Thursday, July 3, 2014

Return to the U.S. … and monolingualism?

I have been home for a little more than a week now and, in some ways, it feels like I never left. These days, instead of shops, fountains, and piazzas filled with people, my daily walks are witness to quiet, residential streets lined with quaint, Cape Cod style houses with perfectly manicured lawns and precious summer gardens. It sure looks different around here. I left with snow on the ground, naked trees, and an icy beach.

A view from my evening walk around the neighborhood 
Long walks to do errands in Padua have been replaced by drives around town. Instead of making sure I had comfy shoes when I arrived, I got an oil change and a carwash. Instead of walking home with gelato and people-watching, I drive home eating frozen yogurt and listening to NPR.

Visits to fruit-veggie shops with chatty owners and Italian grocery stores where you weigh and tag your own produce have been replaced by huge, cold supermarkets with isles and isles of products: 21 different kinds of toothpaste, 16 different kinds of bagged lettuce (that all taste like plastic anyway).

Uninterested, generally inefficient Italian restaurant staff are now overly friendly servers, checking in multiple times and bringing free refills. All restaurants have numerous, giant-screen TVs showing current sporting events -if we're lucky, the World Cup (broadcast in English).

Finally, the garbage has multiplied exponentially: everything from food to mail-order books to household items comes with an exaggerated amount of packaging… so does take-out food. Instead of charging extra for plastic bags, stores here give you more than you want or need to simply carry your items to the car, to then drive home, take off all the packaging, and throw it away.

Clearly, there are some cultural differences. But what about language?

As my first language, obviously, speaking English here is no problem. I only almost slipped up once, opening the door for an older gentleman at the dry cleaner and starting to say, "Signore" (but I caught myself and said nothing). I also enjoy integrating Italian hand gestures into friendly conversations.

Spanish is still a bit problematic, however, as Italian fillers like "bene" and "certo" want to interrupt my speech. I don't think I'll ever be able to say, "tranquilo" again without thinking twice (is it, /traŋkwilo/ or /traŋkilo/?).

To reactivate my Spanish, I listen to Latino radio everyday in the car (I did before, anyway), and there are plenty of Spanish speakers to talk to around here and, of course, friends. In an attempt to preserve my Italian, I am reading the translation of Tuesdays with Morrie, which I brought from ItalyI also chat with Italian friends on Facebook, write emails, and dream.

Yes, bilingualism is still a dream: every night, Italian sneaks in. Apparently, language is not something you can leave behind. You pack it in your suitcase and take it home with you. The journey of multiculturalism and multilingualism continues.      

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Arrivederci Italia!

Of course, now that I am about to leave Padua, I feel totally at ease here. What is this phenomenon? Similarly, it seems like, when you are saying goodbye, people suddenly find you more interesting, and those you have spent time with appreciate you even more.

After just about four months, I have the map of Padova in my head. All the lovely, sampietrino streets… I can walk everywhere, but if I want, I can hop on a bus or tram and know where it's going and exactly when to get off. I can go to the train station and use the ticket machine (in Italian!) to purchase just the right ticket to get where I want to go as quickly and cheaply as possible. I know where to buy everything I need, and where to put all the trash and recyclables. I finally have some good tea and, most importantly, I have some really good friends. It will be hard to say goodbye.  

At the same time, I am thrilled to be going home. I can't wait to be reunited with my wonderful husband and our furry friends. I left Connecticut with snow on the ground; now I can go back and enjoy summer in New England: biking in the forest, walks on the beach, shopping at farmers' markets, visits to local wineries with beautiful views, and Red Sox games at Fenway Park!    

So what will I miss the most about Italy?

1. My new friends. I have been fortunate to meet exactly the right people in the right place at the right time. I have learned and shared so much, and enjoyed many memorable conversations and experiences.  

2. The amazing food. Awesome fresh, high-quality veggies and fruits, homemade pasta, pesto genovese, pizza napoletana, and of course… gelato!

Croante all'amarena, from Gelateria La Romana. "Ice cream" will never be the same.  

3. The outdoorsy, walk-everywhere, people-everywhere, piazza culture: Enticing smells of caffé con brioche floating out of cafes every morning, seeing people smile and greet one another on the street, well-adjusted Italian dogs, friendly and familiar small-business owners, and beautifully designed store windows; all of this is irreplaceable. 

