Mother Tongue turns to Thoughts of Food

February 24, 2013

The language we learn to speak as children is part of our identity and shapes our first thoughts and how we relate to the world around us.

In my case, it was Italian – or more precisely a north-eastern regional dialect from Friuli-Venezia Giulia. I spoke only a few words of English before starting school in Sydney’s inner-west and remember my mother farewelling me on my first day and crying – in Italian.  Our home was TV-free until then, so – as an only child – I had limited opportunities to learn English.

One of my strongest Italian language memories was successfully landing the job of Kitchen Hand for my mother. Child labour laws didn’t apply to four-year-olds who made semolina dumplings and cut home-made pasta into long fettuccine strips. So I learnt to cook using Italian – not English – instructions.

and now for the taste test

and now for the taste test

Later, when I learnt more of the general Italian, I naturally picked up on various food idioms, some so florid they could be the basis of a four-course meal:

Pre-dinner drink

Non si puo avere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca  – You can’t have the wine cask full and your wife drunk
(You can’t have your cake and eat it too)


È buono come un pezzo di pane – He’s as good as a piece of bread
(He’s a good person)


Beccare con le mani in pasta – To catch with hands in the pasta
(To catch red-handed)

Main Course  (choice of two)

Chi dorme non piglia pesci – He who sleeps does not catch fish
(The early bird gets the worm),  OR

Ridi che la mamma ha fatto gli gnocchi – Ironic expression which means keep on laughing (even if you think there’s nothing funny to laugh at)

Last Thursday was INTERNATIONAL MOTHER LANGUAGE DAY, a UNESCO initiative observed annually on 21st February promoting linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. Linguistic analysts predict up to 50 per cent of the world’s 7,000 languages may be in danger of disappearing by the end of this century. Australian Indigenous languages top the threatened list with only 20 of the original 250 still widely spoken. Once lost, they will be gone forever.

I sometimes wonder whether the regional dialect I speak with my mother and her friends will survive. When I cook Italian dishes I occasionally hear my mother’s voice in my head, speaking in dialect, saying something like “these potatoes are so watery they might ruin the gnocchi”.

These exchanges about food resonate so strongly with me and if I hadn’t learnt Italian, I’d be so disappointed that I’d be … hitting the sauce. In English.

See also Aidan Wilson’s International Mother Language piece in Crikey (Fully sic)



  1. Soup, pasta, rockmelon – beer for Dad, water for Mum, GI Lime for Ambra. Love the photo.

    • So observant Ross. This was, of course, before we graduated to heady levels of sophistication: glass flagons of ‘Hock” for dad, mineral water for mum and orange cordial for me.

  2. My older sister started primary school only knowing one or two words of English just like you – she only knew the dialetto that she spoke at home. Being ten years younger I was luckier as I was fluent in English as well as dialetto, though she became a language teacher so is now better at both than me!! Bellisima foto Ambra.

    • It’s hard to imagine what those first few weeks at school would have been like for your sister too. I guess your parents too only had minimal contact with English speakers for a few years, preferring to socialise with Italians and people they’d immigrated with. Interesting times.

  3. Great post Ambra,

    Brings back some fond memories for me.

    Another main course you might like to add….”Xè più giorni che luganighe”

    For dessert………..”Ciacole no fa fritole”

    • Hi Glenn, have only just found your comment. Must check the Spam box more often! Thanks for your suggestions – they’re great. Will remind my mother about them.

  4. A great post. Although I’m not Italian (born in Oz to Lebanese parents) this resonates with me; having started school with minimal English and growing up not speaking “proper” Arabic …

    • Aren’t we lucky though that we had a bit of both cultures to absorb from a young age. I don’t want to say that ‘life is a rich tapestry’. But maybe I will.

  5. how fantastic Ambra, my husband was born in Melbourne to Italian parents and didn’t speak a work of English before starting school either. We only just found this out and he always thought he must be stupid to be in special english classes at school. I’m hoping our children can pick up the language here in Italy without much stress. I also hope the dialects remain and am passionate about our children learning both sides of the heritage they have been blessed with. ciao ciao lisa x

    • Hi Lisa. I’m sure your children will pick up the Italian language without any problems. They’ll be surrounded by it so will absorb it quickly I imagine.

  6. “I sometimes wonder whether the regional dialect I speak with my mother and her friends will survive.” I know that feeling of losing your mother’s language. My mother is from a rural village in the Philippines and my father is from America, and I grew up speaking only English. But of course my mom sprinkled in a lot of her language into daily life, which was a regional dialect that is very different from standard Tagalog (which she also spoke). I spend a lot of time learning other languages, and hope to learn Tagalog someday, but I’m still sad that there’s a good chance I won’t ever learn my mother’s very rare language.

    • Thanks for dropping by, and your comments. I would encourage you to find out a bit more about your mother’s dialect – there’s so much history associated with how these languages and dialects evolved. Fascinating stuff!

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