Monday, April 21, 2014

Life on the edge: Border culture in Italy's Trentino-Alto Adige Region

Since the entire country is on Easter holiday (all schools are closed for a week!), I am taking advantage of the time off to relax in Caldaro (AKA Kaltern), a small town in the beautiful, mountainous, Trentino-Alto Adige Region of Italy, bordering Austria via the Dolomites (for Austrians, this area is "Südtirol"). Due to its border location and touristy status, this "Italian" place doesn't feel much like Italy as I have come to know it, but more like a hybrid, border space where languages and cultural practices mix.

The beautiful town of Caldaro/Kaltern
Just a couple days ago, I was a second-language speaker of Italian surrounded by Italian speakers; here I am a non-German speaker. Italian works for the most part with locals, who are bilingual German-Italian, but not so much with fellow tourists, who are predominantly from Germany and Austria. Not Italian, but rather English, comes in handy here.

It is interesting to experience border culture on a different border. Due to both research and personal interests, I have spent a good deal of time exploring hybrid language and identity on the US-Mexico border. I use the term, 'border', both geographically and metaphorically, as I work with Latino youth who often self-identify as "Mexican" despite being born and raised in the US. The fact is, Latinos in the US have grown up, like the kids in Alto Adige, in between two cultures. As one student summarized, "I can be American but I will always have Mexico inside of me".

Of course, US-Mexico and Italy-Austria are two, very different borders, and the political, historical, sociolinguistic context of each is much too complex to address here. However, keeping in mind my prior experience with cultural-linguistic, border identity, I wanted to make a few observations about border culture where I am at the moment, in Caldaro/Kaltern, Alto Adige.

1. Border language. The first and most obvious indication that you are on the border is the coexistence of two languages in contact. Here in Alto Adige/Südtirol, towns, streets, and landmarks have two official names: one in Italian, and one in German. Thus, for example, we are in the town of Caldaro/Kaltern, on La Strada del Vino/WeinstraBe, heading to Lago di Caldaro/Kalterer See. Locals switch between German and Italian with ease. Printed materials are available generally in both languages (e.g., two-column menus), although it seems easer to find things in German due to the prevalence of tourists from the north. For example, at breakfast this morning, we were greeted with "Frohe Ostern" (Happy Easter) cards with information on things to do today in Kaltern. When I asked, in Italian, if the information was also available in Italian, I was told that at the moment, all the guests in the hotel are speakers of German, so they did not print Italian ones (then there is me -ha ha).    

Bilingual "Happy Easter" sign in the center of town
2. Border food. Bratwurst, pretzels, and rye bread do not exist in the Italy I know, but they do here, and people even put rye in salad (as well as green beans). Pizza and pasta are everywhere, and strudel is served with gelato. Breakfast here is not the rushed, "cappuccino and brioche" of Italy, but a smorgasbord of dark breads, musli and yogurt, cheeses, meats, fruit, etc. Unlike in Padua, where good tea is hard to come by but you can get a decent macchiato out of a machine, tea is the preferred morning beverage here, and they have the good stuff! On the other hand, even though Caldaro is literally infused with vineyards and wineries, people still sit out on the piazza (AKA platz) every afternoon to have the bright orange or red cocktail I know from Padua as "spritz", an aperitif made with Aperol or Campari.  

Vineyards everywhere in Caldaro nella Strada del Vino (literally, "on the Wine Street")
3. Border fashion. Comfort sandals with socks? So a Northern European thing. No Italian would be caught dead sporting that look. Ha ha. Basically, we are in a mountain town. Everyone is dressed for the weather, ready to take off on a hike or bike ride at any moment. I even saw a guy walk out of church with "nordic trekking" poles.

Of course, one good way to learn about a culture is to participate in a cultural event. Sunday morning, I attended Easter mass at the local church on the main piazza/platz. It was advertised as occurring in "Italiano/Tedesco" (Italian/German), and it certainly was. One presiding priest seemed to be dominant in German, but also spoke some parts in Italian. The other priest spoke only in Italian. They alternated sections, even splitting up the presentation of the eucharist between the two languages ("body of Christ" in German, "blood of Christ" in Italian). Music was divided among German, Italian, and a bit of Latin. Of interest, there was an Italian-speaking family behind me with a couple of kids; they seemed to be visitors. The kids commented that the printed items (e.g., hymnal) were in German. An older, local woman showed up and instinctively knew to ask in Italian if the seat next to them was free. She then proceeded to participate fully, in both languages, during mass. When it came time to "exchange the peace", we shook hands with the people around, saying, "pace" (Italian) and, I'm sure, the German equivalent for "peace". At that moment, everyone smiled and understood each other.    


