect. I use a red pen. I annunciate. My evenings too are spent in the English language, once my husband comes home and I ask him about his day. But the rest of my week is dedicated almost entirely to speaking in my adopted language, Italian, so that my son can grow up bilingual. (My husband’s second language, German, was vetoed for fear he would grow up to wear socks with sandals.)

Sometimes I slip up and out comes the naked truth of my double life. For example, the other night as my husband and I were putting our toddler to bed with his favorite cuddly animal (a snake), I blurted out, “He wants you to grab la coda (the tail).” However, I can assure you that these embarrassing instances of crossover are very rare indeed. Only in moments of severe sleep deprivation could my Italian world possibly collide with my English one. That’s because I can only think, and therefore speak, in one language at a time.

But thinking in a language – in this case, Italian – is not simply a matter of conjugating verbs correctly or choosing appropriate vocabulary: you must transport yourself into a world where your very thoughts themselves, at a conceptual level, are Italian.

So how does one think in Italian? Here are some tips:

Think long. Have you ever wondered why Italians talk so fast? Well, they don’t really. It’s just that Italian words are generally longer. They have more syllables, which means that if you ever want to get to the end your sentence before getting cut off – a commonplace occurrence in overpopulated countries – you’re going to have to speed it up. A cold (one syllable in English) is raffreddore (4 syllables). Wrapped up: imbacuccato (5). Curled up: raggomitolato (6). Hastily: precipitosamente (7). This overabundance of syllables is the reason why Hollywood actors dubbed into Italian all sound like Speedy Gonzalez. Think how quickly Dorothy (Do-ro-thy, 3 syllables) has to speak to get the Scarecrow (Spaventapasseri, 6) to give her directions along the yellow-brick road (strada di mattoni gialli, 8).

Think philosophically. Do not assume that longer words equal harder work. On the contrary, as your mouth works its way through all those syllables, your brain receives the precious gift of time. Time to think about what word is going to come next, to figure out how you’re going to finish your brilliant thought. This unique quality gives Italian speakers the ability to sound erudite and philosophical in the most mundane situations. For instance, the handsome stranger next to you in the long line at the post office might lean over and whisper:

Scusi, non trova anche Lei che sono precisamente questi impegni della vita moderna che ci portano inevitabilmente ad una maggiore riflessione interiore?” (“Excuse me, miss, but don’t you find that it is precisely these commitments of modern life that lead us inevitably to look inwards?”)

And when you wake up beside him the next morning, he might say:

Il mare rispecchiato negli tuoi occhi supera di gran lunga la sua bellezza nello stato naturale.” (“The sea reflected in your eyes is far more beautiful than it appears in its natural state.”)

I’m hoping my son will one day learn how to do this.

Think specifically. Unfortunately, some of the time you’ve gained for philosophizing will need to be spent selecting the most accurate terms. The Italian language is gloriously – almost Germanically – specific. A door is not just a door. There’s porta (say, a bedroom door), portone (the front door), portiera (a car door), sportello (say, the oven door) or ingresso (the door you pay at). This should come as no surprise coming from a country where cheese is not just cheese: try melting anything but mozzarella on your pizza or – heaven forbid – sprinkling cheddar on your spaghetti, and you could be arrested for subversion.

Think in different sizes. Thinking in Italian inevitably means thinking in small, medium and large. Is your pimple an inoffensive brufoletto, a straightforward brufolo or a cosmetic-resistant brufolone which leaves you no choice but to lance it and cover it up with a bandaid? Is the car you want to describe a child’s toy macchinina, an average macchina, or an ostentatious macchinone that advertises the driver’s anxiety about his manhood? Let’s be honest: size does matter. And Italian absolves you of any remaining political correctness by requiring you to pass judgement on the matter. To at least be honest. To call a spade a spade (or, as the Italians say, to call bread bread and wine wine: dire pane al pane, vino al vino). And to supersize where necessary.

This liberating exercise in diminutives and augmentatives also gives you permission to freely vocalize terms of endearment to your loved ones. Whereas there is little respect for English speakers who publicly indulge in linguistic displays of affection with terms such as “my little lovey,” “you big puppy” or even “my little onion”, pet names like amoruccio, cucciolone or cipollino are not only acceptable in Italian, they are almost as compulsory as engagement bands are in Southern Italy after a first date.

Ah, the brain works in mysterious ways. On that note, I’ll end here with a word to English-speaking family, friends and colleagues: when we’re talking to each other, rest assured that I am fully present in our conversation, linguistically and, to a lesser extent, mentally. However, because most of my days are spent conversing in Italian with my toddler (if a monologue can constitute a conversation), I must admit that whenever I think about you it will probably be in Italian.


  1. I LOVE that you think about me in Italiano!!!!


  2. Love the comment about Germans with their socks and sandals! So wrong, but so true. :)

  3. Christina, I've actually been known to wear socks and sandals too (don't tell anyone). If only the rest of the world could understand how practical that combination is for folks like us living in areas with changeable weather. And isn't it the practicality that we love about Germans?
    :) heddi.

  4. By the way, cara sorella, you look very good in Italian.
    :) h.