Thursday, January 4, 2007
Roberto Benigni: Speaking in Second
Yesterday, while skipping around the Internet in search of one thing, I came across another even better. It was a 1998 interview with Italian actor-writer-director Roberto Benigni, published in the UK newspaper The Guardian (interview online here). The previous year Benigni's film Life is Beautiful had won three Oscars.
Benigni did the interview, which was in front of an audience, entirely in English. At one point in the lengthy and complex discussion, he mentioned that he thought he was being brave in doing the thing in English. Only someone who has never faced such a challenge would disagree with him. And only someone who has never heard (and even partially understood) this astoundingly intelligent man, who speaks so wittily and brilliantly in his own native Italian language, can understand what a humble and courageous thing this was for him to do.
Six years ago I wouldn't have realized this. I probably would have felt myself superior to Benigni if I had heard the few minor errors he made in grammar or pronunciation. Six years ago I was still living in the ignorantly blissful world of the monolinguist.
Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I am not indulging here in the usual bashing of those who only know how to speak English. You would think by what some say that learning a new language is as simple as flipping open a cookbook and following a recipe to bake a cake. Well, for most of us, it ain't. It takes a whopping amount of time and effort, it's often annoying – at times as maddening as it would be if you had to learn how to tie your shoes all over again, only multiply the challenge by a thousand squared – not to mention it can be just plain humiliating when some yahoo snickers at you.
In the past six years I have spent far more time studying to try and master Italian than I would have liked. And I still haven't done it. If it weren't the imperative that it is, given that I live where I do, I suspect I would have thrown in the asciugamano early on.
All that said, however, I have to admit that for me this process of becoming bi-lingual, though infuriating as a stubbed toe at times, has been highly salutary to my own character and perspective.
Looking back, I suspect that my preparation toward this linguistic achievement, that I have yet to complete, began many years ago. A close friend of mine married a man newly arrived in the U.S. from his native country of Germany. At that time, I confess, it was I who played the role of snickering yahoo. Not knowing any better, I teased Michael – who was so fluent in English he was hired to teach it in a local high school – when he would pronounce a word slightly differently from the native version. He was amazingly good-humored about it, although with hindsight I prefer not to think what he must have felt and thought privately.
The next step along the way came some time later when I taught ESL for five years in an adult school in Los Angeles. Still firmly enclosed in my one-language world, I rather smugly taught my mother tongue to students from around the world. It was at this point that my sensitivity finally began to develop for the challenges second language speakers face. I remember telling my students a joke I had read in a textbook: What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Tri-lingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bi-lingual. And what do you call someone who speaks only one language? American.
Yes, I know, that's getting close to the bashing I denied earlier but facts is facts, as the grammarian said. And I was myself the butt of the joke. And my struggling students greatly appreciated the empathy.
As the final stage in my sensitivity training, life in its sometimes mercurial way swept me off to live in a place where I myself became a second language speaker. Didn't someone once say that Lady justice serves up a fine dish? And so to my old friend's husband Michael, I want to say I don't mind at all if you enjoy hearing all this. And I do apologize!
by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
Copyright © Rebecca Helm-Ropelato