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bilingualism as a game: "Congratulations! You just learned 1,000 words and advanced to the world of Quasi-Italiano"

I am by no means a gamer. However, I understand the general scheme that, in video games, you train to learn a skill, and then put that skill into practice in the world of the game. To advance, you must use what you have learned in order to overcome obstacles, often also through interaction with others. Essentially, as you play the game, you are continually strategizing, problem-solving, communicating, and acquiring new information that helps you along. In short, you are learning.

In the game of bilingualism -at least, in the case of the sequential bilingual living in the cultural-linguistic environment of the second language (e.g., me at the moment)- you may receive some prior training: lexical (vocabulary), morphosyntactic (grammar), and discourse (text-level) skills. This likely occurs in a classroom, where you have a chance to practice your skills in a controlled, safe, and -hopefully- supportive environment. However, as in a game, without authentic application and interaction, the language skills you can acquire in the "training" context of the classroom are limited.

Thus, as prepared or unprepared as you may feel, the best way to become skilled in a language is to be launched into the world of the game: the real-life application of your language and communication skills. As in a game, if you use your skills successfully and continue to learn more, you will advance: Successfully ordered breakfast: 100 points! Correctly understood directions to the train stations: 100 points! Survived a phone conversation to make a hotel reservation: 500 points!

Eventually, you accumulate enough linguistic experiences ("points") to advance to a new level/world of the bilingual game. Here, you become engaged in different and more challenging activities: e.g., teaching a class, giving a presentation, having a serious conversation about immigration policies. The game continues, you continue learning, and continue to advance. However, there are challenges along the way. Advancing through the first couple of levels may be easy, but then, you may get stuck in a level, feeling unable to advance, even after playing for a seemingly long time. Sometimes you might even have to go backwards.

Looking at bilingualism through a gaming metaphor helps explain the uneven nature of language acquisition. I have mentioned this previously. At times, one seems to advance just a little, suddenly advance quite a bit, get stuck on a plateau, or even take a few steps backward. Part of the reason for this is internal: i.e., the cognitive processes involved in language acquisition. Part of it is also external. As in the game, the bilingual, living in the authentic context of the new language, is continually faced with new linguistic challenges. It takes practice to figure out how to deal with these challenges effectively. The more experience you have, the easier it gets. Still, new challenges may always arise!

After a month and a half in Italy, I noticed a few days ago that I had advanced to the next level of the bilingual game. From one day to the next, I heard my speech sounding a bit more fluent. More importantly, while I am still making errors (of course!), speaking Italian suddenly became less effortful. Understanding, as well, and also learning new words. I can remember them much more easily now, without having to write them down. It was as if the phonological system of Italian suddenly came into clearer focus in my mind.

A couple of days after this realization, I, for the first time, felt comfortable putting myself into a social situation where I would have to do some interpreting: Italian-English and vice versa. Before last week, I had been generally avoiding those situations, as just speaking Italian was exhausting enough by itself. Fortunately, I managed the interpretation, and then spent the rest of the day with an Italian speaking friend. Happily, I was not tired at the end of the day.

Of course, after celebrating my advancement to the next level of the bilingual game, I encountered a new challenge: communicating with children and facilitating some activities in an after school program. Oh my… apparently this is the next obstacle in my game. However, unlike a game, language acquisition is never complete. We can always learn more, even in our native language. Thus, the game continues… new skills,  new interactions, new problems to solve, and new cultural-linguistic worlds of communication. I am thrilled to be a player!


For more on video games and learning, check out James Paul Gee's video. As you listen, consider how the game constructs he discusses apply not just to learning in general, but to learning another language. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Food! (Part 2 -and an Italian lesson): What's in the fridge?

