Look who’s not talking

1 Nov

My grandparents did not speak English well. They had emigrated to America in the early 1900s, fleeing extreme poverty in their home in Southern Italy. The place where they settled, a little-known section of Brooklyn known as East New York, was also impoverished, but much less so. There they lived and worked alongside other Italian immigrants just like themselves, and so the community relied heavily on its native tongue.

Decades later, when my two brothers, dozen or so cousins and I were growing up together in our grandparents’ modest side-by-side apartment buildings the official language in our home was English. Italian was spoken only when “the grownups” spoke amongst themselves, and only intermittently. 

In our family, it seemed, the adults’ shared secrets were closely guarded by a language that they could all speak freely but their children could not.

It wasn’t until I was in my late-twenties that it occurred to me to get angry about all this. There I was on a much-anticipated first trip to Italy and the only language skill that I had was an English-Italian dictionary stuffed in the back pocket of my blue jeans.

I was ashamed of my Italian-American self then. I am still.

Of all the things I have worked to teach myself in life, the language of my ancestors, a lovely and wonderfully expressive one at that, has gone largely ignored.

For years I blamed my family elders for not sharing with my generation the gift of their bilingualism. And for what? I come from a line of good and honest people. What kinds of secrets could they have had? Not many bad ones, I’m pretty certain, and so what was the point of keeping this entirely romantic language all to themselves?

No, the real reason why my brothers and cousins and I were not raised to be bilingual is a much sadder one, at least it is to me. Our parents and grandparents thought it best for our generation—for our future prospects in the country we lived in, that is—that we not be Italians like they were but Americans. 

Fully assimilated Americans. 

Through. And through. And through.

Days ago I was on a plane traveling from Milan’s Malpensa Airport to New York’s JFK International, only a few miles from the place my grandparents had settled and lived out the rest of their lives. My wife Joan and I had just spent three weeks traveling in Italy, a place we have been to many times before and which we both love quite a lot. When we are in Italy it is I who does most of the communicating with the locals, but not without great preparation and practice and, yes, anxiety. Often these Italian-language encounters are less than fully successful, rarely are they completely satisfying. Never are they natural and comfortable and intimate.

I am a monolingual American all right.

Of course I alone am to blame for this, not my grandparents nor any of their children. Learning another language requires study and commitment, and the sad truth is that studious and disciplined I am not. Never have been.

I cannot tell you how deeply I regret this character flaw.

When I was a younger man it was easy to trick myself into believing that I could right myself one day.

It isn’t so easy anymore.

12 Responses to “Look who’s not talking”

  1. JOAN LANG November 1, 2021 at 10:12 am #

    This is wonderful, my darling.

    Sent from my iPad


  2. susan baldwin November 1, 2021 at 12:22 pm #

    teach your children italian

  3. Bonnie Atkinson November 1, 2021 at 12:28 pm #

    You are a good man; give yourself credit for your successes. It is a shame on America that we do not have the grace to accept many languages and strengths of immigrants.

  4. Cliff Niersbach November 1, 2021 at 12:39 pm #

    I can’t help but respond to the conclusion you’ve drawn that you’re “deeply flawed” because you aren’t conversational in Italian (or any second language).

    Not having made the choice and the necessarily devotion of thousands of hours to master a language or a skill or a talent may be regretted looking back, but it was a choice, and it’s not a character flaw.

    My maternal grandparents families immigrated from Poland in the late 1890s. They both were educated (he became a pharmacist and owned his own drugstore/soda fountain) and they both spoke Polish between themselves at times. I thought it would be nice or to be able to speak with them in Polish but it wasn’t an investment I was willing to make.

    My wife’s extended family emmigrated from Austria to the US in the mid-1950s. My wife was one of the first to be born in the US. Her extended family – sister, parents, grandparents, cousins -real or through parents’ close friendship – all spoke German fluently and often. The children (including my wife) went to German school in Chicago learning the language, history, culture and customs. My wife understands the language and can speak it to some extent I never had the time or sufficient desire to pursue it. Somehow Ive muddled through with all of them fir 40+ years.

    I put myself through college and grad school working full-time, going to school at night. I probably could have found a way to raise or borrow the money to go to school full-time, and move on with my life, but doing it mu way was my choice. Looking back, would I have done things differently? Perhaps – but maybe not. Do I regret my choice? No way. It was a choice. My choice.

    (I’ll confess that when I had children in my late 30s, I raised them to believe they would go to college, go away for college, finish in 4 years and graduate; mom and dad would make in happen financially. Sometimes there aren’t choices – or don’t seem to be choices.) They did and we did and everyone’s just fine.

