52 Ancestors: My Multi-Lingual Heritage

Posted by: Eileen A. Souza


Anna Bianchi Furlani and her youngest son, my godfather, Robert Furlani.

Anna Bianchi Furlani and her youngest son, my godfather, Robert Furlani. 

There were many other languages in my family.

I’ll start with me. I sang in Latin in the church choir for many years in my youth. This was when the Catholic church still used Latin extensively. I also took two years of Latin in high school, roughly translating the Aeneid so that I could read it the original. This. Was. Not. A. Literary. Translation. In college, I took two years of German. Moving to my parents…

My mother’s German-Irish ancestors brought both Gaelic and German into their new life in Pennsylvania. All their children were either born in England or Pennsylvania with English as a native language.

My father’s ancestors brought Italian, Bohemian and German into their new life, also in Pennsylvania. Based on the records I have found, my grandmother, Anna Bianchi, grew up speaking Italian in her home. Anna’s mother, Mary Bunt Bianchi, was born in Bohemia. Various census records state that she spoke Bohemian, German and Italian as her native language. Anna’s father, Bonaventura Bianchi, spoke Italian. He may have spoken other languages but died before the census asked those questions. Anna married Candido Furlani, who also spoke Italian as he was Tyrolean (coming from S. Tyrol in 1907 before it became Trentino Province in Italy).

Anna grew up in Mount Carmel, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. Mt. Carmel was a ‘melting pot’ during this time, with immigrants arriving from Eastern and Western Europe and the Mediterranean. Education was not mandatory when Anna was young, so she never learned to read or write in any language. Whenever she wanted to write to us, or whenever she wanted to read something we had sent her, she got her younger sister to write the letters or read the letters to her.

My grandmother once told me so many of the neighbors spoke different languages that she had to learn their languages, so she could speak with them. In addition to English and Italian, she also spoke Bohemian, Czech, Polish, Ukrainian, and some Russian.

Around 1971 my grandmother had a stroke. She came to live with us as the stroke left her with a form of dementia. She was living back on her teens and forgot how to speak English or any other language except Italian. My husband at the time, who spoke Spanish and some Italian, acted as our interpreter. We all managed quite well, but she got progressively worse and needed full time residential care. She died in 1973.


The 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge, initiated by Amy Johnson Crow, is a series of weekly prompts to get you to think about an ancestor and share something about them. The guesswork of “who should I write about” is taken care of. This week’s theme is Another Language.

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2 Responses to 52 Ancestors: My Multi-Lingual Heritage

  1. Dolores Doody says:

    What a lovely story! It could be called “America in Action.” In my own family, I have a grandfather who was born in Boston of Irish immigrants in 1871. When his father was killed in a railroad accident, his mother brought him to her mother and sister in Galway so that she and her small daughter could live in the wealthy home where she had to work as a domestic. When she finally remarried 10 years later, she returned to Ireland to bring her son back to America. He didn’t know his own mother and resisted leaving. He finally returned to the U.S., this time to Pittsburgh. He spoke only Gaelic and had a hard time adjusting although he later became very successful in the pipe trades. Many years later, my own daughter married. an emigrant from Galway/Mayo and I have visited that Gaelic speaking area more than half a dozen times, and the circle is complete. My next trip is schedule for the first week in August.

    • Dear Dolores. Your family history has had some fascinating twists. I am glad it all worked out for them in the end. How lucky you are to visit the Gaelic speaking regions of Ireland, not just once but more than once.

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