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Language can teach cultural appreciation

Part 3 in the language immersion series: Amandia Scotti is already living a lesson in language immersion
by: Vern Uyetake, Robert and Marlise Scotti are raising their daughter Amandia to be fluent in English and Afrikaans, one of the 11 official languages of South Africa.

Amandia's short legs are quick. She runs over to a cabinet in her Lake Oswego home and opens it to peer at the files. Then she points to the stereo and asks in 20-month-old speak if someone can change the music. Then she's off to smell the flowers on the kitchen table. She climbs up on a chair in no time and pushes short puffs of air through her nose trying to get a whiff of the scent.

'Amandia, breathe in, not out,' her dad Robert Scotti is at her side quickly ready to help her to navigate through the world as she makes this one new discovery. He holds the flowers to his nose and breathes deeply in to demonstrate.

But it isn't long before Amandia is distracted by a book sitting on the table. She turns the pages and looks at the bright pictures. 'Dog!' she says.

'Amandia, what is dog in Afrikaans?' asks her mom Marlise Scotti from her position on the couch.

'Hondjie!' she says.

Amandia is quick at language, as well, it seems.

'She knows a lot in both languages. She's supposed to be slower at learning language if we're trying to teach her two at once, but she's been quick,' said Robert.

The Scottis are aiming to help Amandia become fluent in English and Afrikaans, the language that Marlise grew up with in her home country of South Africa.

Robert speculates that she is quick because most research shows that many girls are quicker at picking up language.

'Her grandparents were just here from South Africa for five weeks, so she can distinguish two languages pretty well in the last month or so,' said Marlise.

In addition to Marlise's heritage, Robert's own Italian heritage brings Amandia's passport count up to three. Yes, that's right - one from the U.S., one from South Africa, and one from Italy.

Amandia was born on Nov. 25, 2006, in Turin, Italy, where the Scottis were living at the time. Robert and Marlise met there in 2002 while they were both taking a short language class in Lucca, a city Robert dubbed 'the most romantic city in Italy.'

He was living in Northeast Portland working for Klarquist Sparkman, as an intellectual property attorney when he discovered that any Italians as far removed as the second generation could apply for an Italian passport. Robert's grandparents had emigrated to the U.S. in 1918, come through Ellis Island and settled in Brooklyn. He was born in New Jersey, but had lived in Portland ever since he graduated from law school in 1994. He applied and began taking language classes - as a child it had never been a priority for his family to pass on language skills to their children or grandchildren. In 2003, he moved to Italy, got his license to practice law in Italy and continued dating Marlise long distance. Marlise was living in England at the time.

Marlise was born in Kempton Park, South Africa, and moved around with her family as her Dad, who was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, was assigned various congregations. She then attended the University of Pretoria and studied physical therapy. Then at the age of 23, she moved along with almost 20 other South Africans from her physical therapy class to London. 'All kids did it at the time. It was just a fabulous opportunity. For many years if you were from South Africa, you couldn't travel,' said Marlise. 'My mom would give her front teeth to do what I have done. Because (South Africa) was a British colony, you could work on a holiday visa for two years.'

She worked as a physical therapist there, but her main goal was to travel. 'I think I was just born with ants in my pants,' she said. Marlise has visited 30 countries and continued to travel while dating Robert - even visiting New Zealand, Fiji and Australia.

'I've seen in life how much it has meant to be bilingual,' said Marlise. 'If I didn't speak English, I couldn't have gone to work in England.'

In 2004, she decided to move to Italy. Her degree was accepted, but she couldn't work as a physical therapist, so she opted to teach English as a foreign language.

Marlise married Robert Scotti on March 3, 2006, in a 10th century castle in Turin. They lived there until a little more than a year ago, when Robert decided he wanted to come back to Portland and work for Klarquist Sparkman again. He was a partner when he left, so he only has to wait one year to become a partner again.

When they first moved they lived in downtown; they had no car, no furniture, no driver's licenses; Marlise had no credit card. They had to slowly build back up - first getting their driver's licenses, then a rental car, then they bought a car.

'It was probably the hardest transition (of any move to a new country),' said Marlise. 'But I did it with a baby. I was stuck at home. I used to be in a career, so I met a lot of people. Now I'm on potty and diapers.'

For now she hasn't decided what to do with her career, but it will likely be something different, said Marlise.

In October of 2007, the Scottis bought their first home in Lake Oswego, saying they moved here for the schools. Amandia will be in kindergarten at Forest Hills Elementary School in 2012, and then of course, there's the one who isn't born yet… Marlise is 10 weeks along.

As Marlise has gotten more settled in her new home, she has met other moms at Gymboree and the Lake Oswego Moms Club, which is where she first found out about the petition to get language immersion offered through Lake Oswego School District beginning in preschool. She got involved immediately and showed up at a school board meeting earlier this spring prepared to speak.

Unlike many of the other parents on the petition, the Scottis are already on their way to helping Amandia learn two languages. But, for Marlise, it isn't as if she is asking that the district add Afrikaans immersion. No, she wants other parents and children to be exposed to and appreciate other cultures and languages. 'If our kid is the only one, she'll lose it when she goes to school,' said Marlise. 'If other parents or kids have an appreciation for other cultures… your language won't be funny or different.' Marlise thinks that Amandia will be more likely to keep up her Afrikaans if others appreciate it.

Marlise's background explains her view. 'South Africa has a very intricate history - there are a bunch of cultures having to survive together - Indian, black and European,' she said. Growing up Afrikaans and English were taught side-by-side, so she began learning English at the age of seven.

When the democratic government came in 1994, a lot changed. There are now 11 official languages in South Africa, and students have to take one African language, too, said Marlise. Though it is not really immersion-style - students have a few classes a week just like American students have traditionally studied Spanish or French, she said.

Afrikaans is a mix of Dutch, German and French, so Marlise picks up other European languages faster than her husband Robert. 'The closest thing I can understand is Flemish,' she said. (Flemish is a Dutch dialect that is influenced by French).

When she was in Italy, she was always complimented for her clean accent. 'Italians say they can always hear an American,' she said referring to her husband.

Still, Marlise said it took them both the full time they lived there to be able to claim fluency. 'If you don't live a language, It's very hard to learn it,' she said.

'We would never try to speak Italian to (Amandia) because we'd speak it incorrectly,' said Robert. 'You really need a native speaker.'

For now, the Scottis are passing on the right to have an Italian passport, a U.S. passport and a South African passport. And above that, they will give her fluency in English and Afrikaans. If the LOSD decides to add immersion, they may consider another European language if Amandia is interested.

'It's a great gift to be able to give… the world has become a smaller place,' said Robert.

This is the third part in a three-part series on language immersion. The series profiles local families who are advocates of bringing an immersion program to the Lake Oswego School District. For more information on the petition, contact Sarah Howell at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . To find out about LOSD language offerings, contact Donna Atherton at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. or.us .