Living in Italy deepened my understanding of the power of core vocabulary. Here is just one story of when my (very small) Italian core vocabulary opened doors to connection and new knowledge.
The Tulip Story
I was living in Genoa, which is a very old city. Many people in my neighborhood still spoke Genoese and Genoese words were often sprinkled into Italian conversation. Words like ardiciòcca are relatively easy to guess in context (i.e., artichoke), other times the word is both impossible for me to remember let alone pronounce.
One day I was in the local butcher. They had the most beautiful display of tulips. I asked him in Italian if I could take a photo of the flowers - Certo! (certainly)
I explained how it is really cold where my parents are and that the flowers areblooming late this year. The guy behind me told me in Italian that even here there are few flowers at this time of year, the exception being _____. I had no idea what the last word was, but from context I knew it was a spring flower.
The butcher then described it to me, using the tulip leaves and stem to help describe the shape of the mystery flower. Clearly it wasn't crocus or those grape shaped purple flowers I also don't know the name of.
The man behind me in line continued to describe the flowers. I pointed to some other flowers in the shop and asked if they were these shades of yellow and sometimes white. They nodded.
Ah, I said, "Daffodil!" They all shrugged.
I asked for the man to repeat the word in Italian for me, and he said, "Boh (classic word for I don't know or perhaps close to the American beats me or who knows), I was actually using the Genoese word for it. I don't know the word in Italian."
The butcher did however. He translated the Genoese word into Italian, which I promptly forgot. And that is fine. I can look it up or use the words I already know to ask for it again. English-Italian dictionaries are much easier to find than English to Genoese ones.
That said, I knew that the word "daffodil" wouldn't have been very useful. Seriously, I can go years without using the word in English. In fact, I had to look up the spelling each time I wrote it here.
What was amazing was the 10 minute interaction I had with these two men a generation ahead of me in a small narrow street in the heart of Genoa using only my core Italian vocabulary.
We laughed and smiled and I think all remembered the interaction for awhile. I know I do!
These were the words that I used (loosely translated from Italian):