My Italian is coming along, slowly, after seven months in Italy. I can get by in many cases, with lots of awkward pauses, if I let go of feeling embarrassed to sound like a toddler (with a bad accent to boot). There is usually much pointing and gesturing. Of course, many people who do speak some English are quick to recognize that speaking English to me will result in a quicker and less painful interaction. Those people are never the people who need to explain complicated things.
My vocabulary is growing, allowing me to recognize words to get the gist of the postings at the boys’ school before I take a picture to run through Google Translate. Bertie’s teacher speaks English fairly well, thankfully, but sometimes we get stuck. I can guess the English word for the Italian word she’s trying to translate, but neither of us knows if I get it right.
And so there are times when we get close but miss. This time it was “bring a white t-shirt to decorate” when she meant “bring a white t-shirt that you have decorated.” Not a big deal because I didn’t put off bringing it in until the last minute, but the incident gives me pause to wonder. How I can avoid these misunderstandings in situations that actually matter? How fast can I learn this language? How long do I have to be a foreigner before I learn to ask the right questions?
Being one of a few foreign moms at my sons’ school is teaching me so much. I hardly considered what it might be like to feel so “Other” until I had to live it myself.
Maybe there’s a mother at your children’s school who is clearly from another country, who doesn’t speak English very well. You know who she is, don’t you? She smiles a shy smile at you, with thoughts of things to say, questions to ask racing through her head as the words to get them out slip past just as quickly. The rehearsed “my son likes to play with your son, can we meet at the park to let them play” gets lost in the moment, sometimes, and when it does come out she smiles at you with knitted eyebrows when she doesn’t understand what you are saying in response, about how complicated your days are with work right now and how hard it might be to schedule something because of Life, but you’d like to in four weeks when you’re back from holiday. She doesn’t know all the words for the gossip about what happened in class, or what the teachers are up to, so she stands there at the gates, trying to listen or not, maybe sending messages home on WhatsApp to look busy and not just alone. She’ll nod greetings to the moms who recognize her in the places where they all cross paths. She gives her children the biggest hugs and says something to them that you don’t understand, signaling to them that it’s time to shift their brains from one language to the next.
If you see her waiting, looking like she wants to talk to someone, don’t be afraid of the communication barrier. Chances are she has learned the basics: how are you, what is your name, where are you from, where do you live, how many children do you have, how old? If she seems to struggle, don’t give up. Speak slowly. Languages take time and practice. Just like parenthood. You know how that goes.