Street market in Venice

One of the many, visually-tempting stores in Padua

4. Spectacular mass at Sant'Antonio. I am not a churchgoer, but had to check out this amazing cultural event. People from all around the world visit Saint Anthony's Basilica in Padua. Sung mass on Sundays is standing room only, complete with spotlights, music, elaborate costumes, candles and smoky incense… kind of like a Broadway musical, but free!  

5. L'Orto Botanico. One of those places to go and enjoy again and again, the historic, University of Padua botanical garden was my escape to nature within the paved confines of the city. 

L'Orto Botanico: A little green paradise in Padua.
6. Speaking Italian. Cosa posso dire? Did the Italian language make it out of my head and into my heart? We shall see just how much I miss it… 

Me at Prato della Valle, Padova's famous, giant piazza-park. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Italy: Wrapping up (the official version)

I am down to just a few days left in Padova. Direct from my Fulbright Final Report, here are a few, completely sincere reflections on my overall experience. Stay tuned for the "unofficial version" shortly. 

Piazza Garibaldi, Padova, in the city center

The Fulbright has been an amazing experience. Thanks to my time in Padua, I have grown both as a researcher and educator, as well as increased my multiculturalism and multilingualism by participating in various projects and communities. 

Regarding the Fulbright research project, my collaborator at the U. di Padova has been an outstanding role model and is now also a dear friend. I am so grateful for her invitation. In collecting and processing data for our project, I learned a lot about the Italian school system and Italian youth. I was also able to work with teachers of English and better understand the context of second language learning here in Italy, as well as in Europe. 

In another realm, my experience volunteering and co-facilitating a photography workshop at an after-school program for immigrant students allowed me to get more involved in the community. I engaged in many interesting conversations with program volunteers about bilingualism and the state of language teaching and learning in Italy. Thanks to my collaboration with a Portuguese educator and an Italian Education student, I was exposed to new pedagogical methodologies and frameworks during the photography workshop. I should also mention, the kids -and facilitators- had a great time.  

In sum, in both projects and their related community engagements, I was able to bring my passion for working with bilingual students to the Fulbright experience, and broaden my perspectives as well. Thus, I can say that both of these inquiries allowed me to contribute to the involved students/communities as well as acquire valuable knowledge and experience that will serve me in the future. 

The international experience of living in Italy for four months was intense in many ways. I worked hard to increase my knowledge of Italian and experience the culture in diverse contexts. I recorded my experiences and reflections and developed various theories of bilingualism in my blog. By re-experiencing the challenges and rewards of speaking a second language and learning to navigate a foreign culture, I was able to gain a new appreciation for the immigrants/second language learners with whom I work in the U.S. 

Many times over the past few months I have thought to myself, and I say now, "Thank you, Fulbright!"

A view from the hills just outside Padova, Colli Eugagni

Lion of St. Mark, symbol of the Region of Veneto, in Padua's Piazza dei Signori 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Bilingualism as unfinished architecture

With just a week left in Italy and in the midst of analyzing high school students' Italian/English bilingual writing for our research project, I continue to reflect on my own Italian language development. I have been here for almost four months, and have used Italian everyday in some capacity, from ordering food to sharing stories with friends to giving research talks. Yet still, it is not quite natural or easy for me to BE in the Italian language. I am still learning. As one of my most inspirational former students said, "Everyday is a new day and everyday I learn a new word".

As I think about the continuous, never-finished process of language acquisition, it reminds me of the many churches I have visited during this experience. These churches are ancient, but still standing, and in constant states of evolution. It has been interesting to realize that these historic landmarks often do not have exact dates of completion; instead, information provided usually lists a range of dates from when construction possibly started to when some historical document offered a clue to the beginning of its use. Of course, later dates are also relevant: When various interior frescoes were completed, stained glass added, statues or relics arrived, destruction due to WWII bombing or natural disaster, reconstruction, and restoration.  

Language is just like this. Although it may be in constant use and may even be on public display, it is never quite finished. There is always a new structure to (re)build, strengthen, fix, or embellish. Just like the apologetic signs I see in store windows in Padova (Questa vetrina è in uno stato di cambiamento), I sometimes feel that my Italian needs a warning: Italian language under construction! Sorry for any inconvenience.

