We are one of countless bilingual families living in Geneva. When I was pregnant with Dante, one of the ways I tried to calm my anxieties was by reading about the best way to bring up bilingual children. Illustrious professors from the University of Oxford advise that each parent should always use only his or her mother tongue when speaking to the children. We have followed this advice to the letter and, in fact, both our children are bilingual and quite content to be so.
Harold and I, on the other hand, have both experienced problems on account of our patriotic instincts. There has always been a certain element of competition between us, along the lines of:
“Dante which language do you prefer: Italian or Dutch?” or “Do you prefer Holland or Italy?”
And we look at him nervously, staring into his eyes in the hope of convincing him to give the right answer. Children, of course, are often more intelligent than their parents. Dante has always teasingly answered, “Both.”
One of my biggest disappointments came when Dante spoke his first word. He was only one at the time, and was playing with a toy cow in the living room while Harold and I were watching television. Suddenly Dante said, “Cu.”
I didn’t react, but Harold leapt onto the sofa and shouted, “Dante has started talking, did you hear? He said his first word! Can you believe it? Dante can talk! He can talk! He said ‘cu’!”
“Harold, what have you been drinking? The child only said ‘cu’; it’s no different from when he says ‘la’ or ‘ba’. That’s not talking. At his age children communicate in monosyllables. They’re not proper words.”
“You don’t understand. He said it while he was holding the cow and ‘cu’ means ‘cow’ in Dutch. Dante said ‘cow’!”
I had missed my son’s first word and I was incapable of rejoicing. In fact, I was extremely annoyed that Dante’s first word had not been in Italian. I felt like an idiot and tried to share Harold’s joy. Naturally, I was happy that Dante had started speaking, that was the most important thing.
After a couple of minutes, however, I found myself thinking, ‘Why didn’t he say his first word in Italian? Does he prefer Dutch? It’s because Harold never shuts up – he’s always reading him books in his language… and has been ever since Dante was a week old. He’s been torturing him since birth with those damned Dutch books that his grandparents buy him. This is not good. Maybe he won’t speak Italian at all, only Dutch!’
I knelt down by Dante and tried talking to him slowly and clearly in Italian, using simple words in the hope that he might reproduce one. Dante looked into my eyes, smiled and repeated, “Cu, cu, cu.”
Harold was in seventh heaven. He hugged Dante and danced around with him in his arms. I pretended to be happy, but inside I felt a deep sense of failure. Some weeks would pass before, to my immense relief, Dante said his first Italian words. At last!
At 18 months, my son spoke Dutch much better than I did after months of private lessons and diligent study. I had not made the progress I had hoped for and even now when I speak Dutch, Dante actually laughs.
The thing was, I couldn’t not learn Dutch. My husband spoke very good Italian before we had even been going out together for a year, and although at first I refused to speak Dutch – it’s a difficult, ugly language and everyone in Holland speaks English anyway – I changed my mind when Dante was just a few days old and Harold started speaking Dutch to him.
I wanted to know exactly what he was saying to our tiny first-born. Usually I couldn’t understand anything at all, but that day I listened very carefully. Harold was showing the little mite where Holland was on the map of Europe. Poor child! His father was in full flow:
“See, Dante, Daddy’s from Amsterdam, right here in the middle of Europe. In just two hours you can be in Paris or Brussels. And Mummy’s from Bari, somewhere down there between Africa and Albania, too far from Europe for anyone to bother about.”
Harold was probably joking but I had a real go at him anyway, perhaps because my hormones were still in post-natal turmoil. The following day I started an intensive Dutch course; I wasn’t going to let Harold get away with teaching Dante all sorts of nonsense just because his mother didn’t understand his father’s language.
As I mentioned, Harold picked up Italian very quickly and even knows a few expressions in the Bari dialect. On occasions, however, he doesn’t get quite the right word. I remember once in early summer, on a beach, he burned his back quite badly. Turning to my cousin Sonia, he exclaimed, “Have you seen how red my sack is?”
Harold’s most sensational linguistic gaffe, however, was during a conversation with my grandfather Vittorio, who is known to everyone as Don Vittorio. The formidable Don Vittorio is a stern man in his eighties, an old-fashioned head of family, used to being treated by all of his grandchildren with the utmost respect.
The whole family was gathered round the table, eating and chatting, when Harold suddenly turned to my grandfather and said, “Vittorio, don’t talk bollocks.”
In just four words he had made three serious mistakes:
For a moment there was a deathly hush, and then I burst out laughing. A few seconds later everyone was laughing, even Don Vittorio. My mother blamed me for teaching colourful language to my husband without explaining when to use it.
- using the imperative when addressing my grandfather;
- using a swear word;
- calling my grandfather’s judgment into question.
Read more from Flo on finding her feet as an expat in Switzerland, in Welcome to Switzerland! Paradise (Apparently), available in bookshops and online.
Whether you’re new in town, have lived here for years or are simply curious to discover more about this country with its remarkable people and customs, you'll find yourself chuckling at this southern Italian woman’s attempts to adapt to life in Switzerland.