giovedì 15 gennaio 2009

Misadventures in the Italian Language

Once I had recovered from the shock of my experience with Alice Mobile's “Customer Services” the other day, I realised that my conversation with the woman on the other end raised some interesting sociolinguistic questions.

One of the things that shocked me almost as much as the price of their internet services was the fact that the woman interrupted me when I was speaking. In the UK, that almost never happens, unless the customer is truly ranting, raving and being abusive. In Italy, however, it is generally much more socially acceptable to interrupt and speak when someone else is speaking. (Try dealing with that with a class of 25 children with very loud voices!). What I wonder, therefore, is, would the woman have done that if we had been speaking in English?

Lots of my English speaking friends, even the ones that speak Italian, ask to speak in English in situations like this. I've always tried to speak in Italian, partly because I want to, but also because I've always thought that I'll get better service that way. Maybe this comes from living in France, where people tend to look down their noses at you if you don't have a perfect accent, never mind if you have the audacity to try to speak in English, or maybe it's because I think that if you make the transaction more difficult for them by carrying it out in a foreign language, they're more likely to give up on you when it gets complicated. Other friends in Italy have told me, however, that they've always had good customer service when they've spoken in English, perhaps because Italians are usually proud that they speak English and keen to be able to help by using it.

What I was really wondering, though, was whether, in the same situation, my woman's attitude would have changed if she had been speaking English. When you speak another language, do you take on some of the characteristics of its native speakers? I've noticed that some of my anglophone friends who have been in France a long time don't just sound French when they speak French, they act it as well. In Italian, I felt it was acceptable to interrupt this woman after she had interrupted me, which I wouldn't have done in English. I suspect that if she had actually lived in an anglophone country and picked up its sociolinguistic rules as well as the language, she wouldn't have.

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