As a French teacher, I’m fascinated by all kinds of language acquisition--from babies learning to speak to foreign languages. Since we were in Sicily the better part of last week, I was able to observe us firsthand as we tried to make ourselves understood in a tongue we are unfamiliar with. Because we both speak French, it’s not too difficult to comprehend Italian, since both are Romance languages derived from Latin. But when we have to produce the words ourselves, it’s quite a different story. You can probably imagine that many results were quite comical.
One thing is for sure: gestures are always our friend in these kinds of situations. When the ice cream server at the Gelateria Spinnato in Palermo asked if we wanted to eat our cones on the terrazza we understood that meant at the outdoor café. Unable to say we wanted them “to go,” we used that universal symbol of fingers making a walking motion! Got the point across! Later in the week we traveled to the tiny town of Contessa Entellina (pop. 2,000) to try to find traces of my great-grandfather. Although we struck out in that effort, it did offer us an interesting conversation in Italian. The office at the municipio (or “town hall”) was staffed by three women, doing absolutely nothing but smoking when we arrived. I began by asking in my halting Italian if they spoke inglese o francese. When the answer was no, I pulled out the list of phrases that I had fortunately prepared in advance. The problem is that you can’t control where the conversation will go. I tried to tell the women that our family had found a birth certificate of a woman from their town in my grandfather’s Bible. Not knowing the word for Bible in Italian, I tried Italianizing the French word into la Biblé. When that didn’t work, my husband made a praying gesture which did the trick. Turns out the real word is Bibbia, if you ever need it!
Something I read ages ago is that, when you’re attempting to speak a new language, you tend to use words from the foreign language you’ve studied least. That was certainly true for us, especially just after landing in Palermo last Monday. At lunch that day we were both pulling out our German! Thanking people by saying danke and using the numbers eins, zwei, drei for one, two, and three. We were looking at each other and saying out loud “Why are we speaking German?” I’m sure the wait staff at the restaurant was wondering the same thing. Actually, we had many multilingual conversations—with a Mexican couple and their baby, a young Spanish man we asked directions of in the street, at the front desk at the hotel, even at the tourist bureau. It was a lot of fun.
There’s so much more to say about Sicily. I’ll be posting about it for the next week or so.