This week’s theme for our Italy Expat Blogger Roundtable (official name and acronym to be announced VERY soon) is language learning and speaking Italian. Now, I’ve written before on various aspects of this topic, from my first encounter with Italian in Italy, to the later stages of my language learning journey. I’ve talked about the many diverse dialects throughout the country, and even scratched out a little eBook on the subject.
And I’ve also discussed the other side of the coin, which is Teaching English to Italians. Perhaps this last one is a good jumping off point for what I’d like to discuss today: How teaching English while speaking Italian has ruined my English language skills. These days, I catch myself saying, “I make a shower now,” instead of “I’m going to take a shower now.” Or, “Let’s repose ourselves for a few minutes,” instead of “Let’s rest for a while.” And then there the times when I say a perfectly correct English sentence, but replace one of the objects with an Italian noun. For example, “Put the baby in the passeggino, please.” Nothing wrong with the word “stroller,” but I happen to prefer passeggino. Of course, there are circumstances where there simply isn’t an English equivalent, such as “Darn it! There’s another sciopero in Rome today!” Or better still, when the English just isn’t strong enough to convey the emotion. “Porca puttana! There’s another sciopero in Rome today!”
Speaking Italian in the English Language
We all know that many Italian words have made their way into everyday English over the course of time, especially in the areas of food (pizza, pasta), music (piano, aria), and organized crime (mafia, vendetta). So these terms we are already familiar with and don’t require translation. Other words such as paparazzi, graffiti, and ghetto are also used frequently, if usually mispronounced.
Likewise, there are many English words that have been directly adopted by the Italians without translating them. Some of these words are club, flirt, bar, and shopping. Terms relating to business and technology are particularly common, such as meeting, staff, marketing, computer, fax, and mouse. There are some practical reasons for this. Imagine instead of “mouse” you had to say something like, “dispositivo di puntamento elettronico.” Of course, you could just say “topo” (literally: mouse), but every time I suggest this translation, my wife scrunches up her nose as if I had just emitted a foul odor.
Or sometimes they take an English word and make it Italian by adding an Italian suffix. For example, the verb, “to download” should be translated as “scaricare,” but instead you’ll often hear an Italian say, “downloadare.” Why they opt for the bastardized English word when the Italian word is perfectly fine, I don’t know.
Et tu, americano?
However, we should also point out that there are many words that Italian and English already share due to common etymology or root word origin. These are referred to as “cognates,” or words that look similar and have nearly identical meanings. (This term derives from the Latin cognatus, meaning blood relative.) The list of cognates is long, and being alert to them can give you a jump start in learning Italian. A few examples of these are as follows: farmacia—pharmacy; intelligente—intelligent; necessario—necessary; dividere—to divide; studiare—to study; and so on. An awareness of these similar terms can provide a huge initial boost to your vocabulary without actually memorizing new words. Sometimes I even invent them up on the spot, and more often than not, they turn out to be correct.
Furthermore, there are letter groupings that can help you decipher many words. For example, the English suffix, “tion” becomes, “zione” in Italian, such as station, stazione. Or the English, “ly” translates as, “mente.” (e.g. probably = probabilmente). The English “ous” turns into “oso” (e.g religious = religioso), the “y” ending becomes “ia” (e.g. copy = copia).
Then there are also the false cognates, which are sometimes referred to as “false friends.” These are tricky little buggers, and they still catch me off guard once in a while. Here’s a few that’ll spin your head around:
- Actually. It sounds very similar to “attualmente,” and it probably derives from the same root word, except in Italian, “attualmente” means “at the present time.”
- Eventually. Similar to “eventualmente” but instead of “sooner or later” (which is “primo o poi”), in Italian it means “in case,” or “in the event of.”
- Corpse. Sounds a lot like “corpo,” which in Italian is simply a “body.” In English, reporting “a dead corpse” to the police would be redundant. Not so in Italian.
- Cream. So close to “crema.” When asking for “cream” an Italian probably wants egg custard. “Panna,” is the Italian word for the cream that goes on top of your gelato—“whipped” cream, in other words.
- Definitely. Definitivamente: that means forever, definitively. NOT definitely. Get it?
- Stranger. I know some Italians who have a lot of “stranger” friends. What they mean to say is “foreign” friends. Hopefully they count me among the latter group. Straniero means foreigner in Italian, while a stranger is “sconosciuto.” So don’t be offended if they say that you look strange. They are probably referring to your wardrobe in any case.
- Magazine. Magazzino: which means a department store or warehouse. “Rivista” is the word for the many gossip rags on sale at the newsstand.
- Factory. Fattoria. Ever heard of an assembling line at a farm? No, me either, but that’s what a “fattoria” is: a farm, not a factory. “Fabbrica,” is the word for factory, while fabric is “stoffa,” in Italian.
Confused yet? OK, just one more. But it’s an important one.
- Preservative. Preservativo. No, no, and no! Not the chemicals that they put in your food, but rather a condom. Try not to make this mistake!
Yes, speaking Italian has definitely had a negative effect on my English. As if that weren’t enough, my English is also suffering from the influence of my bambina. We’re trying to teach our little principessa both languages at the same time as she grows up. At this point, she’s a bit confused, but I suppose it won’t be long until she starts correcting (or just laughing at) my Italian. I’m in full panic mode right now, trying to learn how to conjugate the passato remoto before she does.
And she’s worked out her own language, too, and I find myself learning her words instead of teaching her mine. “Eh-bu-ah” means “give me milk and nobody gets hurt,” apparently. So now when I blurt out that same phrase, my wife knows to substitute the word “Campari” for “milk” and it means basically the same thing. Communication–the cornerstone of every good relationship no matter what language.
The Usual Suspects
As I mentioned in the beginning, our nutty group now has an official name. Henceforth, we shall be referred to as:
So now we’ve got a name, a logo, and we’re working on a theme song and iPhone app (not really). But at least we’ve been officially recognized by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (another lie), and soon we’ll be asked to sit in on Parliamentary sessions as cultural advisers (OK, enough).
To read some other great ways expats are dealing with learning the Italian language, check these out:
- ‘An American speaking Italian is like a dancer having two left feet.‘ – Married to Italy
- ‘Italian the Hard Way‘ – Surviving in Italy
- ‘How I almost lost my native language‘ – Girl in Florence
- ‘Learning Italian in Florence’ – The Florence Diaries
- ‘Tongue Tied in Italy‘ – Unwilling Expat
- Englishman in Italy (article link coming soon)