Why I Am Monolingual: A Tale of Woe In Three Parts.Posted: August 23, 2010
I do not speak Italian. I think that perhaps if any person I am currently close to should speak Italian, it’s me. Yet some how, that person is decidedly not me.
Some people have grand tales of how they learned a skill or discovered a gift. Not me. Join me now as I share the story of how I came to be embarrassingly monolingual.
Some Family Background
My dad’s family is from Molfetta, Italy. My grandparents, uncle and aunts on his side of the family were born in Italy and came through Ellis Island into the U.S.. My father was the only person in his family born in the states.
My family lived in an apartment above my dad’s parents place until I was in the first grade. I’m told that while we lived there, I spoke Italian fluently. Then my family moved to a place where I did not have the need to use my second language. Freed from having to store two languages, my young mind discarded the one I never used anymore in favor of important things like remembering whencame on and learning to keep a baseball score book.
I didn’t have a need for Italian anymore, except on the trips we made to visit my dad’s family in New Jersey. I soon realized the mistake it was to put that second language aside when Italian became the method of conducting discussions that I was not to be privy to. I could not stand for this.
And Then Came The Plan. The Plan Was Good.
In my last semester of junior high, a guidance counselor came to my school to get us all signed up for high school classes. She explained that taking a foreign language class could help us get into college, then she handed out the list of course options. I could not believe my eyes. One of the options available was Italian. It was a no brainer, I was in.
My plan was simple. Simple enough for a junior high schooler to convince himself it would work. I would sign up for Italian class. School would start in September. I would apply myself to become fluent as quickly as possible. I had to work fast, part two of the plan would occur in November.
My family usually went to visit the Italian speaking portion of the family on the Thanksgiving holiday. That is when my work would pay off. I would quietly eat my dinner while discussions went on around me. Secretly bilingual after two months of study, I would know everything that was said. I’d say nothing. I’d just take it all in.
Once I knew all the secrets, all the scandal, and all the dirty words I would reveal my new-found language skills. While we all enjoyed our cannoli after dinner I would wait for a lull in conversation. Only then, when I could capture everyone’s attention would I launch into a soliloquy of Italian.
Perhaps I would hold forth on the texture of the cheesy filling of the cannoli. Maybe I’d discuss how odd it was that the people present were celebrating Thanksgiving since it had no relevance to their cultural background. Whatever I decided to say, I’d deliver it in perfect Italian.
The effect would be devastating. I just knew it.
Shockingly, The Plan Begins To Go Awry Almost Immediately
You know that old saying about the best laid plans? Yes, that one. Apparently there is something to that.
I went to high school that fall. Things were generally going along according to plan for the first few days. The Italian teacher seemed a little odd, but not so much that I couldn’t deal with it. But on the meet the teachers night for parents, things began to go horribly wrong with the plan.
My folks came back from that open house and spoke glowingly of all my teachers, until they got to the one that figured in to my plan. My Dad asked what I thought of her. I brought up the aforementioned oddness vibe I was getting from her.
In his usual indescribable way, my Dad let me know that being odd was the least of her problems as an Italian teacher.