One of the reasons why my character, Darius, in FATIMA AND THE SONS OF ABRAHAM, is multilingual, is because I’m not…and I wish I was. I can speak broken Italian well enough to get help from someone for basic needs (or make marginal polite conversation), but otherwise I’m a dunce in that department. I have even forgotten pig Latin.
On more than one occasion, my inability to speak either Spanish or Italian has been a source of frustration. My maternal grandmother came to this country at age 40 in 1947 and never learned to speak English.
They say the human brain is best equipped to learn other languages between age two and young adulthood. I began trying to learn Italian at the same age my grandmother was when she came to the United States, and I can vouch for the fact that the wheels just don’t turn quite as well once you are past that milestone.
Mom told us stories (harrowing stories) about my grandmother, Angela, raising four little children in war-torn Italy while my grandfather was here in the United States. I wish I could’ve talked to Grandma about those experiences from her perspective, but due to the language barrier, it was not to be.
Barriers in the Professional World
During my time in minor-league baseball, our team was loaded with Spanish-speaking players. In my second season, I remember a couple of months where we did not even have a Spanish-speaking coach.
I recall a conference on the pitcher’s mound one game, among the Hispanic pitcher and catcher, and American manager. It was brief, but effective. I asked our manager after the game what he could possibly have said to the two of them since he did not speak Spanish. He answered, “I know two words in Spanish: throw strikes!”
Another incident that stands out (not for its humor, but for its challenge) was when one of our top pitching prospects from Venezuela, named Oswald Peraza, who later played in the big leagues, lost his passport in the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina. The tall, lanky young man was in tears in my office (perhaps out of fear that he might be deported for losing it).
I felt so bad for him, first because I couldn’t understand why he was so upset, and then later after I figured out why, because it took an effort for me to calm him down and make him understand that everything would be OK. Miraculously, when I called the airport in Charlotte, they had it in their lost and found. Thank God for good Samaritans.
Barriers in Personal Experience
Because I look like a native, during several of my trips to Italy I have experienced older people in distress looking to me for help. Thankfully my husband is usually near at hand to come to their rescue.
Sometimes when I watch an Italian film with English subtitles I recognize that the translation is not exact. I think about that a lot: how much is lost in translation? But, I have found that when face-to-face with others who speak differently from us, certain gestures are universally understood: a smile most of all.
You might think anger would be number one, but I would disagree. One day when we were staying with relatives in my husband’s hometown in Calabria, I was awakened by the shouting of a woman on a balcony next door to another lady in the street below. I said to Billy, “What are they arguing about?” He answered, “They aren’t arguing. They’re just having a conversation.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all do that…just quit arguing and instead, try to better understand the other person in order to have a fruitful conversation. I don’t mean that to sound sarcastic because, quite frankly, I’m very hopeful.
I spent two weeks at a language school in Taormina, Sicily last summer, trying to improve my Italian. The whole time I was there I kept thinking, “why bother.” Almost all the other students there (from a wide variety of countries) spoke English.
Even in the Catholic Parish I belong to in Scranton, Pennsylvania there is a language barrier between English-speakers and Spanish-speakers. But, I know that will change over time, just as it did after the wave of Germans, Poles, Italians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, etc. first came here decades ago and later assimilated into our American melting pot.
It’s an incredible place, this country of ours. There are many people in Scranton who are descended from the same little town as my husband. Ninety percent of them, like my husband, own their own business. Much of that 90%, in turn employ others who were born and raised here in the United States. Not all of them read and write English very well, but they are not dummies.
Shortly before my grandma Angelina passed away at age 79 from Lou Gehrig’s disease, I went to visit her. She had lost control of the muscles in her neck, jaw, and throat. She was embarrassed that her mouth hung open uncontrollably, so she kept a hand with a tissue in it over her mouth most of the time. At one point she motioned for a pen and paper. I retrieved them for her and in perfect English she wrote: You look beautiful.
What a young fool I was to sell her so short. After all, this was the same woman who 50 years earlier had run around her house like a crazy person making it look like a disaster area, scaring the hell out of her children who thought she had finally lost her mind. But, when German soldiers burst through the front doors and began perusing the interior, they got an even bigger scare. Fear gave way to relief once the soldiers turned on their heels and walked out the same door.
Grandma had gotten wind that the Nazis were “on tour” going from house to house to choose one as a headquarters. She wanted to make sure they didn’t choose hers. I wish I knew the words then to tell her in Italian how much I loved and admired her, but thankfully, she understood.