Why languages?

This story begins about fifteen years ago; when I was probably just as naive as I am now but much, much tinier, and I thought Tom Hanks and Al Pacino actually spoke Italian. This is the story of why languages attracted me in the first place.


Power. Years before I found out that people have written books about translation and power, and that there was a time when translators could even be killed for their errors in translation, I still knew somehow that knowing a foreign language meant having great power. More like a superpower, really. It’s sort of like reading people’s minds, because being the only one in a room who can understand someone else is a truly special feeling. It’s the same feeling I get when I’m the only one who catches a reference in a conversation, or the only one who notices something beautiful while walking down the street.

Curiosity. I’m a curious person. Well, that’s an understatement. I’m as curious as it gets. When I was six, I found my mum’s secret hiding spots weeks before Christmas, so I had to work on my surprised face in front of the mirror on Christmas Eve, which was perfect because at the time I wanted to be an actress anyway. I soooo didn’t expect the Barbie doll house, mum! My sister got a toy crane that year. She knew, too.

I’m also a professional eavesdropper. If we’re on the bus together and I’m not chatting, don’t worry: I’m just listening to the couple behind us complaining about their holiday and how the boy never books anything and maybe he needs to grow up a little. Eavesdropping is one of my favourite things, and I could spend hours listening to other people’s conversations, especially when they seem to be about nothing. In fact, if I still don’t know what they’re talking about after a few minutes, and they refer to people as “you-know-who”, I’m hooked.

Imagine how many conversation you get to eavesdrop when you know more than one language. The beauty of it is that even in our globalised world, where you could meet your neighbour on the other side of the planet, people feel a false sense of security when they’re abroad. There’s a good chance someone else will be able to speak their language, yet they don’t seem to care. I’ve eavesdropped on very graphic conversations about a blue-haired girl’s sex life in Rome once. Half of the people in the train were giggling.

– English. English was my first love. When I started watching undubbed TV shows, suddenly English seemed like such a cool language. It was spoken in beautiful houses, by big families who would meet for breakfast (pancakes, bacon, orange juice) and barely touch their food because they had to go to school. (This is still common in films and it still bothers me. Why would people meet in restaurants, have plates full of beautiful food in front of them, and then leave before touching it? With that waffle oozing maple syrup, and the whipped butter bursting out of its tiny china bowl, why would they just leave? Why meet there in the first place? And who’s going to pay the bill? Rude.)

It was the language of jocks and cheerleaders, of drinks the size of a baby, of milk that came in laundry detergent bottles (milk, in Italy, only comes in regular bottles or cartons). The language of people falling in love on the Empire State Building, of glamorous actors and rockstars. It was the language of something that couldn’t have been more different from my tiny, Roman flat and that’s why I loved it.

My sister and I would play this game where we would whisper nonsense into each other’s ears and pretend we understood, then respond with more made up sounds. She wasn’t too keen on it. I once read her diary and found countless pages where she complained about this. She wanted to play with her toy crane.

Leave a Reply