Of course, just like these beautiful churches, language in a state of construction does not mean it cannot be used to its fullest potential and enjoyed. Would tourists stop visiting San Pietro (the Vatican) or San Marco (Venice) just because there might be some scaffolding in view? Of course not! Thus, developing bilinguals can and will continue to build and adjust, renew and restore, just like these spectacular, ever-unfinished works of architecture and art.

Here are some examples of churches representing "unfinished architecture" in Padova:

San Nicolò, Padova, whose earliest documents date 1088, although it is suspected it was begun prior to 1087.  First restorations took place in 1305, with further construction occurring in 1571, as well as between 1660-1680. Interior art dates late 1500's, with restorations throughout the 1960's-1980's.

Inside the famous Basilica di Sant'Antonio (Saint Anthony of Padua), constructed from 1238-1310, with interiors completed over a period of centuries, from 1300's-1600's. Additions and restorations continue today, evidenced by scaffolding inside (often seen in many churches here).

Santa Sofia, Padova. The exterior is said to have begun construction sometime between 1106-1110, damaged by an earthquake in 1117, and completed in 1127. Art inside dates from the early 1400's, with restorations taking place in during the decade of the 1950's.


Saturday, June 14, 2014

School daze: A glimpse at education in Italy

What I know about Italian school comes from spending days and days collecting data in two private high schools, one day at a public high school, 51 high school students' essays about how they would improve the school system, and talking to teachers, students, and parents about school experiences. The Ministry of Education website also helped me out!

Let's start with a general overview of the K-12 system. There is no kindergarten here, and preschool is optional. Kids can enter grade 1 at age 5 or 6. They then complete elementary school (la primaria, grades 1-5), middle school (secondaria di primo grado, grades 6-8), and high school (secondaria superiore/liceo, grades 9-13). You got it, there are five years of high school in Italy. Also, most schools run from 8:00-1:00, Monday-Saturday. Kids go home for lunch, but they go to school on SaturdaysNational testing occurs only at the completion of 8th grade and 13th grade.

Before entering high school, the students choose a track. There are true vocational/professional schools, but the "academic" high schools are also divided into a few different options (this is the same on a national level). In all tracks, students study the basics like Italian language/literature and mathematics; however, specialized courses and time spent in each subject differ based on the chosen track.

Tracks include: 1) Classical: considered the most "scholarly", for star students. Here students study philosophy, Latin, and ancient Greek. 2) Linguistic: where I spent all of my time; in these schools the emphasis is on languages. Students study Italian and English, plus two additional (generally European) languages like Spanish, French, German, or Russian. 3) Scientific: here the emphasis is on laboratory science. This is considered by some to be a more "technical" option, as students graduate prepared to work. 4) Artistic: with an emphasis on fine arts. It would have been a tough choice for me between linguistic and artistic when I started high school.

Students begin high school in a class of 30 or so students that all have the same schedule. They stay with the same class all day, all year, for 5 years. In fact, they even stay in the same room all year (e.g., Year 1-A, Year 3-B). The teachers move from room to room when the bell rings. In fact, I was surprised at that, at one of the schools I worked with, during bell time and breaks, teachers completely abandoned the classrooms, leaving students to their own devices until the next teacher showed up.

Another surprisingly tolerated student behavior was smoking. Kids smoke right outside the school door before class. They are not supposed to smoke inside the school, but many do, in the bathrooms. Several students complained in their essays that they would like to have smoke alarms installed in the bathrooms so they didn't have to smell smoke in there.

So how did the kids want to improve their schools? Remember, these were the private (linguistic) high school students. Many students wanted to start school later (typical teenagers want to sleep in!), e.g., 9:00 instead of 8:00. Of course, they also requested longer breaks (they have a 15-minute break where they wander around, eat a snack brought from home, go outside, and/or buy an espresso from a machine). Many students complained that they weren't allowed to use their cell phones at school (imagine that!), and some wanted more technology at school. In their defense, I have to agree, technology in the Italian classrooms that I observed was rather sparse.

Picture from:
This still looks like what I found to be a "typical" Italian classroom in 2014. 

