Saturday, December 21, 2013

Language mistakes

If you try to speak a foreign language, you will make mistakes. Something happens in the distance between the cognitive part of the brain, and the mouth.  I know my basic verb conjugations, at least in the present tense, but as I begin to have a conversation, I find myself automatically speaking in either first or third person singular.  Yikes. Forget about "we" or "they" as subjects.

So my first major mistake in Italian happened at a small furniture store in the next town.  I had practiced asking to see a sofa by the brand name of Berlonni.  (Vorrei vedere un divano di Berlonni.) I practiced and practiced this sentence.  When I got to the store, I said, "Vorrei vedere il divino Berlusconi." Which translates to I would like to see the divine Berlusconi.  The poor shop keeper had no idea what to say.  I was the first American he had met, and he didn't want to disappoint me, but….Producing Berluscsoni would be more than difficult. I saw the stricken look on his face, retraced my words, trying to figure out my mistake.  I realized I had mixed up the words divino and divano, and so I next asked for a Berlusconi sofa.  I must say this didn't help much. Eventually we came to terms and he understood me.  (His daughter who speaks some English had her back to me and I could see her little shoulders heaving up and down, I presume in laughter not disgust.)  Anyway I got the sofa ordered and we call it the divino divano Berlusconi.

Manuele is an expert at interpreting my mistakes, changing my verb tenses and filling in vocabulary that I don't know. This is both a help and a hinderance to me.  One time I screeched at him telling him to wait until I found the right pronoun.  ugh.

Anyway our friends have finally gotten an approval on their mortgage.  This is a major deal in Italy, and took the intervention of Manuele and prayers from the priest across the street.  Our friends went to the notaio to have all of their documents certified before they went to the bank to sign final papers.

The next morning, my friend called me and said he had to pay 300E to the mafia in order to get the loan.  What?  Who said that?  All of them said it, he responded.  We had no choice.  Were they speaking English or Italian?  They were speaking Italian but they used the word protection and mafia, and being from New Jersey,  I know what that means.

Good grief.  I went immediately to Manuele and asked if I had paid the same payment that my friends had made.  He said yes. I said I paid 300 E to the mafia and you didn't tell me?  He stared at me blankly with that Manuele look and said, what are you talking about?  I went through the entire thing again about the 300e and the mafia.  He shook his head and said it was a "TAX" for the ANTI Mafia laws.  They wanted to make sure my friends were not themselves in the mafia.  Oh, I said.  Can I put this in my blog? Yes, this you can put in the blog.

So, be careful to hear the entire phrase.  It is so easy just to pick out the words we understand.   
  • In Italy, a campaign for Schweppes Tonic Water translated the name into Schweppes Toilet Water.1
  • Instructions on a packet of convenience food from Italy: "Besmear a backing pan, previously buttered with a good tomato sauce, and, after, dispose the cannelloni, lightly distanced between them in a only couch.".3
  • In a Rome laundry: Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.


  1. Hi Susan,

    So funny but appreciate what you mean as we made plenty of our own very bad mistakes last time we were there. Be sure to send pics of the famous Berlusconi when it arrives.

  2. Will post a picture of the divano divano on the next post.