Aside from native born Americans and some tribal peoples, most of the world is bilingual. I studied a few languages at school in a desultory way, but it wasn’t until 1990 when I moved to Italy that fluency took on a certain urgency. I think one tends to remember the first foreign communication triumphs, like the first time I asked for an eggplant and (amazing) was handed one.
Or the time I paid for a ticket on the Cumana, the local commuter line, a few weeks into my stay. Tickets then were flimsy slips of paper and with wallet and pockets I suddenly couldn’t find mine. “I gave it to you,” the clerk said, but checked her counter obligingly. “Oh, here it is, in my pocket,” I said. She wished me good day and I left the counter. OK, not a thrilling interchange but I realized with stunned delight that I had actually used the direct object pronoun! And the right gender (biglietto — ticket — is male [of course])! Did she notice? Should I go back and remind her? I didn’t, but it was happy moment.
Soon after, on a rainy winter day, I was buying an inter-city ticket at the downtown station, open to the street, and couldn’t get up to the counter because a large wet stray dog was huddled against the wall. Not knowing what insect life inhabited the fur, I called to the agent, a meter away, “One round trip to Rome.”
“Come to the counter, Signorina.”
“I can’t, there’s a wet dog here.”
“A wet dog.” I pointed. With a “These foreigners!” sigh, he left his post, came around to my side and looked down where I pointed.
“It’s a wet dog,” he announced. I agreed. He shooed the dog away. “Might have fleas. You shouldn’t get too close,” he said. I agreed. My first extended exchange with a ticket agent.