One of the schools I worked with did have a cafeteria, and almost all the students complained about the food: too much pasta, not enough variety, bad taste. The funny thing is, to me, coming from the U.S., that school cafeteria seemed like a five-star restaurant. Kids ate real, fresh-cooked food on real plates with real flatware, drinking water out of real cups (no disposable anything!). This real food consisted of a primo piatto (always some kind of pasta, but that is the Italian way!), a secondo: meat or fish, along with a side of cooked veggies, salad, and a piece of fresh fruit (apple or pear). That's it. No processed/packaged junk food, no french fries, pizza, or burgers… no drink options (just water). I can see how the kids may have felt limited, but at least they had an actual meal made with decent ingredients. I wish we could move in this simpler, but healthier, direction in the U.S.

Another major difference between Italian and U.S. high schools that the students here are aware of is the emphasis on sports in U.S. school culture. Here, it's just academics, no sports (the same is true at the university level). If they wish, kids can participate in sports outside of school via community centers, clubs, etc. Makes me wonder how sports got to be so important in U.S. schools and universities.

There are so many facets to education that I know I have just scratched the surface. Basically, with only four months in two, northern Italian (private) high schools, my vision has been limited. However, overall, it was a great experience working with the students, and they taught me a lot in a short time. Maybe through more comparative research on students' perspectives of schooling around the world, we can all find ways to improve our respective systems.



Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Italian language immersion weekend… in London!

Ironically, it took going to London to experience a full weekend of Italian-language immersion. How did I manage that? By traveling with two friends from Italy, of course!

Both countries are getting psyched up for the World Cup!

Like any major city, London is incredibly diverse, multicultural and multilingual. We enjoyed soba noodles for lunch, bought green tea at a huge Japanese food emporium, had a delicious Afghani-Persian dinner, and ate at a Thai restaurant located inside a pub - the whole time, speaking Italian amongst ourselves.  

Yummy boba: lychee, passion fruit, and my matcha green tea. :)

Even in our attempts to focus on "exotic" (i.e., non-Italian) cuisines, we were unable to escape Italian language and culture. For example, in the Chinatown area, I insisted we have some boba (bubble) tea, one of my favorite treats and something I have never had in Italy. After interpreting the menu and helping my friends make decisions on their first-ever boba, I ordered for everyone (in English). After the drinks came out, we realized the employee was Italian! The same evening, we came across a gelateria I couldn't resist. I walked in, and everyone was speaking Italian, so I ordered my gelato in its native language.

No thanks, I'll have some English breakfast tea, please! 

It wasn't nearly as odd as I thought it would be to speak mostly Italian in England. I mostly felt like we were still in Europe and, therefore, everyone should naturally be speaking multiple languages (which was the case). The hardest part was trying to translate from written English to Italian for my friends, for example, in museums. I just don't have the specialized language. It wound up being much more effective for an Italian friend to translate, with me filling in missing details and/or explaining unknown terms (usually I didn't know the Italian word anyway, so I had to circumlocute).

My favorite London experience was the Matisse Cut Outs exhibit at the Tate Modern. The exhibit was so complete and really spectacular. For example, there was an entire room filled with pages from the book, Jazz, which contains pages and pages of Matisse's hand-written notes, in French. We didn't attempt to read everything, but when we did, it was quite chaotic. My Italian friend translated some text aloud into Italian, which was helpful for our other friend but not for me. In my case, it was better to ignore the Italian voice and instead try to understand the French directly from the text. At any rate, the combination of written English (the exhibit guide), written French (by Matisse), and spoken Italian was a totally new and challenging language context for me.

Overall, this rather spontaneous weekend trip to London, in Italian, was great fun and exceptionally multicultural-multilingual. Next time I will try to pick up some English-English!

London, London, London… not so far from Italy (see the Vespa wallet?)

Friday, June 6, 2014

Italian language "graduation": Critical pedagogy comes to life

A few weeks ago, I finally decided to take an Italian class. I wrote about the painful yet charming first day of class here. The Italian classes, run by Vides Veneto, are free for immigrants, taught by volunteers, and coordinated by Salesian nuns interested in promoting equality and human rights. They are incredibly sweet people. In fact, a friend and I started calling the director La Carissima, because that is how she always addresses others: "carissima, gentilissima… (dearest, sweetest)".

Little did I know, but it turns out that Vides is a perfect example of multicultural educationcritical pedagogy, and community engagement, basically the theoretical frameworks I am most excited about as a researcher. For example, they run a workshop entitled, Intercultural Workshop of Autobiographical Writing and Social Theater… something I would totally write an article about!