    Through the years I thought it would be great to be a musician. In the 50’s I took accordion lessons but realized becoming proficient at it wasn’t an investment I was ready to make. Later there was the banjo, then the piano (several years of adult lessons alongside my young daughters) then the ukulele, etc. I stuck with piano the longest (it was my grandmother’s wedding gift from my grandfather) and I saw myself playing in places like Pat O’Brien’s in New Orleans. But reality (in the form of the “ten thousand hours rule” made me realize that investment would foreclose doing other things I wanted or needed to do, and other paths I might start along.

    I’ve learned a little bit about watercolor painting but I’m not willing to focus, study, and practice the thousands of hours needed to be really good at it. I can cook a little, use power tools, ride a motorcycle, do CPR, shoot a gun, paddle a kayak, and make a old fashion (whiskey or brandy). Did I spend the time needed to get really good at those things? No, except maybe the old fashions.

    Does the fact that I choose not to focus exclusively on any of these and master it (to the extent one can) make me flawed or less than a complete person? I don’t think so any more than you not being good at speaking a second language does.

    I’d like to be remembered as a good person rather than an accordion virtuoso or someone who hiked the Appalachian Trail (I didn’t).

    Don’t be so hard on yourself. And there’s still time to learn Italian (or the banjo) if you really want to make the investment. But ask yourself “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”.

  5. Joanne Gray November 1, 2021 at 1:15 pm #

    I’m glad you’re back.

  6. flombar1Frank November 1, 2021 at 1:46 pm #

    You’re not alone . . .

  7. Nancy November 1, 2021 at 2:42 pm #

    You cannot blame your elders, they loved you and thought they were doing well by you. Try Rosetta Stone which is supposed to be easier than other types of language learning; encourage your wife, children and grandchildren to join you. You can all “practice” with each other. You might be surprised! Be easier in yourself my friend, I’m Irish and cannot speak Gaelic either! I

  8. Mike November 1, 2021 at 3:43 pm #

    What a powerful story. We are close in age and, unfortunately, of similar experience. My only thought for you to consider, is that as a result of being raised in a similar manner, I have a deeper sense of how important it is to appreciate the many diverse cultures coming to America. I value their desire to retain their identity and work harder to learn and experience more of my magnificent Italian heritage. I still want to be able to speak Italian, but at least I know how to cook, make wine and live like an Italian!

  9. Sue November 1, 2021 at 5:47 pm #

    My situation is the very same.

    It was adifferent time. Immigrints were mot welcome. So, hour grandparents and mine needed-in their mind-to assimulate.

    You are judging by today’s standards.

    I have done Rosetta Stone, books on tape for hours, classes….I gave up! One of my few regrets in life.

    I continue to return to Serra Pedace and enjoy my time there.

    It feels good just to be with my cousins.

    Let it go. And enjoy.

  10. Denise Brosch November 1, 2021 at 7:33 pm #

    Same here…sigh. My Great Grandfather stopped the teaching of the Italian language. He said, you are an American now. Be Proud. And I was told later it was for the same reason. He felt he was eliminating a hurdle. However, that also makes you lose part of yourself.

  11. Susan November 7, 2021 at 11:58 am #

    I am American, married to an Italian, and have lived in Italy for 53 years. You should not feel bad about not having learned Italian from your grandparents. The sad fact is that the language they spoke with each other was not Italian as it is spoken all over the country today. One of the great goals of universal public education after World War II was to teach children Italian at school since the overwhelming majority did not speak it at home, and one of the most important effects of the arrival of television in Italian homes in the Sixties was that it exposed adults to proper Italian. So if you had learned your grandparents’ language, it could have been interesting for you as one who clearly loves language in all its forms, and fun for you to try speaking it with your relatives still in Italy, but it would not have helped you much in your travels. Cherish their memory for everything else they taught you and continue to try to speak what Italian you can when you are here. Each time, you’ll learn a little more.

  12. joelyn manfredi November 9, 2021 at 11:24 pm #

    Johnnie! Can’t believe you were embarrassed of your heritage. Half of Mt.Kisco was Italian. Do appreciate your honesty. Man oh man did I have a crush on you! The sun rose and set with you! Really love your blog. Made the baked clams last year Christmas Eve.
    Assemble my family’s recipes into a book this year with my grandma DeRosa’s autobiography.
    Wishing you all the best!
    Joelyn DeRosa Manfredi

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