After grocery shopping one day, it occured to me to take some pictures of the food in my fridge. Looking at the pictures, I realized that explaining all the food in there is a great lesson in Italian language and culture. I have included lots of links to recipes, descriptions, and images. Buon appetito!
The whole fridge. Notice the PB&J on the top door shelf. This is the "USA food corner". 
So, here goes... what's in my fridge (il frigorifero).

1. Pasta: Four different kinds! All are "fresh", but from the supermarket (i.e., not "homemade"). Orecchiette (little ears... love this with pesto), Ravioli di zucca (pumpkin ravioli, fabulous with olive oil and grana padano cheese), tortellini di ricotta e spinaci (any tomato sauce will do), and trofie (little pasta twists... planning to have these with pesto, which, apparently, is a good instinct because trofie, like pesto, are from Genova). Wondering about the names of all those different pasta shapes?

The fridge also contains two pasta sauces: pesto fresco con basilico e pinoli (fresh pesto with basil and pine nuts -FYI the best basil comes from Genova; sometimes the sauce is called, "pesto alla genovese"), and suco pronto arribbiata (ready-made "angry" tomato sauce; it is really spicy!).

Italian lessons from the pasta shelf (from left to right): orecchiette, ravioli di zucca, tortellini di spinaci e ricotta, pesto alla genovese, e trofie 

2. Formaggio (cheese): grated grana padano (my parents' favorite. Sadly, I wimped out and bought the pre-grated kind. This is probably a sin), stracchino cremoso (a uniquely Italian cheese, very soft, creamy, and delicious. It's great with the olives and grissini -see below), emmental (what we would call "swiss", sliced), and edamer ("edam", a mild, Dutch cheese, sliced).

3. Yogurt: It is very good here! I am currently sampling these flavors: limone, mirtillo nero (blueberry), and agrumi di Sicilia (Sicilian citrus). They were out of my favorite, "mela verde" (green apple).

4. Verdure (veggies): olive (olives... I eat them everyday), insalata di pomodoro e cetriolo (leftover tomato and cucumber salad), rucola (arrugula -I am addicted to it, even in the US), insalata mista (mixed salad greens), peperone giallo (yellow bell pepper), radicchio (red cabbage, typical of the Veneto region), spinaci (no translation needed; it's great sauteed with the radiccio in olive oil with garlic), carote (carrots), aglio (garlic), and zenzero (ginger root -I use it to make fresh ginger tea, love it). One veggie that is very popular here and also grows locally is finocchio (fennel). I bought a bulb once, but, just adding a little bit to a salad here and there, it was hard to eat all of it on my own. I will have to explore more ways to use it.

Italian lessons from the produce drawer: (top) pera, radicchio, spinaci (bottom) zenzero, peperone giallo, e carote 

5. Altre cose (other items): grissini (toasty-bread sticks that make an awesome snack with cheese and olives -much better than crackers), panne integrale (whole-grain bread, the same, dark, dense, thinly sliced German kind I buy in the US), latte biologico (organic milk -which, by the way, costs just a few cents more than non-organic milk), and PB&J (a gift from a visiting friend, and representative of the USA -no one eats peanut butter here).

Although this time I shopped at a supermarket, I love bringing home fresh veggies from the market in Piazza delle Erbe. Maybe you can tell, I don't eat out much. Most days I am lucky enough to go home for a late lunch, and I make pasta and salad. For dinner it's usually bread or grissini, cheese, olives, and sauteed veggies and/or salad. With all the great yogurt, cheese, and gelato (and no soy/almond milk to be found), I definitely eat more dairy products here.

What's not in the fridge? All the really yummy stuff! Biscotti (which means, in the general sense, "cookies". What we call biscotti in the US are actually "cantuccini" here), cioccolato (dare I translate?), Nutella (All the students around here have their names on stickers in the style of the Nutella logo. Wish I could get one, but I doubt I will find Robin unless I special-order it), mandorle (almonds), tè (tea -I know I am really missing out here in Italy, but I do not drink coffee!), and miele (honey).

