Language Information

How Ronzoni Italian Foods Helped My Dad Learn English

My dad likes to say, he was made in Italy, but born in Brooklyn New York. You see his parents left Palermo, Sicily in February 1955 and sailed by boat to America. My nonna (Italian for grandmother) was six months pregnant at the time and was quite ill through out the month's passage. Like most of the immigrants however, all she cared about was that her son be born in America, and thus immediately become a United States citizen. My grandparents, immediately settled in Sicilian-Italian neighborhood called Bensonhurst, and the language of choice was Sicilian, of course. By the time my dad was 10 months old, he was saying words in Sicilian and by the time he was a year-old, he was able to put sentences together. That's why it's no surprise to me that my dad was able to learn the English language as quickly as he did.

At my nonna's encouragement, from the moment, he was able to manipulate a pencil, my dad began tracing and then copying the letters on the grocery boxes my grandmother brought home every day from the supermarket. He chuckles every time he gets to tell the story how Ronzoni products, not only filled his stomach, but his mind as well. Dad says he used to get very upset if his mom put the groceries away before he had had a chance to trace and/or copy the letters on the grocery boxes. Nonna would have to take all the boxes out that she had stored away in the pantry in order to satisfy my dad.

Nonna, who naturally did not speak any English, would sit with my dad, and teach him the names of the letters. The Italian language consists of 21 letters however, (there is no H, J, K, W, X) as opposed to 26 letters in the English language. So he did not learn the names of these letters until he began first grade ( there was no kindergarten class available at that time).

Dad likes to brag about his perfect penmanship because the only "A" he received in his first semester of school was in penmanship, a direct result of his meticulous tracing and copying of the letters off the grocery products.

How did all this lead to dad's learning the English language, so quickly? "The familiarity with the letters and their sounds made learning quite easy for me" he says. The only thing that he had little trouble with was learning the names and proper pronunciation of English's H, J, K, W and X, but even that he said didn't take too long. I asked him if there was the equivalent of "Sesame Street' in his time that helped accelerate his learning the English language."The only 'Sesame Street' he knew of was downtown someplace. We didn't even have a TV, he chuckles. What we did have instead were mothers and fastidious nuns who were persistent and indefatigable in their teaching efforts, despite the huge classes they were assigned."

"After teaching the students the names and pronunciation of each letter, the nuns then began to teach us the sounds of the vowels and the consonants. Only after the vast majority of the class had mastered the pronunciations did they then begin teaching us three letter words. Each word was presented with a picture to help us remember the spelling, pronunciation and its meaning. Each student individually had to pronounce the word, spell the word and pronounce the word again, before we could move on. Once we were familiar with enough persons, places and things we began to learn simple verbs like run, hit, jump, catch, fall and so forth. We drew the sentences as well, what I mean is, if the sentence was: 'The boy hit the ball,' we would have a picture of a boy, a bat and the ball. It was constant reinforcement. Looking back I presume that they were trying to engage as many of our senses as possible, which I understand, accelerates learning."

My dad is genuinely excited about this topic. He makes it clear though that he dislikes the teaching modalities used in elementary school today. He particularly loathes kid-code, a technique which teaches kids to spell words, like they are sound. To clarify the reason why my dad is so "up to snuff" on the way in which some elementary schools work is that though my dad once was a very successful investment banker in 1994 he was struck with a malignant brain tumor that left him disabled and thus he became Mr. Mom. His being able to stay home allowed him to become somewhat like my personal tutor and in turn he was able to see the way in which I both regressed and progressed in school. Kid code he states was something that he wishes would have never been invented.

"If one was teaching Italian, this would be an excellent way to teach kids to read because every letter and combination of letters in the Italian language is pronounced the same way each and every time. In English, we have so many homonyms and different pronunciations for the same words, as well as mysterious silent letters, which are confusing enough, but when combined with the kid-spell it is deleterious to the student's learning." I wish that I could have been in one of those classes that forbid the enforcement of kid code but unfortunately I was not that lucky. Kid code for me as well as my fellow classmates form back then still have a hard time spelling sometimes the most simple of words. Though in my mind there is no reason to use such a method I believe some teachers rely on kid code to see what levels of spelling their students are at. Other teachers however I feel use this methodology out of pure laziness which in all honesty is what I believe the case was with my teachers.

"What was wrong with Dick and Jane, my dad asks rhetorically." I answered anyway, "I don't know," I told him, "I learned kid-code, remember." "I remember, and that's why you and Al's Gals (my girlfriends affectionately call themselves Al's Gals to this day) can't spell for beans," he says. I can't argue the fact we are a generation of poor spellers and I think he's correct, in that kid-code is to blame, at least to some extent. "Dad let's talk about 'Dick and Jane' if you don't mind." "Ann Marie, they were primers used in the elementary school's early grades. Every page was illustrated and had no more than a sentence or two. So even if you couldn't figure out what was being said in the written word, you would almost certainly be able to infer it from the illustration. I think the same could also be said about the Dr. Seuss books, though the preposterous stories sometimes, I think had a negative effect."

"How long did the nuns continue to use 'Dick and Jane'" I queried. "For the first grade only, then we had anthologies which contained slightly more sophisticated language, still accompanied by illustrations. At some point during the second grade, Mrs. McNamara introduced us to new single volume story books, still with illustrations, and this process continued grade after grade. By the time, I had completed the fifth grade I had a well-rounded vocabulary and good reading comprehension skills. Early on in the sixth grade, a friend's dad began to take us to the public library each Saturday morning. It was about a mile walk. There was a four book limit, which we argued about with the librarian, every visit. About the same time, I began writing short stories for my classmates' entertainment and you'll get a kick out of this, the girls began asking me to write love notes for them to give to their boyfriends. I was the Cyrano de Bergerac of my time."

I recently was privy to a conversation my dad had with two former classmates from the sixth grade, who later married. The woman was one of my dad's former clients, for whom he had performed his literary magic. Apparently, the woman had never told her husband about the true author of many of her letters, until that conversation. The three of them laughed hysterically when the proverbial cat was let out of the bag. I asked dad if there were anything else that might have contributed to his learning and mastering English as well as he had. I was surprised at his answer. "I think nonna had a influence on me. (Ironically nonna had never gone beyond the third grade.) She not only helped me learn the alphabet, she would sit with me and we would read the assignments together. Since at that point, I knew more than her I had become the teacher. That was another way to reinforce what I had learned in class, moreover, teaching nonna contributed greatly to my love for reading."

As I contemplate how dad learned to master English at such a young age, without the slightest knowledge of the language, what stands out the most is, nonna's participation in the process. This is certainly an element that's missing in our society today, primarily because of two worker families. As a future elementary school teacher, I plan on replicating the teaching methods of those nuns that taught my dad and countless others not only how to read but to love reading. If the "Dick and Jane" books are not part of the curriculum, where ever I begin teaching, I will still use the inherent method of "Dick and Jane." To learn more about me and my family visit our website

Ann Marie Parisi is a recent graduate from California Lutheran University where she earned a degree in elementary education. She expects to begin her teaching career this fall. She is an author and speaker along with her dad and brother. She resides with her family in Agoura Hills, CA.

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