I’m riding my Fulbright Scholar wife’s coattails around Southern Italy with our three-year-old son, who’s gotten into the Old World spirit by becoming possessed by demons. Laura, my wife, blames the boy’s hellish behavior—dub “The Bad Seed” and substitute Primigi boots for patent-leather Mary Janes—on the time difference and intemperate weather. But the village priest and I know the truth.
The flock this bright young clergyman shepherds inhabits the cliffs of Cairano, a hill town of fewer than 500, mostly elderly, people. The stony jumble of small houses and narrow streets juts above the emigration-depleted earthquake country east of Naples. The town has the dizzying vistas and jagged medieval feel that the Romantics used to seek out to experience what they thought of as the quasi-spiritual pleasure of sublime terror.
Too bad Shelley, et al., couldn’t stick around long enough to get a load of my family’s shrieking three-foot contribution to the realm of sublime terror.
The Linda Blair routine notwithstanding, our boy gets free preschool five days a week. Even in this remote stretch of one of Italy’s poorest regions, state-sponsored social services are, by US standards, generous. While the instruction in Catholic theology makes a disestablishment-clause-loving American like yours truly a little edgy, even the most radical civil libertarian couldn’t complain about the price. The kid may be asking uncomfortable questions about the Trinity now, but I’m not out $1000 a month for supervised duck-duck-goose.
Or “papera-papera-oca,” as the Italians would call it if such a game existed here. At least, that’s what I think they’d call it—I’m always confusing the Italian for poppy and duck, words that come up with galling frequency in farm country.
Curiously, our son doesn’t share my language confusions, even when he’s in the clutches of one of the incubi that cause him to hurl himself to the floor a couple of times a day. He’ll scream at me in perfectly unaccented idiomatic English, “Give me back my gummy bears or I’ll smack you!” and threaten his mother just as expertly in the musical language of Dante. He moves effortlessly back and forth between English and Italian, never hesitating over irregular conjugations or false cognates.
His easily-won competence comes from his mother’s steadfastness in speaking Italian with him at home, and, of course, young kids’ uncanny ability to pick up as many languages as you can manage to speak to them. He came to Cairano already using solid toddler Italian, and now a couple months in he sounds—and gestures—like a native.
In fact, the maestra at the preschool tells us that our boy’s Italian is better than that of many of the local kids, who tend to speak in dialect when they’re together. As you can imagine, his easy fluency is a source both of great pride and bitter, choking envy for me—after all, in grad school I lost lots of sleep memorizing verb charts, repeating phrases idiotically into a tape recorder, and performing humiliating bit parts in insipid language-class plays. And here comes this lisping, no-vegetable-eating, Spiderman-worshipping ankle-biter who can carry on conversations at the park or the bar without getting a single “Che?” or raised eyebrow.
I know my jealously is absurd. Children acquire language as by osmosis; they have an inborn ability to absorb and reproduce all meaningful human sounds that happen to enter their atmosphere. I seem to remember that Noam Chomsky’s early work—the stuff he did decades before his lectures on media and politics started turning up on punk rock B-sides—argued that language-learning arises from humans’ innate command of “universal grammar,” a hardwired capacity to make meaning out of symbols.
As with all the flowers of youth—guilelessness, resiliency, unironic enthusiasm for Squiddly Diddly—the ability to pick up languages without breaking a sweat withers with the approach of adolescence. Perhaps, then, my prickly wonder at my son’s Italian stems only from my forgetfulness of what we all have at birth. It’s not that I don’t possess, somewhere latent in my reptile brain, the proper equipment to order a coffee without tripping over the first-person conditional form of “to like”; rather, it’s that the set of universal human capacities available to me at this stage in my life includes different possibilities (e.g., the ability to reason, to act altruistically, to recognize the consummate desirability of Monica Bellucci).
So exorcism may be too drastic a measure where a handful of candy corn will do. My wife and I remain hopeful that the bilingual screaming fits and fiery assertions of will are, after all, merely developmental, not otherworldly, phenomena.
And in any case we’re quite pleased that he’s at home in two languages—three, if you include the occasional backward-Latin rumblings of the Dark Lord.
Matthew Mulligan Goldstein