"A good morning with Nutella". Mmm… 
Hope my fridge has been a good Italian language lesson. Making shopping lists in Italian has been a great language exercise. Now that I have done this blogpost, I'm thinking that this type of "refrigerator report" -including photos- could be a useful activity in any world languages class. :)


Monday, April 7, 2014

Adventures in public transportation

It's hard to believe that, although I have been here for over a month, I rode Padua's tram for the first time yesterday. In fact, because the city is small and I walk everywhere, I can count on one hand the times I have used public transportation at all (the tram once and the bus 3-4 times). Still, I wanted to share some experiences that have come out of these adventures.

A look down Dei Ponti Romani, a "busy" downtown street where you can catch the tram and many busses. 
Yesterday was Sunday, apparently a very slow day for public transportation in Padua. I was going to a friend's house for lunch, and she had given me very specific instructions for how to arrive (I should write about the lunch too… it was my first, home-cooked-by-a-real-Italian-mamma, family lunch here and I loved it!). Anyway, the directions involved taking the tram.

It really was too far to walk, so I bought my tram ticket (which, by the way, is the same -and same price- as a bus ticket; they are interchangeable) at a tabacchi and headed across the street to the high-tech tram stop, which included a regular paper schedule and a monitor displaying the minutes remaining till the arrival of the next tram. To my disappointment, I had just missed one, and the next one would not arrive for, according to the timetable, 33 minutes!

A Padua tram stop
So, like a good Italian -or maybe like a good tourist- I started chatting with other people waiting for the bus near the same stop. We mulled over my options. I could take a bus instead, but had mixed reviews of which bus to take. One person said the #16 was the one I needed, but another said that #16 does not run at all on Sundays, so I should take #22. A different person said that #22 would not get me close enough to my destination, and that I should just wait for the tram.

Well, here comes bus #22. The woman in favor tells me to get on. Meanwhile, the woman opposed is telling me not to get on. Both are vigorously cheering me on: "Get on!" "No! Don't get on!", in front a group of onlookers. Mamma mia. I opted to get on and ask the disgruntled driver if his bus arrives close to my destination. His ambiguous response: "più o meno" (more or less).

Not good enough for me. I got off the bus and decided to wait the, by that point, remaining 10 minutes for the tram, and I'm glad I did! The tram is great, much more comfortable than the bus, even though most people have to stand up. Unfortunately, it is limited to stops along a very specific north-south route, while most of my on-foot commuting is in the east-west direction.  

Padua's tram: Clean, comfortable, and easy to use… if you are going in the north-south direction. 

In my limited experience with public transportation here, I have learned that, although schedules are posted online, they are not always accurate or up to date. This includes the SITA busses that go outside the city into the surrounding areas (the ones that leave from the train/bus station). Sometimes it's best just to show up at the bus stop/station and figure out the next available option from there. 

Although it varies from country to country, European buses, including Italian ones, are definitely more "scheduled" than Latin American busses. Swedish busses are impeccably timed, with accurate information displayed on real-time monitors at all the stops. On the other hand, the most challenging place I used public transportation was Guayaquil, Ecuador (in the mid-1990's), where stops were completely unmarked and schedules nonexistent. I have to admit that I have wrongly assumed that busses (and trams) in Padua would show up very frequently, but it is not the case. There is a schedule, and it is generally accurate. The good news is, in Padua, by the time you wait for the bus or tram to arrive, you could probably get at least half way to your destination on foot!  

A bus/tram stop in Padua, with the schedule posted and a screen providing info about upcoming arrivals.  


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Struggles in bilingual competence: Fluency, errors, and those darn “little words”


I know, scientifically, that the process of language acquisition is dynamic and uneven. Second language learners, and even children developing their native language, experience periods of measurable growth, plateaus, and even periods of apparent regression in their linguistic capabilities. Knowing this, however, does little to quell my daily striving to improve my Italian.

Even before I came here, I said, “I speak Italian fluently, but errorfully”. This is still the case. Since I got here, I have been able to carry on a conversation, tell a story, teach a class, and even give a research presentation in a more-or-less fluid way. However, I do all of these things with many errors. My language is not “correct” by any stretch of the imagination.

There was a time in second language acquisition research when people focused on errors: how to classify them, when and how to correct them, how many to correct, etc. Actually, the delicate balance of encouraging communication and correcting errors is still a challenge in second language classrooms. Nowadays, I find myself very attuned to the question of linguistic errors in my own production.

