Douglas Hofstadter: la mia famiglia bilingue

Douglas Hofstadter, è un premio Pulitzer, professore universitario, fisico, filosofo, amante della parola e delle lingue, e papà. Per la cronaca è anche figlio di un premio Nobel per la Fisica. Ha cresciuto i suoi bambini bilingui, in Italiano. Questa è la sua storia, che ha condiviso con noi rispondendo alle mie domande, con una cortesia e una disponibilità che mi hanno sinceramente commossa.

L.Q.: Dear Mr. Hofstadter, is it true that you raised your children to be bilingual, and that you speak to them in Italian even though Italian is not your mother tongue?

D.H.: In 1962, when I was 17 years old, I fell in love with the Italian language, thanks in large part to the phonic beauty of the lyrics to the song “Volare”. As a consequence, I eagerly studied Italian in college, eventually coming to speak it quite well, although not fluently. Then in 1986, as a professor, I spent several months in Italy and gave lectures in Italian at various universities; during that period my Italian improved by leaps and bounds. By the end of it, my Italian was pretty fluent.
It happened that my wife Carol was also in love with Italy and the Italian language. Carol’s mother was Italian-American, and Carol had always identified with Italy when she was small, and she learned to speak Italian when she went to college and minored in it. Since we both spoke Italian quite well, we always hoped that our kids would eventually become bilingual, with Italian as their second language.
When our children Monica and Danny were very small, we spoke only English at home, as one would expect. However, from the fall of 1994 onwards, I started speaking to them only in Italian. The reason for this sudden shift in the language spoken at home is described below. Monica and Danny are now 19 and 22, and Italian is still the language that the three of us always speak together. And to my great delight, the two of them always speak in Italian to each other as well.
There are two exceptions to this “rule” of my speaking Italian with my children, one of them being when there is a non-Italian-speaking person present, in which case we switch to English, and the other one being when I am helping either of them with some schoolwork and there are technical terms and very precise details that we have to be sure we get exactly right, and then again we use English. There is also a third small exception, which is that back in the good old days when I used to read them bedtime stories, I would sometimes use children’s books written in English, because I thought there was some really wonderful children’s literature in English that I didn’t want them to miss. But there are also some wonderful children’s books in Italian that don’t exist in English, such as the many “Pimpa” volumes by Altan, which I think are incredibly charming, and which the kids both loved. So all in all, I think that the kids’ bedtime stories were about half Italian and half English.

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L.Q.: Has anybody ever questioned this decision of yours? (Some experts of some kind, perhaps?)

D.H.:No one ever seriously questioned my decision to speak Italian with my children, except for myself, every once in a while. There were certain occasions when, in speaking with my kids, I felt a little bit limited, a little bit frustrated by the “Italian cage” that I had put myself in. I simply wasn’t able to say some things in as lively, as expressive, or as colorful a way as if I had been speaking with them in English. But this was a deliberate tradeoff — although the kids were doubtless deprived of a little color and humor in English (and also some subtleties of their Dad’s personality, since I am a very word-conscious person, and my entire personality revolves about how I use language), in return they gained access to the Italian language, the Italian culture, and a whole marvelous world of people and places.

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L.Q: Did you ever feel that the communication between you and your children suffered to some degree because of this decision?

D.H.: As I said above, my kids didn’t gain quite as clear a sense of their Dad’s way with words as they would have if I had only spoken English with them, but to my mind, that was a rather small loss. As for communication of ideas, though, I think that was achieved perfectly well in Italian.

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L.Q.: Do they like speaking Italian?

D.H.: They certainly do. For example, at some point when they were teen-agers they decided to speak to each other only in Italian, after having spoken to each other in both languages (but more in English than in Italian) when they were younger. And they have many friends in Italy and in many ways they both feel just as Italian as American, if not more so, at least in some ways.

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L.Q.: Why did you choose Italian?

D.H.:Since Carol and I shared a love for Italy and the Italian culture and language, we chose to spend my 1993-1994 sabbatical year in Trento, Italy when Monica and Danny were ages 2 and 5.  During that year, both kids attended a very sweet asilo, or scuola materna (pre-school or nursery school), and there, of course, they both learned to speak Italian very well. As for my own Italian, during the sabbatical year it grew ever better, and by the end it was very fluent.
Tragically, three months into my sabbatical, Carol died very suddenly of a brain tumor. This left me as a single parent. When Danny, Monica, and I returned to our home in Bloomington, Indiana in the summer of 1994, I felt it was crucial that the kids not lose the extremely precious gift of the Italian language, and so I decided to continue speaking Italian with them all the time.
Luckily I was able, for the next few years, to get wonderful Italian au-pair girls to come to America to help me out in the house with the kids. In that way, there was always a native speaker of Italian at home until the kids were 6 and 9. And each summer, year after year, we would return to Italy for several weeks, thus plunging Danny and Monica back into the Italian language and culture for a good deal of time. And then, during the year 2001-2002, in order to keep their Italian really in tip-top shape, I took a second sabbatical year in Italy — this one at the University of Bologna — and once again the kids went to school in Italian (Monica did quinta elementare and Danny did terza media), and both made many friends and did very well there.

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L.Q.: Can you share a moment when you felt you had done the right thing, one of those moments when you feel your efforts were well worth it?

D.H.: I think that I felt most deeply gratified when, a few years ago, I suddenly became aware of the fact that my kids had completely stopped speaking English with each other, and were speaking to each other ONLY in Italian at all times. At that point I knew that Italian was tremendously important to them, and that it formed a special kind of bond between them that symbolized “family” (or should I say “famiglia”?) and that also represented all the many experiences that we had all shared over the years in Italy and with Italian people. That really made me feel that I had brought up children who were not only bilingual but also bicultural.

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L.Q.: Any tips you would give to parents who are going through a similar experience?

D.H.: I don’t know how or why this effort succeeded in our family, since I know quite a few families in which both parents are foreigners, and they speak to their children in their native language, and yet the children, though they understand perfectly, refuse to answer in their parents’ native language, instead using only English to respond. The parents are understandably very frustrated that they are unable to get their children to use their (the parents’) native language, but for some reason the children dig in their heels and there is nothing to be done. In my case, I was just one parent, not two, and I wasn’t even a native speaker, and yet somehow my two children both accepted the regime of speaking only Italian at home. I really don’t know why this was the case.
It might have had to do with the fact that we had Italian au-pair girls at home with us for a few years, but that would seem to me pretty much like having two Italian-speaking parents, and as I observed above, having two such adults in a house doesn’t noticeably increase the likelihood that the kids will “take” to the second language. I think I was just somehow lucky in this regard — or perhaps I should say that it was Danny and Monica who were lucky.
Or maybe our family was exceptional because the kids intuitively understood that, in some sense, I was speaking Italian with them in memory of, and in honor of, their late mother. Maybe they sensed that they were being offered a very special kind of gift, a very special link with their late mother – after all, she had deeply loved the Italian language, so that metaphorically speaking, Italian was their “mother tongue”. In any case, Danny and Monica did indeed learn their “mother tongue” extremely well, and now they speak it all the time, and they greatly enjoy doing so. Carol would have been terribly proud of them.

Grazie Mr.Hofstadter, grazie di cuore per questa testimonianza così ricca di vita ed emozioni e per averci dedicato il suo tempo. Una lezione di vita, in molti sensi.

Un Grazie sentito anche a Claudio, perchè tutto è partito da una sua email.

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