Italian As A Second (or Fourth?) Language

Mamma mia!”, “Ma… Cosa fai?”, “Come stai?”, “Via!”, “Va Be”, “Aspetta!”, “Capito?“, “Vai!”, “Cosa facciamo?” and many other short phrases are now part of the things heard coming out of our children’s mouths on a regular basis here at home, at school and on the street. These are often combined with a hand gesture that is internationally recognized as Italian, the one that involves pressing all your fingertips against your thumb with your palm facing upward, and shaking the resulting pyramid of fingers up and down rapidly near your face, preferably while hunching your shoulders up, and craning your neck forward so that your chin sticks out. Yep, that’s the one.  Another favorite gesture is done by spreading all your fingers wide on both hands, pressing the fingertips together, then shaking the hands quickly under your chin. This instantly adds a level of stupefaction to whatever you’re trying to convey. For example, when you add this hand movement to “What are you doing?” (Che cosa fai?) you could alter the meaning of the words to express “What are you doing, you moron?!” or more subtly “What are you doing? Are you nuts?!”, depending on your facial expression while  saying it. Unlike Stefan and I, the kids haven’t seen these gestures in dozens of different movies and TV shows depicting Italians or Italian-Americans, so they don’t think of it as ridiculously stereotypical. This is simply how their grade school friends and teachers actually speak, with their hands moving about constantly.

Every day I see that they are taking in the language (gestures and all!) little by little, but that doesn’t stop me from being taken aback every time I walk into a room where one of them is communicating in this brand new language. Sometimes it’s Leeloo trying to explain something to her good friend, Emma, who is just learning English (“Vai!, Spiamo lei!” which means Go! Spy on her!), or it’s Leeloo singing to herself as she does her homework, either a pop tune from the radio (Quando una stella muore, fa male…; When a star dies, it hurts..) or a traditional song that she’s learned in school (Era una casa molto carina, senza soffito, senza cucina…; It was a cute little house, without a ceiling and without a kitchen…). In all cases, she has no idea that she’s switched to another language, she’s not trying, it just happens. Another time it might Zoel at an event, like one recently where he was wondering around with his sister, and struck up a conversation with a grandpa and grandma that were listening to the live music. By the time I made my way over there, they had been talking for 15-20 mins, so you can imagine my surprise, when I hear everybody speaking Italian. It’s not very sophisticated or fluid speech, but it’s definitely Italian! They’re asking him questions about the States and about their first few months here, and he’s answering, sometimes stopping to translate for Leeloo when she misses something. The Italian “nonni” are being very kind and patient as they listen and carry on the conversation for another 15-20 minutes!

I hear them both coming in the door right now from school , and as Zoel bounds up the steps he’s teasing Leeloo saying “Tu sei una fetta di torta!” (You’re a piece of cake!) and Leeloo responds  “Cosa?!!!” (What?!!! -I see the accompanying gesture in my head.) When they get up to our home office and see the subject of my post, they gleefully start telling me about all the parolacce (bad words) they’ve learned at school. The most printable one being un pezzo di cacca, charming in any language.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this for us, the parents who have been trying to get them to speak Spanish and French since they were born with mixed results, is that it’s happening without any interference from us. They have Italian class four times a week, and that’s helping them to understand the grammar and pick up vocabulary. Then there’s the fact that the majority of the students in their school are Italian. We made a conscious decision to go with the least international school we found when we started planning this experiment a year ago, and I’m thrilled we did. It means that games on the playground, side conversations in line, chit chat in the cafeteria – the fun bits of school – all take place in Italian, and when language is a conduit to entertainment, it seems to be a pretty compelling reason to get in there and figure it out.

As they go off to play this afternoon, behind me I hear Leeloo asking Zoel, “Should we do dinner in Italian tonight?” I like it. Molto buona idea, ragazzi!


In the clip below, Leeloo shows how “Eh… Buona Notte!” not only means “Good Night”, but  also, “Hey, Are you sleeping or something?”

Here, Zoel shows off the ubiquitous Italian gesture of stupefaction:

Leeloo demonstrates what her friend says when she doesn’t understand something at school:





Leave a comment