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Just one year of love is better than a lifetime alone (One year of love – Queen)
I’ll look back on myself and say “I did it for love” (It’s a hard life – Queen)
It is incredible, even for me, to think that this blog, my baby, already reached its first anniversary. A year is long, and full of events and changes, and so it has been for Une belle infidèle! Plenty of subjects, several posts, all marking my life, one way or another. One year has passed and, to celebrate that, I was planning to write about bilingualism, with a special guest and all the rest. Unfortunately, my guest cannot attend the planned session, so this project is now hopefully going to be divided in two entries: this one, to be released on the actual date of the anniversary, and a second one, as soon as I can manage to interview my guest.
The older readers and followers already know my opinion about bilingualism, but for the sake of this analysis, and because some distinctions are necessary depending on the cases, I am going to use the terms bilingual and bilingualism in the scientific sense, without judgments on my part. For this post, I am going to analyse different examples of people who grew up in a bilingual or multilingual environment. It is not meant to be a scientific research, because I have not followed this process myself, but I just asked the different people to tell me about their own experiences. Of course, I have myself been raised in a bilingual environment, because two languages were spoken in my house and also outside, by the rest of the community. I consider myself a native speaker of both Italian and Sardinian, although, as I already explained in this same blog, my knowledge of these languages is uneven. Timewise, I should say that I learnt both languages at the same time, with my parents speaking mainly Sardinian, and my brothers mainly Italian (they were already 10 year old when I was born, so already fully immersed in a monolingual learning environment that was also soon going to become mine.)
The situation had been, of course, completely different for my parents during their childhood. My lovely father, who still struggles understanding what a blog is, was happy to talk about the way he was raised, linguistically speaking, and also to cast some light on my mother’s childhood, according to what he can have learnt from her. Gino was raised with Sardinian as mother tongue; in his own words, there was no other language spoken at home, and if my grandfather was able to speak Italian, dad is not even sure that my grandmother could. We are talking about the early 30’s, and no one used to speak Italian at all, although they could understand it, because, asked about it, my dad confirmed that the mass was in Latin, but the sermon in Italian. My father had his first contact with Italian when he started the elementary education but, without even thinking about it, he immediately said that, apart from the few months that he spent in Piedmont, he actually started speaking Italian only when he was dating my mother, at the end of the 60’s, when he was almost 40 years old. This was the first time that I realised this truth, and I am amazed by the situation, and by him. His level of Italian is remarkable, he is a native speaker, no doubt about it, and, with the exception of some Sardinian-like grammar structures, he doesn’t mix the two languages. He is absolutely comfortable with both of them and, if he defaults to Sardinian, it is a choice, not a necessity to be able to express himself.
My mother’s case is different, she was raised with mainly Italian spoken at home, my grandfather being Tuscan and not having any knowledge of Sardinian whatsoever. The result was that Italian was spoken at home, and also the rest of the family from my grandmother’s side (grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins) had to deal with that and default to Italian when grandfather Santi was present; moreover, during her childhood, my mother also used to spend several months every year in Tuscany with the other half of the family, in a monolingual environment in which Italian was the only spoken language. This is the reason why also my dad had to start speaking Italian constantly. Despite of this, I basically remember my mother mainly speaking Sardinian with my aunts and uncles, and also with my dad.
We were raised in a completely different way, in three different periods, with the result that Sardinian, despite the two separate cases, ended up being the main language for both my parents, while Italian is definitely the dominant one for my brothers and me. To be more specific, we are all native speaker of both languages, but I don’t consider myself completely bilingual. It is not only because I never studied Sardinian and can’t write it, it is also because I am fluent as far as I know, but I never really spoke about too complicated matters in Sardinian, it being the language I use to communicate with my family and, sometimes, my friends. For sure, Italian and Sardinian are completely separate for me, and so are for my brothers; if we use both languages together, it is consciously, because we prefer a specific word in the other language, because we always use it like that, or because we know that the other people will understand; on the syntactic level, instead, the distinction is complete. For our parents, as I said, lexically speaking, the situation was not different from ours, with conscious choices but, syntactically speaking, there often is, or was, a mix of grammar structures, with Italian sentences being sometimes formed using the Sardinian rules.
I know you think that this is just a post about my family and Sardinian in our own town, but it is more than that, with some friends who were kind enough to accept to share their experience with me, and with all of you; so, get ready for some very colourful examples. I guess it is fair to start with Alejandro, native speaker of Spanish and Galician, whose experience is similar to my personal one. He was brought up speaking Galician with his grandparents, and Spanish with his parents, but the situation is slightly different, because in Spain it is compulsory to teach 50% of the subjects in the co-oficial language of the region. When I asked him if he thinks he mixes the two languages, or used to mix them when he was younger, he definitely said that he does it consciously, either switching from one language to the other because he realises that he is among Galicians, or because he feels that only a Galician word can express what he is thinking. At that point, we realised that we were both thinking about the word morriña, that has no real translation in any other language.
A definitely more complicated example is Khadi. Native speaker of Arabic, French and Mandinka (Khadi, please correct me if I am spelling it wrong), Khadi is a perfect example of a child educated according to the OPOL principle (One-Person-One-Language), with each one of her parents talking to her using just one language. Her son, Moses, instead, was brought up in a multilingual environment, being in contact, on different levels, with English, French, Creole, Chinese, Arabic, Patois, and Yoruba. At the beginning, at home, especially Khadi used to use more than one language to speak with him, but she decided to stick just to English after a while because she felt that the child was mixing too much. Despite the fact that only English was spoken at home, Moses was still in contact with the rest of the languages, even Mandinka when talking with his grandmother. As a result, he can understand basic Chinese, Arabic and Mandinka, and fully understand French, which he also studies at school, but fluently only speaks English. When asked if she could do a comparison between her experience as a child, and her son’s, Khadi said that she tended to mix a lot less than Moses used to do or, at least, she did it consciously, while he did not.
As I said, this post wanted to be an introduction, and a more serious approach to bilingualism, without the sarcasm that I can hardly avoid when confronted with this subject. In fact, it is just a collection of experiences that people around me wanted to share, without the systematic analysis and the amount of data that a regular research would give. Hoping that we will manage to work on the second part, that was supposed to be the main one, I want to close adding some
First of all, as promised, I want to thank my colleagues from Cagliari, who helped me immediately when I reached out on Facebook looking for bibliographical advice on this post: grazie Claudia Conca, Giorgia Corda, Stefania Giovanrosa e Simona Melis (in rigoroso ordine alfabetico).
Thanks to who participated to my posts with actual chats or interviews, or simply being quoted; especially, thanks to my wonderful dad: the bilingual poet, philosopher and storyteller known by the name of zio Gino.
Thanks to all my followers and readers, including the main inspiration of this blog: during this year you all showed me that it was worth to keep writing posts that were witty, sarcastic, boring, nerdy, romantic, sad, but were always part of me. Thanks for commenting, on the blog, on Facebook or privately, because every little message gave me satisfaction and showed me the way. All of you made me proud of being Une belle infidèle!