I’m about halfway through my teaching program here in Piedmont and I want to discuss something that’s been a great source of enjoyment for me: speaking Italian. The food is obviously one of the best things about being here, but speaking the language has been a close second. It’s a good challenge but it’s been lots of fun to practice. And I always feel accomplished after I do well in a conversation.
I studied Italian for four years at Mayfield High School and then for another year at Miami University. (Also at Miami I took a class on Italian history, culture, and literature, and although that wasn’t strictly a language class, it prepared me for being here in a multitude of ways.) I never really felt I was very good at it. As a matter of fact I thought it was my worst subject in school. I had a friend that took the classes with me in both high school and at Miami (Hi Jen!) and I probably relied on her a bit too much. I never cared for coursework that relied on lots of memorization, and I didn’t put much effort into vocab words.
But somehow, something stuck. I did some brushing up around Thanksgiving, and I easily recalled how to conjugate verbs in the present tense and the past tense. I also remembered prepositions (of=di, to=a, from=da, etc) and interrogatives (what=cosa, why=perche, where=dove, when=quando, how=come, etc), and I think those are probably the most important concepts.
When you arrive in a foreign country whose language you’ve studied, you quickly realize the difference between academics and reality. Many grammatical rules are important at school, but can be discarded in conversation. Not because they’re incorrect, but because the person you are speaking too will understand what you mean, even if you’re wrong.
You learn which words are important. To get difficult concepts across, obviously you need a large vocabulary. But most of the time, you need basic verbs like want, come, go, put, can, ask, become, see, say, make, and do. It’s made me think a lot about the way we use English. I think it’s the 80/20 principle. Even in English (or whatever one’s native language is), humans probably use 20% of their vocabulary 80% of the time, and 80% of their vocabulary the other 20% of the time.
You learn to mime and you learn to be creative. It’s fun, because you have an excuse to act silly. I was explaining to somebody the meaning of “don’t bite off more than you can chew” and I didn’t know the words for bite or chew, so I acted them out. In class I have acted out words like “sneak” or “slip” to much laughter from the students.
The big challenge, especially at first, is waiters, waitresses, and shopkeepers. Usually everyone else I meet has some context for meeting me, and they know what to expect. Not so in public establishments. A typical example – I walk up to the counter and describe what I want. They don’t realize I’m a foreigner (I look the part) and so they respond at a rapid pace. I stare at them like a deer in the headlights. I say “cosa?” (what?) and get the same thing again.
I’ve gotten a lot better though. The past week, I’ve had several people mention that I’ve improved since being here which made me feel good. I’m starting to be able to understand when the lady at the coffee shop asks if I want to sit down with my coffee. And not to brag, but my pronunciation and accent (or relative lack thereof) seem to be quite good, at least for a foreigner.
Italian is different than English in many ways. When you conjugate verbs, you don’t need to use pronouns because the pronoun is built into the verb. For example, I eat is “mangio,” you eat is “mangi,” and we eat is “mangiamo.”
“We” is my favorite because the word ends with the beautiful “iamo” sound. Yesterday we were on a field trip and the tour guide indicated we would be climbing a hill. She had me explain what “climb” meant because the students didn’t know. I then, on a whim, said “Now we climb. Climb-iamo!” They laughed and laughed and laughed at my little joke.
Another great thing about the language – Italians love the word “bello/a,” or “beautiful.” They use “bello” to describe many more things than we use “beautiful” for in English. This has made me chuckle on more than one occasion when the students speak English. I’ve heard them describe TV shows as beautiful and food as beautiful… a word we probably wouldn’t use for such things.
I want to continue to improve because in a month or so, when I go to travel Italy independently, it will benefit me. Especially when I go off the beaten path to visit my ancestral towns in Campobasso and in Sicily. But even more than that, speaking the language is simply a lot of fun. For somebody who never enjoyed languages in school, I’m a bit surprised by that.
Fino a prossima volta! (Until next time!)