Tuesday, February 21, 2012

My Kiwi son speaks English like a wop

(photo by Sharon Chambers)
When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being able to speak a foreign language. My wish came true at the age of sixteen when an exchange program to Italy expanded my linguistic horizons and my waistline. Many years later my waistline expanded again, for another reason – and my baby boy was born.

I’d always known I wasn’t typical mom material. I’m not good at baking, crafts or keeping my cool. So I reckoned the least I could do was give my son the gift of language. This was something of a linguistic experiment: raising a New Zealand-born, half-Irish, half-American boy in a full-immersion Italian home environment. Nonetheless, it has worked. Today my little linguistic experiment is three and a half and casually uses Italian terms like trasformarsi (change into), spaventoso (frightening) and libellula (dragonfly). He can form complex conjugations of Italian verbs (mi piacerebbe) and correctly modify his adjectives by gender and number to match his nouns (macchine rosse). Not only that, but he also speaks English like a wop.

This means that not only do I often need to translate his Italian to other people, but I also need to translate his English. Because he usually ends up sounding like a fifty-something Neapolitan immigrant, fresh of the boat, who is trying his utmost to sound like he can speak good English. Partly, it’s his overly operatic vowels, which Italians can’t help but import into English. Partly, it’s the talking with the hands, the shouting, the kissing, the diving and the rolling dramatically around on the floor in theatrical agony. But for the most part, my little boy’s English is wop-like for purely grammatical reasons. Here are some examples of his recent attempts to speak good English:

“Look at la dog!” Let’s face it, it’s not easy to choose from the sprawling Italian buffet of articles il, la, lo, i, le, gli (all meaning “the”). So my three-year-old opts for the simple la for just about everything. Even in English.

“Me drinkato it.” He likes to show he is a big boy and can use big English verbs like “drink”. The problem is that he doesn’t yet know all those irregular past tenses in English that are so hard to master. So instead, he has been known to attach one of the Italian past (actually, present perfect) tense endings, -ato.

“You want to jumpare with me?” In a similar move, he sometimes forms the infinitive with one of the Italian endings (-are, as in mangiare), unaware that the infinitive of “jump” is, well....“jump”.

“I sleep why me tired.” The difference between “why” and “because” is basic to any elementary student of English, unless in your native tongue they are exactly the same word, like with the Italian perché.

“I make you see.” This is my little man’s version of “I’ll show you”, translated directly from the Italian Ti faccio vedere.

“Is stuck me foot.” Word order, shmord order, that’s what I say too. Sometimes the old subject-verb-object word order of English can be somewhat confining and you just want to kick it off, you know?

“Look, littles chickpeas!” Yes, I too was impressed with how quickly my son learned to say the big English word “chickpeas” after hearing ceci for most of his life. I was also impressed that he remembered to put the adjective before the noun, because he doesn’t usually. And I was especially impressed that he considered an unmodified English adjective to be a tad too simplistic: if you don’t add an “-s” ending to “little” – as in piccoli ceci in Italian – how are you ever going to know that it refers to the “chickpeas”? Huh, huh?

“I no know.” English grammar is often overly complicated. Why use all those unnecessary auxiliaries – like “don’t” or “didn’t” – when you can just say no?

I laugh, but the truth is I love my son’s quirky English. But don’t ask my little Irish-American Kiwi without a drop of Italian blood what languages he speaks, because the answer will most likely be “Spanish”.


  1. Love it! He is so much fun to speak with. I particularly enjoy the various accents which come from combining two languages, I swear he has a German accent sometimes using a 'v' sound instead of a 'w'.

    That said, to me he is (almost) always understood.

    I completely understand 'You no talk now', 'troppo noisy' and 'no photo'!!!

  2. Oh, that reminds me that he also says things like "too much noisy" (too and too much is just "troppo" in Italian)! Good on you for understanding him: it's not easy. Must be a blood thing!

  3. "Is stuck me foot" - I LOVE IT! My 5 year old says things funnily, too - and she has no excuse! I write them down, as well. Someday I'll read them and weep over how old she is. Thanks for this fun post!!

  4. I should be writing them all down too, Gretchen. But there are so many gems, aren't there? What would we do without those munchkins?

  5. Geez, he looks so cute – and he looks a lot like you, Heddi (btw, Sharon, sincere congrats for your photos, which not only show lovely people like Heddi & her son but also show your talent!). I just love those phrases and mistakes your son makes! Learning a new language is a very difficult task; unlearn one's mother tongue is, on the contrary, a quick journey, alas. How often I make my mom & sis laugh out loud because I explain that I've forgotten some important papers on my "bureau" (which in French means desk and office at the same time, but means only office in German).
    And your son is lucky not to live in France! They just pretend not to understand you (even if they do) for the sheer fun of annoying you. I remember when I arrived here, young & fresh and a tad shy, and went to the bakery to get me some baguette. I had learned my lesson well and asked for "une baguette", of course. But what with the accent I had back then, and my typical un-French looks and outfit (imagine, a guy with a pierced nose, back in the 90s!), the woman working behind the counter just looked me up and down, then shrugged, like "He talking Suahili or what?" So I rephrased my perfectly correct sentence and asked for "un baguette, s'il vous plaît", thus changing the correct female gender to a wrong male one. And of course, now, the stypid woman simply chose to ignore me because accent PLUS a grammatical error, that was just too much to bear.

    PS: Suffice it to say that today, my French colleagues always ask ME to correct their grammatical & spelling mistakes because THEY HAVE NO IDEA WHY things have to be written the way things have to be written. That shows that French don't like rules.

    Kisses 'n' hugs xoxoxo D.

  6. Dear Dieter, you are not just an insider in matters of linguistic crossover, but also an expert, having done in not once but twice! So I'm not surprised at all that your French colleagues ask you to correct them.

    I love your baguette story, very funny...although it does reinforce the stereotype of the French being fiercely protective of their language. It's a pity it sounds so beautiful or we would all just laugh at them for their pride.

    Anyway, lucky you to have such an incredible talent for languages. Hopefully my little boy will have it too. And I will pass on your compliments to my visually talented sister-in-law Sharon.
    :) h.

  7. Ahah! Troppo divertente questo post! Tuo figlio dev'essere davvero simpatico!

    Ah, ti chiedo davvero scusa, ma non sono ancora riuscita ad iniziare a leggere il tuo libro. Sono stata presa da nuovo lavoro e impegni. Pero', cerco di iniziare al piu' presto. Tu fammi anche sapere se vuoi gia' che inizi la traduzione, cosi' magari, dovendolo tradurre, ho una motivazione in piu' per impegnarmi!

  8. Ciao cara! Grazie mille e non ti preoccupare per il libro. Leggi quando (e quanto) vuoi! Per adesso vedi solo se ti piace: non iniziare ancora la traduzione, non solo perche' e' una cosa lunga ma anche perche' lo sto ancora rivedendo (ieri ho tolto 3,000 parole e riscritto alcuni brani) e perche' molte delle email gia' le ho in italiano...Spero tanto che ti piace, aspetto il tuo giudizio!
    un bacione