Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why don’t you understand me?

What I fear most these days is not understanding something my son says. Because lately this triggers a fit of frustration worthy of the Terrible Twos but with the physical fearsomeness of a taller-than-average three-year-old. This tonic-clonic seizure – complete with punching, biting, kicking and wailing, in Italian, “Why don’t you understand me?” – can last up to forty-five minutes and can be rekindled with the mere recollection of the incident at any time over the next few days. I’ve become pretty good at simultaneously protecting my orifices and other vulnerable bits while being accused of lack of comprehension. I believe that in some kingdoms people are beheaded for less.

But it’s not fair. There are only a handful of people in our New-Zealand-U.S.-Italy circle who can understand my son’s speech – those who are fluent in both English and Italian – and one of them has since moved to France. Add to that the little man’s idiosyncratic pronunciation in both languages (e.g. “King’s bud king’s bed” is SpongeBob SquarePants, “dove” is due, two), his creative grammar and invented words (“ra-ra” for cracker), and you have yourself one cryptic crossword.

And of those five (now, four) people who could possible understand my three-year-old, I’m the most adept at interpreting sentences like “Mi voglio take off cacca: need la fizzitti” (Voglio togliermi una caccola dal naso: mi serve un fazzoletto, I want to take a booger out of my nose: I need a tissue). Other people run to me for translations. And tissues.

The price I pay for this expertise is the little man’s expectation that I will understand absolutely everything he says. When I don’t understand something, in order to avoid the breaking-loose of Hell Almighty, I say yes and quickly change the subject. Avoiding eye contact here is essential. But if he senses my weakness and says, “Tu no capito” (You no understand), the fury is unleashed, and all I can do is brace myself for the long haul. I’ve tried talking, reasoning, scolding, empathizing, distracting, walking out, begging, screaming – sometimes all within the first minute. Nothing works.

This morning’s fit was over the mystery phrase “savi-et”, uttered softly as I stepped out of the kitchen. In my defense, I had been washing the pancake pan as he watched a cartoon, so the word was for me completely devoid of context. I nodded knowingly and said in Italian, “Uh-huh. That’s right, honey.”

“No. Savi-ET!”

I sat beside him and took a few stabs in the dark – Salt? Sorry? Someone? – before getting kicked in the gut. I tried mouthing the sounds syllable by syllable, incensing him further. Then I was sure I had it: he’d just eaten blueberry pancakes with his hands, so he must be needing a wet wipe. “Salvietta!” I called out triumphantly. That’s when my nearly-healed cold sore became cracked open by a Spiderman sock.


I had to work more logically here. I asked what language the word was from. “'Glese,” he answered. That was unfortunate because it didn’t sound like any kind of English I knew, and I’m an English teacher. I asked if it was a toy or a person? Something from the cartoon or something here in the living room? Animal, mineral or vegetable?

His ear-piercing scream concerned me. Is screaming a sign of actual epilepsy? I tried holding him down, stroking his now sweaty hair. “You’re angry, aren’t you? It’s so hard when someone doesn’t understand you.” Then I got toppled over on the couch in sumo-wrestling style. “I need some context here!” I said, determined not to scream myself this time.

“Savi-ET!” he said, clicking into desperation. “Perché tu no capito?!”

I tried flattery. “You are so good at talking. Did you know that you speak not one, but two, languages? You’re an amazing little boy! You’re speaking just fine, it’s me who’s the stupid one who doesn’t understand.” And then, “How about a book? Would you like me to read you a story?”


Twenty-five minutes later, the anger and the tears had finally run out of steam. His little fists softened and wrapped around my neck. He nodded when I mentioned our shared eye color, the cat. I saw a weak smile. But no words other than a shaky “saviet”. What ultimately ended the matter was a familiar request, my son’s elixir as well as (in this case) an olive leaf. “Ciocco-a-a. Dove.”

Chocolate. Two pieces. That I understand.


  1. It must be so confusing for him right now. Not only does he have two languages, but also all of the idiosyncrasies of toddler-speak, x 2!!!!

    He and I had some interesting conversations on my last visit with my stilted Italian. However I didn't seem to get the same reaction as you when I was confused.

    I usually got a simple 'You're funny' - THAT he says very clearly :-)

    Just think, though, how good all this will be for his mind in the long run

  2. Bellissimo! Povera te, e povero lui che si preoccupa tanto di non essere capito. Emma per un po' diceva spesso Tuyuku-yuku. Nessuno sa che cosa vuol dire, neanche lei. Adesso e' diventata una barzelletta. Per farci ridere basta dire Tuyuku-yuku. Adesso vai a cercare sto savi-et.

  3. Dear Zia Sharon, I'm sure you'll get more of "you're funny" reactions soon. I'm his only target, don't worry. Twice alone this morning, with the words "befe-ina" (I'm sure this was Italian) and "itty bud", which much later I realized was "lady bug". At least this morning he answered the animal-vegetable-mineral question.

  4. Cara Ester, che bella questa storia del Tuyuku-yuku. Sembra quasi giapponese! Me lo devo ricordare per la prossima volta che la vedo. Per quanto riguarda 'savi-et', anche se spero che un giorno diventera' una barzelletta, ho veramente paura di menzionarlo mai piu'.

  5. Well, Heddi, you could at least tell that befe-ina was something female???? I can just see him, so sure of himself and totally puzzled that you don't know what he's talking about. I expect he's gentler on me as he probably finds my attempts at Italian a bit ridiculous - I wish I had more time to study it!!! I also think 'itty bud' is actually a quite suitable name for a lady bug' :-) xxxxx