Over lunch of roast beef, grilled spare ribs, potato salad and garden fresh greens with our Swiss friends, the conversation flashed back and forth between English, Italian, French, German and the local dialect – Ticinese. When I first started learning Italian, my third language, I was stunned by these common table conversations that reminded me of the last days of the Tower of Babel. The Swiss rapidity and ease at shifting from one language to another astounded me. But this is common in a country where even my mechanic at the garage speaks four languages.
When I first came to Ticino and began to learn Italian, speaking French came as easily as English. But during the switch into language number three, a fence in my brain walled off access to the French for about a year. If someone during my learning phase addressed me in French, I stuttered and struggled, practically incapable of digging up a single word in response. Perhaps new channels were being excavated. I was unable to speak French fluently again until after the Italian took root. Now, a new agility has arrived which enables me to flip between all three languages as easily as my Swiss friends.
There’s a tantalizing pleasure for language lovers to banter, play with words, tell or laugh at jokes in various tongues. I wonder if learning different concepts from culture to culture makes one more open minded to new ideas and inspirations. Each culture’s ideas must be formed by the sounds and shapes of its words. The sensual French language reflects the native tendency to fall prey to sensual pleasures. The French love of food is a good example. They have many words related to food and eating which may not find exact translation. Others like bouffer, which means to eat like a pig must lay at the root of our English word buffet. In Italian the most astonishing feature that reflects the country’s thinking is the ability of the verb to express both subject and action. Vado means “I go.” Mangia is “you eat.” It’s an economical way of expression – that perhaps gives the Italians more space to be loquacious.
And then there’s the complex and complicated way of addressing people with either the formal or familiar forms of the language. Rules vary from region to country. In Milan a cashier will casually address one as tu while in Ticino most encounters, even with colleagues and friend’s parents are usually in the formal Le. For a foreigner this is perhaps the most complex code to break, but most people are tolerant when they hear an American accent.
Copyright: Debra Moffitt, 2008 www.debramoffitt.com