One Family’s Story:
An Italian Road to English
By Jodi Cutler Dottore
As an American Mom thrilled to begin living in Tuscany, I disembarked the airplane wondering what new experiences, surprises and adventures awaited me. My mind painted scenes of an exciting life rich in cultural exploration, new language opportunities, and romantic dinners with fine Italian wines. I also envisioned my ten month old son becoming bilingual in my husband’s and my own native tongue. One month later, the Italian-speaking audiologist diagnosed Jordan with a profound bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, fitted him for hearing aids, and we began a journey far richer than any I could have ever imagined. I did not speak a word of Italian, but I understood when they told me I could no longer speak English to my own son if I wanted him to acquire proficient language skills.
We lived in Italy; Italian would be our new language. We acquired language together during a long, frustrating, and tantrum-filled process for each of us on a different, yet similar level. I walked through the main street of the town surrounded by incomprehensible voices speaking jibber jabber that slowly began to be intelligible when I could speak to people face to face and watch their mouths form the words as they spoke. Jordan wore his hearing aids and struggled to make sense out of the new sounds bombarding his ears. He learned to speechread quickly and learned new vocabulary words only after they had been repeated hundreds of times. Each of us, determined in our own way, began to learn to understand and speak Italian together.
Our audiologist and speech therapist both told me that I needed to speak Italian in our home as much as possible, which did become easier over time. Speaking a second language with my son created a sort of communication wall that was bridged by the incorporation of only one fundamental English sentence: “I love you.” I could go an entire day repeating speech therapy lessons, Italian idioms, sounds, etc including being called “Mamma” instead of “Mommy, “ as long as our day ended with “I love you, Mamma.” Words in our native language represent much more than the letters that compose them, their connotation or denotation. Until one can get truly “inside a language,” the words remain meaningless. Behind a language lies the culture. To fully comprehend the Italian language; we had to live the culture. I intentionally did not seek other Americans in Grosseto and found Italian friends.
These Italian friends all had children Jordan’s age, so I was able to incorporate social development with his language acquisition. I had playgroups in our home where I supervised his play and provided him with words he was lacking so that the other children could understand him and he would be less frustrated. When the kids played hide-and-seek, I shadowed Jordan to make sure he heard the counter say, “Ready or not, here I come!”
Discouraged by the fact that I could not speak English to my own son, yet unwilling to give up the possibility entirely, I invited four of his best friends to a weekly “English lesson” in my home. Jordan learned numbers, colors, and some verbs and adjectives. It was nowhere near fluency, but at least a beginning. He did well with his hearing aids, but when he reached the second half of third grade, he began throwing temper tantrums. The reasons were many: he couldn’t understand why his friends were laughing at times, nor could he use the phone to call a friend by himself. He struggled during homework as he could not simultaneously hear my voice and read the page in front of him. My son realized that he was becoming an outsider among his friends and this, to me, was unacceptable. At this point, my husband and I decided to consider the cochlear implant.
The cochlear implant has changed our lives. I hesitate to say the word “miracle” because Jordan’s success is obviously a product of years of intensive auditory-verbal therapy with hearing aids and a determined family circle, but the device itself is amazing in that it reproduces sound in such a way that Jordan hears me upstairs when I call to him from downstairs. He no longer relies on speechreading, talks on the phone, listens to his MP3 player, and when playing hide-and-seek, he catches kids who count too fast or skip numbers… he hears. Last summer he attended a baseball camp in the USA with English-speaking children and by the end of the week was screaming, “I got it!” like a champ…incidental language. He speaks to my family in the USA by means of SKYPE and can understand what they say; even my sister said on our last visit that she is finally able to have a real conversation in English with her nephew. Jordan currently attends a middle school specializing in Music Education and studies the acoustic and electric guitar. He was recently voted Class Representative. ~
Jodi Cutler Del Dottore is the co-author of the book RALLY CAPS, which features a character who uses a cochlear implant. Find her blog: An American Mom in Tuscany: A Cochlear Implant Story at http://rallycapsdotnet.blogspot.com/