Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.

[Books and materials used in my efforts to help myself and the kids learn Italian]

Mother Tongue and Limited Proficiency


ImageMy European experience has complicated my relationship with language.

I have always loved language. I am a communicator, and language is fairly essential to good communication. While I have heard the statistic that 90 percent of all communication is non-verbal, I am not sure I am entirely convinced. For one thing, this would suggest that the written word is a relatively ineffective form of communication. However, I have frequently found books and articles to be extremely powerful. They have given me new perspectives on everything from specific issues to my understanding of myself and how I relate to the world. This is one of the primary reasons that I blog. The carefully crafted written word can expose us to new ideas and give us the time to really engage them without all the distractions that come with conversational language.

Moving to a non-English-speaking country has further convinced me that words, while not everything, are much more than ten percent of the equation that makes my conversation partner’s comprehension equal my intended meaning, and vice versa. Words matter.

At this point, those of you who have travelled in Europe may be tempted to retort with the truism I heard so many times before we moved to Italy. “But, everyone in Italy speaks English!” Allow me to correct that misapprehension. While in tourist zones, yes, most Italians you encounter have at least a functional acquaintance with English. This same does not hold true at the local dry cleaners, or the gas station, or the reception desk of the hospital where my son had to go for an EKG. [He is fine, just an innocent heart murmur.] Moreover, while a friendly smile and mime-worthy sign language can accomplish a fair amount in basic information-sharing, it has clear limits.

Thus, despite my clear incompetence at speaking the language of Dante, I generally make the attempt in all interactions where I am not certain that the other party is comfortable and competent in English. At least this way I am fairly certain I will be aware of any gaps in understanding, since they are likely to be mine. Although visiting family members have expressed their admiration at the speed and apparent ease with which the beautiful Italian language falls from my lips, this is because I only sound good when you don’t know what I am saying. After 18 months in Italy, I am painfully aware of the mispronunciations, improper conjugations, and English-style grammar errors with which I butcher virtually every sentence I utter. Speaking Italian makes me feel stupid.

This has introduced the first complication into my love-affair with language. I have come to realize that one of the reasons I have always loved language is that I have always been above average at using it. Throughout my academic and professional life I have received consistent approbation for my skills with both written and verbal communication, and that has naturally made me feel kindly disposed toward the tool that brings such accolades. My limited exposure to foreign language in my Jr. High and High School Spanish classes and brief travel to Mexico and Costa Rica also resulted in positive feedback. I thought of myself as “good with languages” and actually looked forward to the opportunity to immerse myself in a foreign language environment so that I could achieve true fluency.

The reality has not exactly matched my day-dreamy expectations. Of course, my life in Italy does not really reflect the state of true immersion. My family all speak English almost exclusively, with the exception of school yard objections that Princess Imagination has picked up from her classmates and taught to the Gigglemonster (“basta” – enough/stop; “questo è mio” – this is mine; etc. – I’m thrilled!). My really crucial interactions can generally be carried out in English, since our children’s school is British and we have been able to find all English-speaking doctors. The expatriate community in Milan and the upper class Italian parents of Princess Imagination’s schoolmates, who are eager to speak in English, provide ample friends and social connections. Even entertainment – once we jumped through six months of bureaucratic hoops and inefficiency that could only be the product of an Italian service system — is now readily available in English, grazie to the ubiquitous satellite TV-provider of Western Europe. Add to the mix that my first official Italian language class will begin next month, and I acknowledge that I have had limited opportunities to really master the tongue of my temporary country. All of these caveats, however, do not change my daily experience of language being much more often a source of frustration than of gratification.

[Books and materials used in my efforts to help myself and the kids learn Italian]

Then, we went to Greece.  Encountering Greek, with its unique alphabet, and basic words that are counter-intuitive for English-speakers —“yes” is ναί  (pronounced nai) and “no” is όχι  (pronounced o-key) — cast an entirely new light on the Italian language for me. Compared with languages spoken only a few hundred kilometers distant from my new country, Italian is easy! I actually studied biblical Greek for a full year in Seminary and did quite well (part of the I’m-good-at-foreign-languages delusion), but when faced with the challenge of asking the price of a Parthenon-shaped refrigerator magnet, I was helpless. It does not help that we managed to misplace our Greek phrasebook in the course of our three-day road trip to Athens. Even if we had had it, however, I’m not sure it would have helped much. My seminary Greek did begin to resurface a bit in helping me to pronounce Greek words on menus and road signs, but only with excruciating slowness. The added step of translating letters as well as words was just too much for me, and so I defaulted to English in all interactions and hoped for the best. Thankfully, we frequented primarily tourist locations, and thus the truism proved true. Everyone really did speak English, to a serviceable degree. However, the experience still left me feeling uncomfortable. I caught myself speaking loudly and slowly, with gesticulating hand motions, when the English of a given shopkeeper or waiter was inexpert. Ugh! I’m the Ugly American Tourist: expecting everyone to speak my language and unintentionally treating them like idiots when they do so imperfectly. And thus, I encountered a further complication in my relationship with language: the unflattering light it shines on my own self-centeredness.

