Monday, December 17, 2012

Italian from his head to the fingers of his feet

My bilingual four-year-old is starting to understand when to use each of his languages – some form of English with his dad (“Can me put me pants under me undies?”), some form of Italian with his mom (“Can me put me pantoloni sotto mi mutande?”) and some form of ancient Aramaic with the cats.

It’s all cute. Four is cute, or “three plus one” as my son has insisted since having to give up his favorite number on his fourth birthday. What’s especially cute is that he thinks that because he speaks Italian he naturally comes from Italy, instead of from New Zealand, born to two English teachers. But judging from his exaggerated vowels, which have proven to be very handy when learning Maori at preschool, and his frequent direct translations into English, you might think he was right.

Here are a few more of my son’s recent grammatical, syntactical and lexical mistakes as he tries to sound as articulate in English as he can be in Italian:

“Get it you!” (from Prendilo tu!) Ah, the power of intonation to make an impact. And Italian has an additional superpower that my bossy little man can’t seem to relinquish – the power of flexible word order to make a point.

“Oh, my favorite carpet!” Something of a false friend to his four-year-old ears, this phrase is all about snuggling up on the couch on a chilly early morning (while buck naked) with his favorite wooly…coperta (blanket).

“the pooh of bird” Literally, cacca di uccello. One day my son will be astonished – and perhaps horrified – to learn that a noun (like “bird”) can magically transform into an adjective by simply putting it in front of another noun (as in “bird pooh”).

“too burro” Or troppo burro, too much butter. I do like the way this sounds, though: it’s quite catchy.

“I like this panino so much I want to die!” As a mother I might worry, but as the cook, I take it as the highest compliment: it’s a creative translation of Mi piace da morire, something like “I love it to death!”

“They’re mines.” You see how dangerous it can be to pluralize your possessive pronouns? Yet for some reason, this grammatically over-precise phrase has caught on with his four-year-old cousin (also a part-time Italian speaker) and his all-Kiwi three-year-old neighbor.

“I are!” (Literally, Lo sono!) I agree – irregular verb conjugations are hard in any language. So wouldn’t it be handy if at least the verb “be” were irregular in the same way across my son’s two languages? Wouldn’t it be handy if io sono (I am) and loro sono (they are) could match like that in English? In our house, they do.

“You don’t have to break it.” My son’s translation of Non devi romperlo, or “You mustn’t break it.” As an English teacher, I can tell you this is one of the last everyday verb twists for ESL students to grasp.

“la più grandest” Clearly, it’s the biggest! La più grande

“It not was me!” Non sono stato io! Well, it not was me either to invent the English language! Let’s face it, English negatives are hell with all the modals and contractions, whereas Italian negatives are so gorgeously logical: just say non!

“fingers of feet” From le dita dei piedi, that is, the toes. In fact, through the Italian le dita delle mani (hands) and le dita dei piedi (feet), we can clearly see that they’re all just digits, really.

Cute, but also fascinating. Because by using such logic at age three plus one, my little Kiwi boy is starting to convince me that he may be, after all, Italian from his head to the fingers of his feet.

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