Basically, languages contain two types of words (we could make this distinction at the level of the morpheme, but to keep it simple, I’ll talk about words). Generally, when we think of “words”, we think of lexical (content) words: the ones that carry meaning, like house, famiglia, gelato, dog, intelligente, interesting, chiesa, etc. However, languages also include syntactic (function) words: the “little words”, that don’t necessarily mean anything, but support the grammatical structure of the language, like to, for, the, per, di, in, verb endings, etc. These “little words” are the ones that usually give second language learners trouble- serious trouble!

Have you ever noticed that, when you speak to someone using English as a second language, they tend to omit the ‘s’ of third person singular verbs (“He walk to the school”)? They also tend to omit articles or overuse articles (the, a, an). Function words are less salient because they tend to be unstressed and often are not necessary to get our message across

Of course, Italian is full of these “little words”, and they drive me crazy on a daily basis. In Italian, articles, object pronouns, and prepositions change for number AND gender. Thus, the preposition in might be in, but it might also be nel, nella, nell’, nei, or nelle. Same goes for the prepositions, a, di, da, and su. Possessive adjectives have similar challenges (“my” might be expressed as mio, mia, mie, or miei), and I’m not even going to get into direct and indirect object pronouns (clitics)!

An example: two forms of the preposition "in" expressed by graffiti: "nella" (in my -feminine singular- head),
and "nelle" (in my -feminine, plural- shoes)
The question is, how does the second language speaker improve his/her use of these “little words”, and how helpful is error correction in this process? This is not a research study! This is my own personal reflection. During the last week, I have decided a couple of things.

First, it takes a lot of time. Ci vuole tempo. For the most part, I know the rules. I know the grammar. In some cases, I can even explain it better than a native speaker. However, I still make mistakes all the time (seriously, like every time I open my mouth). Thus, error correction, for spoken Italian, is not very helpful for me. Usually, when I make an error, I know it. I walk down the street trying to sort these things out in my head. Then I speak and a mess comes out, but I am aware of the mess and I know how to fix it. My brain just needs time to sort out the application of these rules in real time. Of course, I also ask for help all the time: “How do you say X? Should I use this form or that form? Is X feminine or masculine? What is the plural form of X?” This is helpful! Unsolicited error correction? Not as much.  

On the other hand, in writing, error correction is VERY helpful. I couldn’t live without Word’s autocorrect function, which corrects my grammar and spelling in Italian. Whenever I write, I learn so much from this process. I guess I need to write more.

So, this being said, my other decision is that I need to give myself a break. Not stress. Keep talking and writing. Just communicate. Just the other day, I was discussing my language drama with a friend here who really warmed my heart. She said (in Italian), “Your Italian is sincerely perfect. If it was better, it wouldn’t be as much ‘you’”. Errors and all, my Italian is part of me, at this very moment, in this beautiful city. Time to go out and use it.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Bilingualism: "The ability to speak two languages nearly* perfectly (*because it's theoretically impossible to do anything perfectly)".



Well there you have it, the "typical" Italian conception of bilingualism, stated succinctly (in English) by an 11th-grade student attending a private, English-language immersion school. Just before he stated his definition, I had spoken with the school librarian, in between presentations I was making to students about our current research project on bilingual writing.

"It's very interesting," she told me, "I would like to hear what you think about this because, growing up in Italy, I always thought -and most Italians think- that bilingualism means you speak two languages with native-like fluency. But then, when I lived in London, my definition changed. There, I saw so many people, from all over the world, speaking so many different languages. Even my own English…"

Just two minutes later, when I asked the second group of invited students what "bilingualism" meant to them, I received the definition stated in the title, exactly as the librarian had predicted!

A couple weeks ago, I attended a symposium on bilingualism, entitled "Bilingualism in a state of evolution: A challenge and a resource". I should add, the event was hosted at the beautiful Villa Contarini, a short ride outside Padova in Piazzola sul Brenta. The research presented was very current, and focused on the "inside-the-head" factors of bilingualism: measurable linguistic and cognitive abilities, as well as quantifiable socio-interactive factors like "time on task". This was to be expected, as the presenters were psychologists conducting primarily quantitative research. I did get a sense, however, that there was a lean toward the proficiency-based definition of bilingualism, with the equally-balanced, simultaneous bilingual serving as the ideal (in spite of the fact that this profile is very rare!).    

