Sunday, January 27, 2008

Second Languages and the Singular Girl

I am an anomaly, an aberration. I am singular and unusual in that I am of Italian descent and yet do not conversely easily in Italian. I am rather ashamed of this. Both of my younger siblings are proficient. Their Italian speech is ... mellifluous. Yes, mellifluous. My speech, alas, is not.

I have a love/hate relationship with the language. I love the sound of it, am proud of my heritage and resent myself for being so weak in my command of the language. I have been negligent. I no longer speak it well and the less I speak it the more anxious I feel when I do speak it.

True, I have had my traumatic experiences. We spoke a dialect at home - a Sicilian dialect - which was at variance with the official Italian (read Northern dialect and Northern imposed) taught here at school and in Italy, even in the South. Don't even get me started on the unification of Italy and its cultural and social byproducts. Other Italians, heck other Southerners, did not understand me well when I spoke it.

I tried in highschool to take a few courses in Italian. It was harder than I thought and I didn't fare so well. My marks were fair to middling. I always came up with the wrong word for something and I remember well the gales of laughter I would inspire when I spoke to my non-Sicilian friends in Italian.

When I tried to speak my highschool Italian with my extended family they wickedly imitated my seemingly "posh" inflection and word usage. That shut me down pretty quickly. Ah, we are such a tolerant people. Note to self: stick to dialect at home.

I left home at 18 and came to Toronto to get my degree. I had very little cause to speak it except when I came home to Hamilton to see my family and then that became more infrequent when I got established in my work, married, had a child etc ... My partner is not of Italian descent; some of my friends are but we don't speak in Italian. Curse maybe, speak no.

It's a tough crowd back at home in Hamilton, especially with my mother and sister reprimanding me for not remembering how to say, oh for instance, something essential like sesame seed and such (it's giuggiulena from the Arabic giulgiulan by the way). As the oldest sib, this adds another level of shame. I exaggerate only a little here.

For years I have said to myself that I would try and re-learn it but I was intimidated. I am a notorious coward when it comes to doing something that I know I don't do well. But a friend said that she was considering studying Cantonese at the School of Continuing Studies at UofT. I thought, "I should probably do something about this after thinking of it all these years".

Before I go to class each Monday night, I try and psyche myself up. I feel like that SNL character Stuart Smalley sitting in front of the mirror with a smile plastered on my face and saying "You're good enough, you're smart enough, and dog gonnit, people like me!"

Luckily, my instructor Paolo is utterly charming, like the sweeter, older uncle whom I never had. The class, mostly of Anglo or Northern European descent, seems enchanted as well. They get that dreamy Italophile glow when he speaks the language, especially to another Italian born person with perfect inflection such as the instructor in the class next door.

I usually think (enviously), "Wow, I'd love to have that effect on people when I speak Italian." With a little hard work, I might still do that.

6 comments:

Maria said...

I understand exactly where you're coming from, and applaud you for taking on this challenge. I've been promising to do this for myself, for years...Brava, beda.

A Lit Chick ... said...

Oh, I'm just relieved that I finally took the jump after years of procrastinating. But I think it will work out. Thank you for the support!

Anonymous said...

I was one that knew you back then, 18-19 or so, and remember your Italian as being quite too Southern Italian, and thinking so in a pejorative sense. I’m glad you’re finally getting some help!!

In total jest of course -- and in total strangeness of running across you on the Internet, reading about this particular thing about you, again.

A Lit Chick ... said...

Hmm, and WHY are you anonymous? If you are from Hamilton which I doubt because very few people know about this blog, identify yourself sir/madame ... :)

Anonymous said...

From Toronto actually...Imperial Six is our common and shared ground -- I would not know much of this blog except from a link that drove me here by happenstance.

This little mystery is obviously more fun for me than you. What has 25 years changed, that you cannot guess my identity ???

A Lit Chick ... said...

I'm completely stymied ... how did you get to this blog? Very few people know of it. And I'm not sure how you would even get here ... are you interestd in Italian culture? adoption issues? literature?