My private Italian instructor pauses on a bridge in Venice near Piazza San Marco (photo credit: Steven Varni)
That my pronunciation of Italian words often falls short of the mark, well, I’ll be the first one to admit that. Still, I was a little surprised when my son, Sandro, first started correcting it.
An-chee-o,” he instructed me—not that I’d asked. It’s such a simple word I was almost sure I’d said it correctly. But I tried again, deciding to model for him an admirable willingness to take instruction.
Still not quite right. He demonstrated again, more slowly.
He was not yet four years old.
One of the most pleasant surprises of the many we’ve had since moving to Venice in November 2010 is the seeming ease with which Sandro has adapted to living with two languages. He’s quite content to switch between the two tongues as needed, adjusting automatically to the linguistic context in which he finds himself.
I’m impressed with this not least of all because, in contrast, if I’ve been spending hours reading (or thinking) in English and am suddenly called upon to speak Italian, the grinding of my mental gears as I try to make the shift is, I’m pretty sure, audible—certainly to any poor dogs in the vicinity. To them, and to myself, it’s like the clamourous gnashing of gears anyone seated outside at the back of a vaporetto is assaulted by every time the boat reverses its motors to slow for the next stop.

But Sandro is not only happy to speak whatever is being spoken in any room he walks into, he is comfortable enough with each tongue to alternate, for example, between speaking English to the British mother of one of his younger friends and Italian to the friend himself—who speaks only Italian—seated in her lap.
I suspect it’s his sensitivity to linguistic context that explains an oddity in his speech I notice when he’s with his Italian friends and he pronounces English words that he knows perfectly well how to pronounce in English as an Italian would pronounce them.
Of course there are a lot of English words that are commonly used in Italian—perhaps too many. They’re quite literally everywhere you look—on advertisements, packaging and T-shirts—and I’ll admit that when I’m speaking Italian and find myself approaching one that has been fully adopted by Italians I rush to it as a barefooted man crossing the blazing hot sand of a beach rushes to a stray beach towel: arriving at it with great relief and a momentary release of all effort. I don’t, for example, pronounce “shopping” as an Italian would pronounce it. No, I happily slip back into my native pronunciation, as, after all, it is an American English word and isn’t one generally supposed to pronounce foreign words as they’re pronounced in their original language? I don’t after all pronounce “schnitzel” as “sknitzel”.
But when he’s playing with his Italian friends, Sandro pronounces even the simplest English words—ones he’s used with us since he began to speak, since before we lived in Italy—as an Italian.
Thus, that good old all-American word “Okay” becomes, when he is playing with Cosimo or Iacopo or Costanza or Alvise, something that sounds like: Oh-kah-eee.
“Crackers” takes on an Italian article and become ee crah-kairs.
The simple exclamation “Wow!” suddenly develops two extra syllables and sounds like: Oh-wah-oh!
“Batman” is transformed into baht-a-mahn, and “Spiderman” slips into the guise of spee-dehr-mahn.
Then, once he’s taken leave of Cosimo or Iacopo or Costanza or Alvise, and is back among just us, his parents, all the above words revert back to their normal American pronunciation.
Jen and I find this charming and amusing, but, actually, there’s more to it than that.
For one thing, it reminds me that not only is my pronunciation of Italian words found to be lacking by Italian speakers, but even my pronunciation of American English words sounds incorrect to them.
This fact can be a bit hard to accept at first, but, really, there’s no point fighting against it. For if the aim of speaking is effective communication, if the goal of socializing is to connect and be understood, then it makes sense to pronounce words—regardless of either their or your origin—in a way that your listener will understand. There’s certainly a good deal of pressure for any child to fit in with his or her new classmates, and part of that is to sound like them.
But even in adulthood, there’s lot to be said for making an effort to be understood, to be willing to step forward onto someone else’s terrain, foreign and awkward though it may feel. It’s a big part of being a good traveler, but also of being a good neighbor—a citizen of the world, as they say, whether at home or abroad.
Sandro is picking this up at an early age. I’m still learning it.
For more about living in Venice, visit Steven Varni’s blog:
Receive more stories like this in your inbox