Friday, September 02, 2005

Meet Yannis & Dominique

I was on a flight from Paris to Torino, Italy last week and my seat neighbors were two lovely mulatto rascals aged 6 and 7, traveling with their mum. We begun the conversation in French, language that they were using among one another; as I pointed out to them that we were flying over the Mont Blanc glacier, something in the way I pronounced the word «glacier» gave away my nationality: the two boys looked at each other and instantly switched to perfect Italian:

« Ma é italiana! »* Said Yannis, the youngest.

From that moment on, we continued the conversation in Italian, and even among themselves they kept speaking the tongue of the peninsula. They turned out to have an Italian father while their mum is from French Guyana.

« Nobody knows where the French Guyana is, in Italy! I always have to show them on the map! » said Dominique. It is true, Italians are not strong on French overseas territories…

Their mum woke up shortly after:

«T’a dormi bien, maman ?»** Asked Yannis.

«T’a bien dormi, tu veut dire !» replied their mum, correcting the syntax.

This seems to be a recurrent issue with bilingual kids: they often translate in one language using the syntax of the other. I wonder if this phenomenon has been identified and classified by linguists.

Yannis and Dominique attend the French School in Torino, where most courses are taught in French, but they also learn Italian and some English. However, I noticed that, once they switched language, even with their mum they kept speaking Italian.

Their accent (or, rather, lack of) was that of a native, with a soft inflection of torinese. Even their enthusiasm was that of an Italian boy when they noticed that we were flying over a soccer field! They immediately told me about their favorite team and players in the Italian league.

Before leaving the baggage claim, Dominique sighed:

«I cannot wait to see my room again and sleep in my own bed…I miss my bed!»

Something common to every culture: the notion of 'home sweet home!'

* «But she is Italian!»

** The equivalent phrase in Italian is: "Hai dormito bene?". It would be as if he asked:
«Did you well sleep, mum ?» instead of « Did you sleep well ?»

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