Last night, my formerly narrow scope of Vides was greatly expanded when I witnessed their culminating event, a great instance of multiculturalism, multilingualism, and hybridity. The immigrants who attend Italian classes at Vides come from multiple countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, as well as a handful from the EU and one from the U.S. (yep, just me). The first event on the program was handing out certificates of completion to about 50 students participating in the current cycle. They have had around 270 students in their Italian program so far this year. As is the typical ceremony, each student was called up and presented with a certificate, cheered on by the crowd and Vides volunteers.

A proud Italian language student showing off her certificate

After the certificates, they had a show. This was the multicultural part. Who ever would have thought I would hear Andean music in northern Italy? Not me, but I did: the first thing on the program was a traditional Peruvian dance, complete with costumes and música andina. ¡Lindo! Even better: Afterwards I met one of the dancers, and we spoke in Spanish. It seems like, just in the past couple of days, my brain finally figured out how to separate Spanish and Italian. What a relief!

Next up was a group of young men from Togo, who jammed out some reggae-esque covers (e.g., No woman no cry), followed by an eight-year old girl from the Philippines, wearing a white lace dress and a flower in her hair, who sang a ballad in tagalog (I think), followed by a really popular and sexy U.S. pop song (that of course I knew but can't for the life of me remember now). One of these days we will see this girl on Youtube.

The culminating performance was a true community theater piece retelling the classic myth of the minotaur. With few resources, the diverse cast danced, sang in multiple languages, and used lighting and movement to narrate the story, incorporating participants' oral narratives and emphasizing themes of exclusion, fear, and prejudice. They ended by shouting their key message, "There are no monsters, only people". Voilà Paolo Freire.

The multicultural, multilingual crowd gathers for the Vides event

As much due to their multicultural, multilingual nature as their foundation in social justice and empowerment, these types of organizations and events really excite me. Imagine a refugee from Somalia, escaping a nightmare situation to arrive completely alone in Italy, where she does not speak the language or have any familiar cultural references (I know this woman). She is welcomed by an organization of accoglienza (my favorite word, like "welcome") and begins to participate, not only in individualized, small-group Italian language classes, but in theater, music, culture, and community. I can't speak for the Italian government, but for community organizations like Vides, accoglienza is really about involvement and integration. Welcome… participate… learn… teach… connect. This is really what education is all about.       


Saturday, May 31, 2014

A few things I've been doing differently in Italy that I should keep doing (and a few that I shouldn't!)

Coming to Italy for just four months, I knew up-front that this was a temporary arrangement and that I should pack lightly (and certainly not accumulate stuff while here). I am generally a minimalist anyway, so this has not been a problem. Still, I have actually changed a few things about my everyday life to make it even simpler… I'm thinking that maybe some of these habits I should take back with me to the U.S. Here are a few examples.

1. Going low-tech. Case in point: I don't have a cell phone (enter ominous music). How is this even possible? I actually felt liberated when I cancelled my U.S. phone service. I thought about getting an Italian sim card and a pay-as-you-go plan, but realized it just wasn't necessary. I do all my communicating in-person or online. That being said, wifi is scarce and unreliable, so I only go online when I sit down, plug in, and sign on (i.e., on purpose). It's kind of nice not to be controlled by a smartphone.

2. The minimal kitchen. My "spices" include sea salt, pepper, garlic, and sometimes, fresh basil. Condiments are just olive oil and balsamic vinegar. No canned, instant, or frozen food. No dishwasher or oven. I don't peel carrots (there was no vegetable peeler in the apartment and it's pretty hard to use a knife on a carrot). Also, I have never bought ziplock bags, aluminum foil, cling wrap, etc. Reusing grocery produce bags and other empty, food packaging works just as well to store and carry food.

3. No driving! It's so nice not to drive! Walking everywhere is awesome. Wish I could continue this in the U.S., but soon I will be back behind the wheel in drive-o-landia.

There are couple of important things that don't involve simplification, but amplification, in the Italian context:

1. I study Italian. on purpose. If you have read this blog before you know I am crazy about learning Italian and work on it all the time. I should keep it up when I get home.

The Italian verb-tense chart I always wanted to make but didn't… until I took an Italian class in Italy!

2. I listen better. Basically, because I have to! Listing in a second language requires more attention. For example, it's really hard to carry on a conversation while doing anything else. At meals involving a group of people speaking Italian, I am often the last one to finish my food (if I even do finish), because I spend more time concentrating on the conversation than eating. At any rate, listening attentively -without trying to multitask- is a good thing, and I hope I can keep doing it!

