SARONNO, Italy – The joys of speaking another language, any language- are many and now researchers at Northwestern University have documented differences in how the bilingual brain processes the sounds of speech compared to those who speak a single language. The study, which was published by the National Academy of Sciences, shows that the biological difference in the auditory nervous system appears to enhance attention and working memory among those who speak more than one language.
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What I don’t understand is if what the scientists claim is true, how come after spending my formative years in a bilingual home, and 20 years of living and working in Italy, I can’t grasp those linguistic pop- it beads the Italians call pronouns? You know, the la, lo, le’s and the ti, vi, gli’s, not to mention ci and ne, the ones they string together at the drop of a hat with frightening ease.
And let me just add that not only do I have the problem of trying to figure out which of the umpteen pronouns to use, forget about snapping them together, but there is also the daunting task of trying to figure out what sex they are. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine a dish would be masculine – piatto, but a lamp is feminine – lampeda. Somehow, the visual reasoning part of my brain thinks it should be the other way around, but it’s not up to me.
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Another thing that has always confused me are the pronouns the Italians keep in a linguistic storage box and only take out sometimes. I’m talking about the egli/esso/ella/essa/essi/esse that I have never heard anyone use, but yet if you look at any published list of personal pronouns, there they are. I say the Italian language is in serious need of a good cleaning out, if you don’t use it, lose it.
I can still remember listening to my father and my grandmother deep in conversation and wondering who this ‘Louie” was they kept talking about. I remember wracking my five year old brain trying to figure out just who that guy was. Of course I had not yet been introduced to the full range of Italian grammar and my knowledge was limited to the spoken word, so there was no way for my five year old brain to know that their ‘Louie’ was actually ‘lui’, the pronoun for ‘he’. And whoever ‘he’ was, my grandmother was less than happy with the guy.
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“Because you have two languages going on in your head, you become very good at determining what is and is not relevant,” says study team member Dr. Nina Kraus, a professor of neurobiology and physiology at Northwestern. “You are a mental juggler.” Juggler is right, especially when you - I mean me - is trying to do a crossword puzzle and my brain keeps slipping into Google translate. Let’s see, what’s a four letter word for shelter – oh I know, casa. Oops, that’s not right – it’s tent.
But its more than just the pronouns. Sometimes even the most simple of phrases become a linguistic Rubic’s cube in Italian. Choice may be a good thing, but frankly, there are times when there are too many choices. It’s a daunting process to say the least, made even more difficult by those words that are bi-sexual.
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Take the word table, for example. That one really is sneaky. Keep in mind we are talking about the same thing here, a plain, old run-of-the mill- table, except if the table is not set for breakfast, lunch or dinner, it is called a tavolo. But lay one place mat, one dish, a fork and a spoon on it, and it undergoes a sex change and transforms from the masculine tavolo into the feminine tavola.
“We have determined that the nervous system of a bilingual person responds to sound in a way that is distinctive from a person who speaks only one language,” Kraus says. Could this be doctor speak for nervous breakdown?
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But the good news is that some preliminary research suggests that people who speak a second language may have enhanced defenses against the onset of dementia and delay Alzheimer’s disease by an average of four years. After studying older people who spoke multiple languages, they concluded that the more languages someone could speak, the better: People who spoke three languages were three times less likely to have cognitive problems compared to bilingual people. Those who spoke four or more languages were five times less likely to develop cognitive problems.
So if you are struggling trying to find your way through the labryith of Italian grammar, think of the long term benefits, the longer, healthier and happier life you will lead with the roll of a few R’s and the joy of knowing what sex your carpet is. And admit it now, didn’t you really always want to know that?