Learning another language is a bit like buying a ticket to a rollercoaster that has parts of the scaffolding missing. You think to yourself, Hmmm, it might be a bit unsafe, but it should be ok. Should be… That is, no one has died yet, right? Damn, I wish I’d packed my spanner to tighten those loose screws! Or maybe you decide to be the first person on a rollercoaster to sit on their head. Perhaps it’s ok to scream relentlessly – even on the upwards part!
Put simply, learning a language is a scary ride that you know you’d like to get off, but can’t help find yourself wanting more of – even after polishing off some fairy floss, two hamburgers and some ice cream… and throwing-up near the ticket seller!
My foray into learning to speak Italian was a steep climb up the rollercoaster that seemed to take forever. In the very early days, I couldn’t accept the fact that I was going to make mistakes. And when you’re learning a language you are going to make mistakes! So why couldn’t I accept this? No, I had to say everything perfectly. And if I didn’t know how to say something, well, I just wouldn’t speak at all. Being known as Fabian’s mute wife seemed like a better choice than being known as his blonde ditzy wife who couldn’t tell the difference between a verb and noun.
My brain was so full to the brim with Italian words that along the way my English suffered. I started to say things like “I buyed some pane oggi.” And the more I studied Italian the worse my English became… and the worse my English became the more I realized that I needed to know English in order to learn Italian!
Confused? Yes, me too! I had to get a handle on the basic structure of English – it wasn’t enough that English is my native tongue. Yes I speak English but I don’t think about it. I don’t think about tenses, and I don’t take any notice of the number of contractions I use. It just comes out. Italians, on the other hand, not only speak Italian but they understand the basic principles of how it’s constructed. In fact, Italians are so good with their grammar that I’m sure most could tell you the past participle of the verb to make goat’s cheese without blinking.
Eventually, I realized that if I were to understand how the Italian language is constructed, I would first have to revisit and grasp the basic principles of my own language. Too bad I threw out my English lessons from grade six!
After months of blank looks (coming from me), awkward conversations (all my fault) and plenty of silences (more blank looks), I decided that I needed a tutor. By chance I stumbled across a small sign advertising language tutoring in an unfamiliar part of Udine. We were there to attend Udine’s annual Festa della Castagna (chestnut festival), where I ate plenty of yummy roasted chestnuts and tried to stay warm. Anyway, I followed the sign down a small cobbled alleyway to a little office. There I met Johannes – a Cuban national who primarily taught Spanish and English but was happy to teach me Italian. He was friendly and fun, and learning with him didn’t feel overwhelming or intimidating. We steered clear of passato remoto (remote past) and congiuntivo (subjunctive tense) – phew! – and concentrated on the basics: how to order food, how to greet a stranger, etc. That was what I needed. The only problem was, we would revert back to speaking English all the time. Even though I felt like I was cheating, it was lovely and comforting to have a conversation with no blank looks.
Actually, I had so many horror language moments that I really don’t know where to start. But here’s a good one: I once told Johannes that “io l’ho lecco e non lo faccio” – that I had read it [the exercise] but hadn’t completed it. Well, that’s what I thought I’d said… Instead I’d said, “I licked the exercise and wouldn’t do it”! But it was ok to make blunders with Johannes because I was paying him, and he also happened to be a nice guy. It was the mistakes I made beyond the classroom that filled me with horror…
There are a few ‘hide me now’ moments that stand out in particular. For instance, I told a table full of people that I don’t eat meat because I’m a verdura. I should have said vegetariana (vegetarian), but instead, I told everyone that I was a vegetable. At that moment I could have easily been a beetroot! Once, I confused genitori (parents) with genitalia and told a group that “my genitals live in Melbourne”. I happily carried on, blissfully unaware of my gargantuan blunder. The difference between genitori and genitalia may seem frightfully obvious now, but when your brain is functioning like a muddy pond – nothing is clear.
Oh yes, without doubt, learning a second language was quite a humbling experience.
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