Fully engaged and fully present in the Italian-language communicative context

So, you wonder, what have I been doing in Italy that I should stop doing when I leave?

At the moment, only food-related behaviors come to mind: I eat olives at every meal. I eat gelato a few times a week. I (used to) grate a bunch of fresh, grana padano cheese on every pasta dish (but I have already cut down on that!). And darn those delicious, sweet breakfasts consisting of biscotti or brioche…

Gelato, granita… so delicious, but lots of sugar I need to give up! 

Hot chocolate with whipped cream and a brioche (sugary, Italian croissant): On the "give up" list

So, I guess I will go home to the U.S., quit eating so many desserts, get back in my car, and turn on my new cell phone. Hopefully I can keep my Italian language alive… and maybe eat some olives once in a while!


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Bilingualism as a dream

Remember all those theories of bilingualism I have been playing around with? Let's review:

1. Bilingualism and the body: Acquiring an additional language is a corporal experience that involves the whole self and identity. Bilingualism is achieved when our inner voice matches our outer voice.

2. Bilingualism as resonance: Acquiring an additional language has to do with attuning oneself to the (literal and figurative) vibrations of the new language. Bilingualism is achieved when the vibrations of the new language match our internal vibrations and thus produce "linguistic resonance", a natural sense of ease.  

3. Bilingualism = speaking two languages nearing perfectly: This is the typical, Italian-on-the-street take on bilingualism. I personally do not agree with this definition, but keep it in mind in working with students and teachers here.

4. Bilingualism as a game: Acquiring an additional language is essentially a game: You may or may not receive prior training, but once immersed in the cultural environment of the new language, you apply whatever skills you have to solve problems, avoid obstacles, and advance to new levels. Progress in language learning, as in a video game, is uneven: you may advance quickly, plateau, or regress. The language game is never ending, as there is always more to learn and apply in new and ever-changing contexts.

I have a new metaphor for the process of becoming bilingual: Bilingualism as a dream.

A dreamy landscape in Varenna, on Lake Como

Like our dreams at night, second language acquisition often doesn't make any sense. It can seem unpredictable and obscure, delivering cryptic messages in the form of symbols that take time to decipher. Certain aspects of the new language and its use may seem concrete, real, and tangible. On the other hand, deeper/more subtle components of language (e.g., idiomatic expressions, local jargon, culturally-driven language behaviors, including pragmatic aspects) may seem absurd or simply out of reach. As in dreams, we sometimes trudge through our second language world, sometimes fly, and sometimes want to run away screaming.

People often say that you know that you have truly acquired a language when you dream in that language. I have to say, since I have been in Italy, I have dreamed many times in Italian; however, in most of these dreams I am searching for words, trying to assemble grammatically correct sentences, and conjugating verbs. Thus, my dream-Italian is more or less just as effortful (hopefully getting better) as my real-life-Italian. I awake from these dreams ready to jump out of bed and grab the bilingual dictionary or visit my favorite Italian verb conjugator website. Then my dream blurs into reality: another day of cryptic messages surrounded by beautiful moments of clarity.    

Of course, there's another significance to the word, 'dream'; that is, as a wish or goal that we hope to achieve. Language, again, can apply to this sense of dream in that people in so many situations long to acquire a new language. In fact, they may be desperate to do so in order to improve their quality of life.   

I have often felt privileged to have English as my native language, when so many people around the world dream of learning it as an additional language. The other side of the native English speaker coin is carrying the weight of the bad reputation that the U.S. has for being linguaphobes (my term). I'll always remember the disappointment, combined with a serious dose of realism, that I felt when an Italian teacher told me, "It's not that you speak Italian well. It's that you are an American who actually speaks some Italian… this is what impresses Italians". With so many people around the world speaking English as a second language, it's easy for people who are native speakers to take the easy road and remain monolingual. However, I can guarantee that those who do realize the dream of becoming bilingual will possess an invaluable gift that will forever enrich their life.  

Let's play a little language game. Below are a few quotes about dreams. Read the quote, then read it again, substituting the word, language/s for the word dream/s.

1. "Having dreams is what makes life tolerable" (from the movie, Rudy).

2. "A dream doesn't become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work" (Colin Powell).

3. "There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure (Paulo Coelho).

