I used to be Bilingual

I always find myself in linguistic disagreements with people. Oddly enough, I never have these disagreements with people who are actually Bilingual. I have been bilingual my whole life, which is to say that while there objectively was a period of my life where I could only speak one language (my mother can attest to this) I can’t actually remember that period of time. I think this has given me a perspective that the monolinguals I deal with don’t necessarily have. It is an opinion that lacks nuance, but it is not something that anyone should be shamed for. It is not intuitive knowledge (no such thing actually exists), and just as much as I can heal from a cut without knowing how my body does it, using language is such an automatic part of the brain that everyone should be forgiven for not understanding the complex mechanics of it. What makes people convinced that they do understand is the fact that we very much feel as if we are in control of it, despite the fact that such control is at best superficial.

These monolinguals have interesting conceptions of what a language is, and frequently these conceptions are superficial at best. They seem to think that ‘knowing’ a language has something to do with words. When I was teaching I got asked, more than once, how many words my students would have to learn before they could speak English. I had to explain to them that, no, that really isn’t how any of this works. No word-bank critical mass will ever be reached after which you have reached the native speaker singularity.

That it was my students who brought this up (although to be fair, it was also friends, passing acquaintances, and blokes at bars) is particularly funny, because I have always seen language learning as the cure for this notion. I can pat myself on the back about how many words I have learned in Modern Greek, but there is a certain algebra1 to it that makes simple word arithmetic wrong, causing broken, awkward, and sometimes flat out wrong sentences. One of the factors that goes into this algebra is all the various discourse communities an individual belongs to. For instance, knowing nothing of sports, even when native English speakers talk about it I struggle to follow and keep up with the conversation once it reaches a certain level of sophistication. They may have their own verbs, nouns and adjectives used in special ways that make their discourse hard to follow. It is likely that you belong to any number of discourse communities that inform how you speak your personal idiolect.

I have been gone from Italy for a decade. Over that decade, I barely spoke it. But worse still, whatever discourse communities I belonged to have changed without me. I am now struggling to keep up.

This isn’t about not knowing words, although I am occasionally having that problem as well. What it is about is not knowing how to use words within a society.

This next opinion may be the result of having a very linguistically pedantic uncle who was a language teacher, but ten years ago, when I last lived here, I would enter a store and be greeted by Buongiorno. This was a more respectful greeting you gave to strangers, people generally older than yourself, and people of a higher social class than yourself. Your peers and those familiar to you were greeted with the tried and true Ciao that everyone knows. There was a logic to this, and while you never get these things 100% right, and didn’t find myself frequently puzzled by what I received. Now, I am frequently getting this simple thing wrong.

I was walking out of my courtyard and there were a group of people standing about have a cigarette and a conversation. While I’d rather not speak to them at all, they’re covering the whole walk and a social interaction is inevitable. I reach the ‘speaking but not stopping’ distance and let out a polite Buongiorno just as one of them shoots me a Ciao. They give themselves some concerned glances before the one who spokes corrects himself with something of a nervous ‘e… si… buongiorno’.

And I walked away with the feeling that I have somehow donked this up.

Sometime later I walk into a bar and am greeted with a polite Ciao, and I feel downright indignant about it. “Bitch, you don’t know me. I’m a stranger. Address me with Buongiorno, dammit. This continues until I realize that I am playing the game with an outdated set of rules.

Well, shit.

It doesn’t help that all of this is happening during a quarantine when going out and re-socializing myself is difficult and not recommended. I am also well passed the age where such things are easy.

This is all actually a complicated issue. Making the problem even more complex is the fact that when I last lived in Italy I was in my mid twenties, youthfully avoiding adulthood at all costs and kicking about Italy in second hand clothes that I had stitched back together personally. Now, I am careening dangerously towards my 40’s and someone’s idea of middle aged, in slightly less ratty clothes while still at best LARPing as an adult. I’ve always had a bad relationship with understanding people’s age. I am convinced that my neighbor, married and with a young daughter, is older than me. He’s married, for fuck’s sake.

I’m 12 years his senior.

There are other considerations regarding my speech mannerisms that make me stand out, but my inability to merely say ‘hello’ without looking like a damned weirdo is clearly the most grating to me. But at least my awkwardness is illuminating over a linguistic point. I can hold a conversation with a person and not necessarily make a grammatical mistake anywhere during it. And an outside observer, following the conversation with a grammar, wouldn’t notice any of the nuts and bolts grammar school mistake. And still, I talk like a weirdo.


1 I once heard the etymology of algebra as “the putting together” and really liked it. That might be a folk etymology, but I see ‘the reunion of broken parts’ listed, and that could for my sense too.

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