Sunday, September 16, 2012

My Kiwi son still speaks English like a wop

Since shamefacedly taking two months’ unapproved leave (without pay) from blog writing, a few things in my life have changed. A copyediting deadline has lifted and so has the forehead wrinkle between my brows; my eyesight has considerably improved too. I now have time for National Geographic and The Biggest Loser. Or sometimes in the evenings I indulge in this really amazing new practice called sleeping. I have reconciled with the spiritual world. I now make my nachos with black beans and ground beef. And my son has turned four.

Well, not exactly four but “three plus one”, or “tre più uno”, to hold onto that favorite number for a bit longer. He likes to do things his own way, including speech. But such originality in manipulating language comes as no surprise: my four-year-old is a half-American, half-Irish, New Zealand-born bilingual Italian-English speaker. Now try saying that five times fast. In Maori.

His Italian has up till recently far surpassed his English. In fact, his Italian vocabulary remains overall more impressive, as he pulls out words like “paleontologo” (paleontologist) and “schiacciasassi” (roadroller), and he still claims to not understand Scooby Doo at all unless it’s in Italian. All these moments make me feel vindicated as a mostly stay-at-home mom doing her best to raise a child bilingually. So even though I’m starting to hear the English creeping in and taking over more and more every day, I try to pay it no mind. I ignore the fancy colloquialisms (“What in the heck is that?”), the Kiwisms (“Cool, eh?”) and the inaccurate but still shocking indecencies picked up from gosh knows where (“Stop it, you’re f***ing me out!”).

Instead I choose to focus on the Italianisms that linger in his English, the endearing mistakes that shed insight onto his churning four-year-old mind while making his nose crinkle and his lips pucker in a totally cute way that – for just an instant – make him truly look three plus one. Here are a few recent examples:

“Wake yourself up!” I too think that English just doesn’t have enough reflexive verbs, like svegliarsi, but I try not to worry myself about it and to relax myself instead.

“Don’t worry of me. I’m going at the museum.” In his head, my little automatic translator justifiably chooses to render the Italian preposition di as the English “of” and a as “at”. But of course if English prepositions were that tidy, we ESL teachers would be out of a job. Andare a scuola = go to school; vivere a Napoli = live in Naples; parlare al telefono = talk on the phone.

“Look at the persons.” Correct, but in a dorky European way.

“Me don’t never feel tired.” Ah, the double negative of childhood, as good as sweet strawberries dipped into the sugar bowl. However, for my son this is a well thought-out grammatical choice based on his knowledge of Italian – Non mi sento mai stanco. And you’d better believe he means it.

“Give it to she.” In spoken Italian, “she” (subject) and “her” (object) is just lei. Just like “he” and “him” is just lui. In that way, lei can give it to lui and lui can give it back to lei. Now that’s handy.

“I don’t know how they look.” They look with their eyes! his dad must have been thinking as he heard this while playing with our little man yesterday. But this is a direct translation of come as “how”, from Non so come sono fatti, meaning, “I don’t know what they look like.” Sometimes I don’t know how his father understands him!

“Tell me.” Ah, one of my favorite sayings in Italian that is just impossible to translate into English. Dimmi, literally “tell me”, is a way of saying that you’re truly listening, you’re ready for someone to potentially open their deepest, darkest secrets to you. You’re crying? Dimmi. You saw the coolest thing today? Dimmi. You have a new favorite number? Dimmi.


  1. Great to hear from you again! Glad that you are getting some time to relax now. I love these posts about children's language. My kids have similarly funny sounding English at times - the translated reflexive most notably, and also mistranslated words: "mum, why don't you respond?" (why aren't you answering my question) and "I feel so fresh" (I feel nice and cool = fresco). I also love the mixed language sentences they come out with occasionally, like this one recently: "the principal said he had a frog in his gola". I'm sure that's not what the principal said!!

  2. Oh, these are hilarious! I hope you're writing them down; the kids will laugh themselves silly when they're older. I particularly love "I feel so fresh" - it sounds like a deodorant ad - and is so cute that it completely explains why Mamma is so lost for words that she "doesn't respond".