4. " The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams" (Eleanor Roosevelt).

It worked, right? In so many senses, bilingualism is a dream: something to muddle through and interpret, something to reach for, and something to hang onto. Yes! Hold onto your dreams… and your languages! 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Three months in Italy: Maintaining a sense of wonder

While some people claim that cultivating a childlike sense of wonder is one of the keys to a generally happy life (and I agree), I would suggest that it is essential when living abroad.

Of course, travel is a natural, easy way to experience a sense of wonder. Without even thinking about it, you show up to a new place eager to explore, ask questions, meet people, and enjoy. However, as time passes and the gritty details of everyday life begin to dominate your reality, it becomes more important to keep the sense of adventure alive. If not, you risk waking up one morning (after the initial honeymoon period has ended, your spouse and visitors have gone home, and you have a pile of work to do) and realizing that you are all alone in a strange place with an incredibly small circle of friends and a rather sketchy understanding of the language and culture.

This might just happen. Actually, it probably will happen. I'm not really a fan of the term, homesickness, because it connotes a simple longing for home. Similarly, the term, culture shock sounds like a sudden, fleeting blow. What we really need is a term to explain a process.

Low moments experienced while living abroad are certainly related in some sense to missing the people and places of home; however these lulls also have to do with the general stresses of adjusting to life in a new place: frustrations navigating a system you don't understand, insecurities of all sorts, lack of connectedness with the local community, etc. The fact that the same process occurs in reverse when you return "home" (and I have experienced it!) supports the notion that homesickness/culture shock is not just about missing where you came from, but is a more holistic challenge that incorporates all aspects of learning to live in a foreign land.

There are many ways to deal with this, and I would argue that perhaps the key is maintaining that initial sense of wonder you felt when you first arrived. How to do this? Wander down a street you haven't yet traveled instead of taking your usual route, strike up a meaningful conversation with a stranger or shopkeeper, take a day off and visit a new place, participate in a class or cultural event. Importantly, understand that low moments are normal and okay. As a dear, well-traveled and internationally-minded friend always says, "be kind to yourself".

For me, another key is having a sense of gratitude (and again, this applies to life in general, as well). Even in low moments, I never stop feeling grateful for the opportunity to be here, to do this work, to meet these people, to learn this language, etc., in large part thanks to the love and support of my husband, as well as the flexibility of colleagues at home. I am so lucky! Another international friend I met in Padua summarized more or less like this: "I love living abroad. It's difficult, but it's wonderful." Exactly. So here I am, after three months in Italy… loving the opportunity, in spite of normal ups and downs, and continuing to feed my sense of wonder.

Choosing "the path less taken" in Verona

You never know what you might discover! View from a deserted vicolo in Burano. 


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Exploring language difference in Venice

Everyone knows that Venice is a city of tourists: recent estimates suggest 60-80,000 each DAY. I have read about proposals/actions to limit tourists to Venice, including, especially, cruise ships (here's a great video of locals discussing the crisis; it's in Italian, but you can get the idea by watching and taking in the Venice atmosphere).

Yesterday I treated myself to a brief trip to Venice (only 30 minutes away by train) in order to visit the famous islands of Murano and Burano. More on these charming little towns shortly… first, some adventures in bilingualism.

Because the whole world is basically in Venice on any given day, you never know what language to speak. Right outside the train station, on the Grand Canal, I bought a 12-hour vaporetto pass and begrudgingly got into a huge line for the Murano-Burano route. I tested the translingual waters with a well-prepared, young couple who had a vaporetto schedule. I asked to see it, in Italian, and we then discussed our options for getting on a boat sooner.

This couple definitely had an "accent", so I asked where they were from. It turns out they were Italian, visiting from Calabria, the toe of the Italian boot. "Oh, right", I realized, "this is how Italians talk in the South!" Although I have never been to the south of Italy (but really want to go!), everyone has been warning me about regional linguistic differences, not to mention region-specific dialects. As we continued our conversation, I realized that their Italian had the familiar rhythm of some Italian-Americans I have met, for example, in the Italian class I took last summer in Boston's North End, and even my great-grandparents, from Sicily. These families immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1800's, bringing southern Italian dialects that have been preserved in families for generations.