The fact is, most bilinguals (including me) learn their languages sequentially (one at home from birth and one later, e.g., at school or living in another culture), and do not have equal proficiency in both. As it would turn out, immigration in Italy has been on the rise, with immigrants now comprising approximately 8% of the population nationally (this region -Veneto- is among those with the highest numbers). About 15% of children born in Italy are born to immigrant parents, and these children do not get Italian citizenship (Unlike the U.S., Italy does not have a "citizenship by birth" right). Now more than ever, Italians are wondering how to meet the needs of children who must learn Italian as a second language at school. The field of bilingual research in Italy is young, and there is much to learn!

The awesome thing about studying language is that it is part of everyone's daily life in one way or another. I can pretty much tell anyone on the street the 10-second version of what I am doing here ("una ricerca sulla scrittura bilingue degli studenti italiani che imparano inglese come seconda lingua"), and they have an opinion about it: "Oh, Italians are really shy/bad/embarrassed about speaking English…" I won't elaborate, but I have heard plenty of folk theories about why Italians are reluctant to speak English. Of course, the academics speak fluent English and many other languages as well.

Despite the Italians' generally strict adherence to a proficiency-based definition of bilingualism and very high expectations of proficiency before a comfort level is reached (and keeping in mind my experience here is very limited!), I meet people all the time who defy these criteria.

Here's the best bilingual encounter on the subject of bilingualism: During the symposium on bilingualism, I took a break and stopped at a cafe for tea. When I ordered, the server recognized me from earlier that morning. I explained that I was attending a conference on bilingualism nearby. Her response: What's that? After drinking my tea, I checked out with a guy who had just arrived on the job. He noticed my weird Italian and asked where I was from. When I gave him my spiel and told him about the conference, and he laughed, "Bilingualism? I am from Albania and speak Albanian, Italian, English, and French". Ha ha… bilingualism, no problem!


      

Friday, March 28, 2014

One month in Italy! The little things…

It's hard to believe that I have been in Italy for nearly a month. One month! I definitely miss my husband and our furry friends very much; however, little things around here make me smile everyday. In no particular order, here are a few little things that have made the first month in Padua memorable.

1. Walking. Fresh air, sunshine (most of the time), interesting people, and beautiful, historic landmarks make walking around town a joy every day. I also appreciate the guys who play music on the streets: there is a clarinetist near Saint Anthony's cathedral, an accordionist downtown, and sometimes small bands by the Palazzio Bo that really liven up graduations. Music brings even more energy and life to the streets of Padua. I should also mention that strolling downtown often involves eating gelato.

2. Dogs. So many people in Padua have dogs, and they are always out walking or hanging out with their people at outdoor cafes. In parks and grassy areas, people here are relaxed about letting their dogs off-leash, and the dogs really enjoy the freedom. Whenever I see happy canines walking down the street, looking up at their people with those sweet, expectant, doggy eyes, it always makes me smile.

3. Church bells. I have always loved the sound of church bells and, in Italy, you hear them all the time. I can even hear them from my apartment. On a practical note, since I never wear a watch, church bells can be useful for figuring out what time it is.

4. Shopkeepers. Thanks to my participation in the Italian street culture I wrote about previously, I have developed a little network of shopkeepers whom I can always count on for good food and a substantial conversations in Italian. For example, there's the guy with the beautiful fruit/veggie shop (on the way to the U.), who calls everyone "cara", teaches me the difference between "blond" and red oranges, and tells me I will learn plenty of Italian, "con calma". There's the kid at another great fruit/veggie shop (on the way downtown) who moved to Italy from China at age 12. Because he acquired Italian -and a few other languages- as second-languages, he is sincerely interested in my research on bilingual writing. He always asks how the project is going and points out improvements in my Italian when I stop by.

5. Food. Fresh pasta on a daily basis. What more can I say about this one?
Orecchiette con pesto: my go-to dish
       
Overall, my first month in Italy has been excellent. I am collaborating with talented and hard-working colleagues at the University. I am getting involved in the community through work with schools and organizations. The teachers and students participating in our research project have been welcoming and enthusiastic. My Italian is OK! Tutto va essere bene. Gracias a la vida!

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