Friday, April 29, 2011


When we last left our little tale of my crazy international life, I admitted to passively letting people in Paris believe I was Swiss, mostly just because I like to keep people guessing. Well, be careful what you wish for!

I've been learning Italian for almost as long as I've been speaking French -- and I've gotten to the point where I can read simple books and carry on a rudimentary conversation in Italian -- but I've never gotten really fluent in Italian because I've never spent more than a few weeks at a time in Italy (and even then, I haven't gone far off the tourist-beaten track).

But that's OK! Because at Lago Maggiore (as I mentioned earlier) most of the tourists are Italian, French, German, or Swiss. So if you start speaking to someone in Italian -- even if they sense that Italian is not your best language -- they can't simply switch to your best language because they don't know which one it is! Hahahahaha!! Unlike Z├╝rich, where everybody just assumes that everybody else speaks English. Where, if you have an accent or make a grammatical error when speaking German, Swiss people give you this "isn't it cute that you're trying to speak German? But seriously, if you want to communicate, I'll just stick to English for you." And then the Swiss people complain that the foreign residents don't bother to learn German. But I digress...

Anyway, there was one major new development in my life since my previous trip to Lago Maggiore: I have really gone to town on learning German! I'm now at the point where I can carry on a rudimentary conversation with ease, and most slightly-more-complicated things I'd like to say, I can approximate in real time (or at least in a not-too-embarrassing length of time). But -- as anyone who has tried to learn a second foreign language can attest -- my new foreign language (German) is interfering with my earlier one (Italian)!!!

Fortunately, my German has not interfered with my French. I guess that since I lived in France for seven years (and I still speak French with lots of people on a daily basis), French has moved out of the "expendable foreign language" part of my brain...? Ever since learning French made me forget all my Latin, I've been very careful to practice and review French and Italian while learning German. (Aside: I don't understand those folks who can speak seven or eight languages fluently -- it's hard enough just learning four!) Anyway, if I haven't lost you already, you can probably see where this is going:

Every time I tried to speak to someone in Italian, a bunch of the words would come out in German. Totally unintentionally. I was trying to speak Italian and ended up speaking some sort of Italodeutsch. So, naturally, everybody assumed I was German. It's not that far-fetched an assumption -- the place was crawling with Germans-attempting-to-speak-Italian, and I'm not as fashionable as the French or Italians:

Leo liked the boat rides -- especially the video games

I thought it was pretty funny, actually.

So I was ordering some cappuccinos for breakfast the first morning, and the waitress (wanting to make sure I understood the difference between cappuccino and caffe latte, trying to pick an appropriate language for this explanation), asked "Deutsch?"

I immediately launched into this whole explanation about how, no, I'm not really German, haha, I'm just learning German, and I keep accidentally mixing up the words with Italian so people think I'm German, haha!

I suspect the problem was choosing to give this explanation in French. My husband's system was to say a few words to people in Italian, but then switch to French for anything he didn't know how to say in Italian. It normally worked like a charm -- everybody seemed to speak perfect French. Except maybe this one lady. She just gave me a kind of exasperated look and said "Zweimal cappuccino?" [German for "Two cappuccinos?"].

I thought about it for a second and replied, "Ja, zwiemal cappuccino. Isch guet."

After that, it hit me that sheesh, I speak Italian well enough that I can explain to people in Italian that I'm learning German, and I keep accidentally mixing up the words. So the second time I did it better. I was discussing different boat itinerary options with someone at the boat ticket counter, and as he turned to get me a page of information, he asked "Deutsch?"

That was my cue! I told him in [not-quite-right] Italian that I'm just learning German and sometimes I get the words mixed up. And when he smiled in comprehension, I thought success! actual communication!

After that, I made a point to prepare in advance before talking to people, planning Italian sentences and purging them of German words before speaking. Then I didn't have that problem anymore. But it was a fun little linguisto-cultural adventure!! :D


Donna Banta said...

My daughter was fluent in French before she moved to Germany. Now the two languages are sort of jumbled together. Like you, she says that most Germans just speak English to her.

Sounds like you're having a great vacation!

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Chanson,

Reading your blog seriously fuels my escape fantasies. I want to leave the US, change my name and go incognito.

You have the best life ever. If you ever get tired of your life and want to swap with me, just let me know. :- )

C. L. Hanson said...


It's actually pretty mundane most of the time, but I do enjoy living in Europe. :D

beatdad said...

....number one on muy list: "why living in Europe is probably better for the brain than living in a small city in the U.S."

Unknown said...

Well you're about 5 steps in front of me, that's for sure. I kept wondering why everybody kept asking me if I was Dutch.

Olivia said...

I recently moved to Switzerland too and cannot speak much German yet. Like you, I speak French well enough that I don't tangle it with any other language, and just enough Italian that I do.

When we first moved, anytime I needed to talk, or would imagine talking, I would unintentionally mentally rehearse the conversation in Italian! I guess since I knew no German, my mind would switch to my next least known language. It ended up helping my Italian skills, though!

Then I went to Milan and kept accidentally saying 'danke,' giving the obviously incorrect impression that German was more comfortable than Italian!

(sorry for any typos, on my phone)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Olivia!!!

I know exactly what you're talking about! It seems like that's how it always works when learning multiple foreign languages. And those little unconscious words (like thanks, excuse me, yes, no) -- it is amazing how hard it is to get them right in practice.

Continuing the story from my post, I was recently at a party and was speaking to a guy who's an Italian/German bilingual (but doesn't speak English or French all that well). The fun part was that I had an excuse to mix Italian and German. It turns out that I'm a lot more fluent in Italian/German if I'm allowed to pick a word from either language (whichever comes to mind first) than I am if I try to stick to one or the other. ;)

Olivia said...

That's very funny!

In high school I met some girls from a French speaking part of Ontario (Canada) and they liberally grabbed words from both English and French. It was confusing at first!

I just stumbled on your blog the other day when I was doing some reading about Mormons, blogs, and ex-Mormons. Imagine my surprise when I found a blog from somebody just around the corner! :)