Since we met Marco and I have fielded the question, “Sooo…what language do you use with each other?”
Asked continuously and repeatedly by friends, family and a surprising amount of strangers, I think it’s time to address it head on.
It’s a fair question. Marco, native Italian and my husband, didn’t speak much English when we met and I, native American and English speaker, was just learning Italian. It’s a fair question, but one that can’t be answered simply with “English.” Or “Italian.” The true answer requires more of an explanation than that.
So here it is, the unabridged answer to the famous question: What language do you guys talk in?!
When Marco and I first met I was the mute American girl, desperately trying to understand the rapid-fire Italian that him and the friends around us were saying. On vacation in the mountains I was completely lost for two weeks. I wasn’t lost on the mountain paths, but on trying to decipher the beautiful, but way-more-difficult-than-expected-language. Marco realized my struggle and with one helpful translation when I needed it, “both,” I truly noticed him for the first time.
During the months I studied in Italy we met often, even traveling together and passing long dinners stumbling through conversations. During that time I spoke Italian and he spoke English. We were both very beginners, using the most basic verb tenses and words, but it slowed our speech down to use our second language, and in this way we could understand each other better.
Eventually my Italian improved and we began to talk much more in Italian. Through emails and Skype we’d still mix the languages, but for some time the Italian was slightly more dominant. Talks and visits often produced a strange version not unlike the Spanish, English “Spanglish” mix. We’d start a sentence in one language, only to realize half way through that we didn’t know a certain word. Inserting that word in the original language our sentences made sense only to us – and often scared people at nearby tables.
“Marco we need to andare al supermercato oggi because we don’t have any more prosciutto.”
Then Marco came to America to study. Living in a college town with Americans it was easier to speak in English. Alone we often talked in Italian, studying another language can fry your brain and Marco likely appreciated the break at the end of the day, but English was the dominant language. This was the case for almost a year as Marco came in and out of America, living with all Americans in a small apartment and learning English slang and terminologies like “I’m down!” and “beer pong.”
Only when I moved to Italy last February did our language balance back out. Now, though our daily life is predominately Italian, we have a nice mix of both languages. Sometimes we don’t realize what language we’re talking in, or we’ll have entire dinners where he talks in Italian and I respond in English.
When I want Marco to understand 100%, I speak in Italian. This often applies for when I’m mad also, though if I really get going I slip back into English. “No Marco perchè ti stavo dicendo TO NOT DO THAT!” Marco does the same, starting off slow and calm in English, but slipping back into Italian when reasoning doesn’t work.
We both talk to each other on the phone in just Italian because it works better that way. And we follow the unspoken bilingual rule to speak in the language that the people around you know. This means no English in his parents’ home, no Italian when we have American guests.
The truth is, we don’t just talk in one language – it would be impossible now that we both know both languages. A different language implies different things, different emotions. I completely agree with the study that a second language brings with it a new personality. We understand each other perfectly, and often switch based on mood, tiredness or a lack of vocabulary.
Our language is a mix, a trade and a compromise, and though it might seem like speaking different languages can make it harder to understand, actually having two languages helps us to understand each other even better.