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Living a multilingual life -- Part 2: Gabriella's story

It is time to talk again to multilingual people. Today, a German-Italian woman is telling about her daily life.

Read this article in: Deutsch, English, Français, Italiano

Estimated reading time:8minutes

 "I can't pronounce the Calabrian dialect"

Gabriella (name has been changed) is a small lively woman with dark curly hair and friendly eyes. She is instantly likeable. She was born in southern Germany in 1992, the first child of Calabrian parents who came there in 1988. Today she still lives near them and works a journalist for a weekly newspaper. "I was born in Germany and will probably die in Germany. But I'm taking my time with that," she says. "But in my early childhood I only learned Italian. It wasn't until kindergarten that I added German." She goes on to say that her parents first tried to speak standard Italian, but eventually continued to speak their Calabrian dialect. "I can't bring myself to speak that one, though. I only know standard Italian." Our conversation is lively, we laugh and joke a lot. Then Gabriella continues: "Meanwhile, I speak a lot of German at home. My father speaks to me in Italian, but I answer in German. I also speak German with my mother and my brother. My brother also handles it that way. My mother knows German very well. But she already lived in Germany for some time when she was young because her father came here as a Gastarbeiter (guest worker). One of my uncles was also born in Germany at that time. My father, on the other hand, didn't know any German when he arrived. At work he had a lot of contact with Italians and spoke a lot of Italian. He never attended a German course. He learned it at work talking to his German collegues.”

"My mother tongues are German and Italian"

Gabriella also tells that she first attended the local primary school, then later a secondary school and then also a grammar school in the region. "The lessons at school were held in German. But we were offered to take Italian lessons on two afternoons in the rooms of the primary school. There I also got to know the Italian written language better. I took advantage of this offer up to and including fifth grade. After that, I had so many regular classes in the afternoons, which always overlapped with the Italian course. So I could no longer take advantage of the offer. If I had taken classes until I finished school, I would have been given a certificate too." We are talking about the increasing afternoon classes throughout society, some of which now take place in primary schools. She doesn't know if the offer of Italian lessons has changed. She is grateful that it existed at the time and that she was able to take advantage of it, at least for a time. However, her language of education is clearly German. It was also the language she was most concerned with. Even during her linguistics studies, she was more concerned with German than with Italian. Most of the seminars were held in German. The literature was in English and Gabriella says that English as a language of education came along at some point. Above all, however, it was German. She also dreams in this language.

When I ask Gabriella whether she is happy with the term mother tongue or whether she prefers the terms language A.,B., ..., she answers that she actually likes the term mother tongue. When asked about her mother tongue, she would always answer that it is German and Italian. Asking her in which language she would spontaneously address small children or animals, she answers like a shot: "German." Then she thinks, "If I were in Italy, it would probably be Italian. But the babies don't care what language I speak. So it's more likely to use German."

"I sometimes went crazy wondering if the spelling was Spanish or Italian"

We continue our conversation. Gabriella tells me that she learned English and Spanish at school. Spanish was easy for her. She understood most of it straight away. However, she confused it with Italian, especially when she wrote. "Take the word 'famiglia', for example. In Italian you write it with a g, in Spanish without. I sometimes went crazy wondering if the spelling was Spanish or Italian." 

"I like to invent words in German"

As in the conversation with A., I tell her about the multilingual writer who imagines the individual languages as rooms whose doors she can open or close to different degrees, depending on the extent to which the languages are to influence each other. I ask Gabriella if she can relate to this image or if she has a completely different idea of it. She likes this idea, but also thinks that in her mind the rooms are open and have no doors. "It is often the case that I only have one German or one Italian word ready. At home it's not a problem, but my companions, who know either only German or only Italian, are confused from time to time." We chuckle and I ask her in which language she prefers to curse. Gabriella promptly answers me: "Italian It's better to curse in Italian. But on the other hand, I like to make up words in German. I like to say 'Fischkopf' when I'm upset with someone. That works better in German." You can tell that German is the language Gabriella is most creative with. She also has to deal with German in her professional life. She is a journalist and therefore also a word acrobat. "From time to time, however, I have difficulties with the genera. After all, there is no neuter in Italian. I also use "das" less often in German. I use "der" instead and sometimes say "der Schwein" instead of "das Schwein" (ital. il maiale, engl. pig). My colleague always teases me about it then."

I also ask Gabriella if she sometimes misses expressions that only exist in one language. "Yes," she answers after thinking about it for a while. "In German I miss the expression 'uffa', which in Italian is used to express annoyance." She further notes that she misses terms in Italian, especially if they are not in her field of interest. "Terms from the flora and fauna are examples of terms that lack. But I don't know them that well in German either." However, she continues to try to educate herself in Italian. She reads newspapers in Italian, listens to Italian music, watches Italian news. She also speaks regularly on the phone with her relatives in Italy, who speak only Italian.

Language as a part of your own identity

Gabriella doesn't have any children yet. But if she has any one day, she would like to transmit Italian to them. "It also has something to do with where you come from. Italian is part of my identity and therefore also of my children's identity. It's natural for me to pass that on." If there are also offers of Italian courses or other education on Italian language and culture, she would like to encourage her children to take advantage of them. 

I also ask Gabriella which other languages she learned during her studies and whether she could imagine learning other languages: "I learned Basque, Sanskrit and Arabic during my studies," she answers. "Arabic was a particular challenge. I really liked the writing, as well as the fact that you write from right to left. I'm left-handed and I didn't smudge anything in the process. The phoneme inventory was also very special. It was not always easy for me to pronounce palatal and guttural sounds. In general, though, I didn't find the courses at the university that good. You didn't learn that much, but they were still a lot of work. There were also few seminars in the respective languages. That was a pity, because as a linguist you have to deal a lot with language... I also took a Portuguese course at the university. I would like to deepen that. As a Romance language, Portuguese is similar to Spanish and Italian, but in my opinion it is less similar to the two languages than Spanish and Italian are to each other. I find that very exciting. I can't pronounce nasal vowels very well, though. What I would also like to learn is Mandarin, if only to be able to learn the structure of another language." 

Gabriella and I continue our conversation. We talk about Arabic dialects, which are sometimes so different, and I finally tell her that Maltese, as a Semitic language with many Italian influences, might be interesting for her. She didn't know that but she shares my opinion.

Learning a language for intercultural communication

I can understand Gabriella’s situation and finally ask her whether she would like to see something on the part of politics or society for herself, her family, her social environment or even society as a whole with regard to multilingualism or its promotion. Her answer is long and detailed. "Yes", she says, "I wish for a lot in this respect. I was still lucky enough to have the opportunity to develop my Italian through afternoon classes. I would like to see something like this offered everywhere and for different languages. It would be advisable for the municipality to see in which languages there is the greatest need. In addition, the courses should be accessible free of charge to all children who want to learn the language. Not only for the respective minorities. This would certainly promote understanding among each other." Then she adds, "After all, I have a not very German-sounding first name and often have to explain why I am called that. From time to time I also hear sentences like 'for an Italian you are pale', which in a broader sense can definitely be interpreted as racism. On top of that, my name is constantly played with. I have a thick skin, but it certainly doesn't bounce off everyone. That's why the languages of immigrants must also be promoted."  We talk further, come up with the idea that press reports and news from the German state media should also be translated into the respective languages of the minorities, whether allochthonous or autochthonous. We dream about tolerance and want to enter into multilingual and intercultural dialogue.  







Photo credit: Annie Spratt via Unplash

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