Of course, the word "dialect" can be thought about on a continuum: simple, mutually-comprehensible regional differences in words or prosody, vs. a completely different linguistic system. Think, in U.S. terms, the differences among regional variations in words (hoagie vs. sub vs. grinder) as opposed to systemic grammatical differences in, for example, African American English. Here's a good article about Italian dialects, including links to videos of each dialect being spoken.

Interestingly, on my brief stop in Murano, I visited the public library, where I bought a book of poetry written in Venetian dialect (Veneto), the local dialect of this region (more or less readable, but notably different -here's an example). I sometimes think I hear it around town (people tell me to listen to the older people).

At any rate, Italian dialects are alive and well, and can be observed in Venice, among so many other world languages. Yesterday I was also able to speak Spanish, a rare event as here I generally avoid doing so because it confuses me! I met a friendly couple of Uruguayos on their dream vacation to Paris, Venice, Florence, and Rome. It took a couple minutes to pull the Spanish out of me, but I more or less was able to do it. My Spanish will definitely need some resuscitation when I return to the U.S.

So, Murano and Burano! Quick summary:

Murano is famous for its glass. Other than glass factories (you can watch!) and many glass gift shops, it is basically a sleepy town with quiet pedestrian streets and canals (like Venice, no cars!). Sadly, I missed the glass museum, but did enjoy my conversation with a couple of locals at the public library.

A small glass "garden" in Murano

Burano is known for its outrageously colorful houses, and reminded me of a real-life Candyland. In this very charming, no-vehicle town, the sun beats down and the bright sky highlights the colors of the houses and laundry hanging out to dry. Burano is also historically famous for lace (still made here today), and they have an excellent Lace Museum to explain everything. Getting to Burano is a bit of a hike (two vaporettos are required and it's at least an hour away from Venice); however, it's well worth the trip. Overall, I recommend visiting Venice and its islands in the winter/early spring to avoid the intense crowds of the high-tourist, summer season.

Burano: Bright sun, sky, and candy-colored houses

Monday, May 19, 2014

Padua: Surprisingly multicultural

A lot of my work in the U.S. has involved working with and supporting immigrants and children of immigrants. Thanks to my own experiences living abroad and learning additional languages, I feel a special connection to these communities. In my brief time in Padua, I have been fortunate to experience just a slice of the international community through volunteer work with Unica Terra, an association that runs an after school program for immigrant/2nd generation students, among other services.

Yesterday, I witnessed the international scope of Padua on a much larger scale at the city's annual Festa dei Popoli. This year was the 24th anniversary of the event, celebrated throughout last week with lectures, music, dance, theater, and a culminating weekend festival in Prato della Valle, Padua's natural outdoor event center.

With just a glance around Prato yesterday's sunny Sunday afternoon, the extent of Padua's international community became clear. The place was packed with food, crafts, and cultural experiences from all over the world. As I wandered around hearing multiple languages spoken, I suddenly felt less like a "straniera" (foreigner).

I had been aware that Padua had large populations of immigrants from Albania, Romania, Morocco, and China, but I was surprised to learn yesterday that there are also substantial communities from Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Peru. This I learned by watching the community parade (reminiscent of an Olympic Games Parade of Nations).

Before the parade, hundreds of people gathered in traditional dress around flags of their countries of origin: Ukraine, Romania, Albania, Moldova, Morocco, Cameroon, Sri Lanka, China, Peru, Philippines, and Italy, among others. Religious leaders representing Baha'i, Buddhist, Hare Krishna, and Catholic provided an interfaith (and translingual) blessing, and the parade took off. The representatives from the Chinese community stole the show with bright red, elaborate, dancing lions.
Interfaith blessing as communities gather before the parade

Dancing lions in the Chinese community

After the parade, I was able to get the inside scoop on several international stands with a friend from Unica Terra. We were invited to share fresh mint tea and cookies inside a Berber tent hosted by a family from Morocco. In the tent, we met -strangely enough- a couple of U.S. undergrads who had arrived in Padua two weeks ago for a study abroad program (this might entail an entirely separate blog post). Not knowing about the event, they had come to Prato to hang out in the park and study. Surprise surprise!

Of course I realize the challenges for immigrant communities in Italy: the injustices, the prejudices… However, I appreciate that Padua, for 24 years, has celebrated its multiculturalism in the Festa dei Popoli (which means, by the way, Festival of the Peoples).

Morocco followed by Cameroon


The only American nation represented in yesterday's parade, Peru