When our Greece adventure transferred us to the Island of Tinos our tourism frenzy crawled to a halt and we spent most of our time relaxing by the pool, on the beach, or in our comfortable, lazy villa. My complete reliance on English was not an issue because I was surrounded by English-speakers again. The villas owners were Greek, but had been educated in English schools, the villa manager was from South Africa, the other villa occupants whom we met by the pool spoke English well, even the evening yoga instructor was a transplant from New Jersey. This languorous setting, however, held still another new encounter with language for me. The lovely French family that occupied the villa next to ours included a daughter, probably in her late teens, who decided to get her scuba diving license at a local dive school during their vacation. This struck me as incredibly brave, not because of the arguable dangers involved in the sport itself, but because this decision meant that she had to study and be tested on fairly complex material (her mother told me there was quite a bit of physics involved) in English, a language she has only learned in school and in which she has never been immersed even to the degree that I am immersed in Italian. A language, moreover, that was also not the mother tongue of her instructor. I found myself both incredibly impressed and incredibly jealous. That sweet young woman, and so many other friends and acquaintances whom I have met here in Europe, are able to function quite effectively in multiple languages. This is a cultural expectation in many western European countries (though less-so in Italy) that is palpably missing in America.

So this is the final complication in my relationship with, not language in general, but my own language of English: I am not sure whether or not I am glad to be able to claim this heritage. In Milan there is a commonplace acronym, EMT, which is used as an abbreviation for English Mother Tongue. My daughter’s school proudly publicizes that all its teachers are EMT, the English-language bi-weekly newsletter features numerous advertisements seeking EMT nannies or language exchange partners, and I have personally experienced the social prestige that derives from being EMT. Without a doubt, speaking English as my mother tongue opens doors for me and makes travel easier for me than is the case for the native speakers of any other language. Far from being shunned as an outsider here in Milan, I have been approached by numerous people wanting to meet with me to work on their English, several of whom have become good friends as well as language exchange partners.

And yet the fact that English is the de facto international language, in a sense, closes me off from an international community that is brought up understanding the importance of multilingualism. In contrast, the operative acronym in America is LEP: Limited English Proficiency. In my former life as a researcher and advocate in the arena of public policy I frequently encountered the challenges faced by LEP populations. In America the experiences of these populations are often far from the welcome I have experienced.  People who work in the tourism industry are not expected to know foreign languages in order to assist foreign visitors; it is not the rule for people to eagerly seek out acquaintance with foreigners in order to improve their own Italian, or Spanish, or Chinese, or Hindi; and there is certainly no social prestige associated with speaking, as your primary or exclusive language, a language other than English. In contrast, there is a broad social sentiment that resents immigrants or visitors who “can’t even learn the language.” While I have always been repulsed by such ethnocentrism in American politics, I now have a much more personal understanding of just how ignorant that perspective is. It is no easy thing to “just learn the language” of another country, even when you live there. Language acquisition takes time, and resources for study, and perhaps most importantly it requires gracious people in the host country willing to work with you patiently as you struggle and mangle their language.

I have always understood that language is power. I now understand how much the English language has a greater share of that power than is proportional to its native population. This gives me advantages that have made much of my European experience possible, and I am grateful for this. I am grateful to be EMT, but I am also grateful to have had the chance to experiences life as LIP (Limited Italian Proficient). I can never again take for granted the power that I have through no merit of my own. I hope rather to find ways to use that power to celebrate the international community and its appreciation of multilingualism. May this reflection be only a start.

[Some more photos from Greece, for the Grandmas.]


Author: Serena Gideon Rice

In early 2011 my family moved our home, temporarily, from New Jersey to Milan, Italy. In the process I quit what had been my dream job conducting policy-directed social science research, to focus on my other dream job, raising our two young children. The three-year adventure was exciting, exhausting, disorienting, fulfilling, and countless other contradictions. It also birthed in me a desire to share my reflections on life's joys and challenges with anyone who cares to reflect with me. Now that we have returned to the US I'm finding that the new perspective I gained in Europe has come with me, and gives me a whole new way of interacting with my home. There's still so much to learn and share! I hope you'll share the journey, and add your own lessons to my daily education.

3 thoughts on “Mother Tongue and Limited Proficiency

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful post. As your writing speaks of your reflections on yourself, you lead me to reflections on myself. Thank you. Love, Mom

  2. I felt like I was back in university prepping for my geophysics degree with countless math equations when we were in Greece. It’s like they all speak ‘math’.You definitely gave it more effort than I! 🙂 Actions DO speak louder than words. In a foreign country, we all involuntarily partake in a game of charades. Sounds like you had fun.

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