I’ve always loved studying languages. Loved studying Latin and Spanish in high school and French in college. My ancestry is half Italian and half Slovak and I have had a strong identification with both sides. Until I was 10 years old I lived with my parents and my Slovak grandparents. The predominant language at home was Slovak which, as a little girl, I spoke, in addition to English. I’m sure the Slovak I learned was not “proper” Slovak, but I understood it and spoke it in the form it was taught to me. I can no longer speak Slovak because I’ve long ago lost all the people in my life with whom to practice that skill. But I can tell you that in 2006, sitting in a large outdoor square in Prague, I clearly understood a man ordering a beer (pivo, in Slovak) and saying a few words in Czech or Slovak as he greeted his friends.
The Italian influence was also very prevalent in my childhood, enhanced forty years ago when I married my husband whose mother is an Italian war bride who in 1946 came to the US from Lecce in the Puglia region of southern Italy on the Adriatic coast. As a child, I heard the Italian language spoken among my relatives at my grandmother’s house, as well as in the Italian Catholic parish to which we belonged. Later, with my mother-in-law and her friends and family, the traditions, food and language were everywhere.
My grandmother’s language was, I’m sure, Sicilian dialect, that form of speech
peculiar to a specific region and very different from one geographic area to another. I believe that my mother-in-law’s Italian is more pure than my grandmother’s since her friends came from various parts of Italy, and so dialect may not have served them well. I’ve always loved the beautiful melody of the Italian language: I love hearing it sung and hearing it spoken. I knew years ago that, if I ever had the time, I wanted to learn to speak the language as well as I could. In retirement my husband and I have taken the opportunity to study this language.
A year or so after I retired, in a stroke of kismet, we found our Italian instructor while having coffee at Starbucks. While waiting in those interminable lines for our simple coffee, we heard the language being spoken behind us. It was immediately recognizable to us. My husband turned around and told the woman that he heard her speaking and wondered where she was from in Italy. It turns out she is from Calabria, like my grandfather. Thankfully, the lines at Starbucks are long enough so that you can gather a lot of information about a person while waiting for your order. In the course of conversation he told her about his mother, that I had just retired and how we wanted to learn to speak Italian. She told us that she was an Italian teacher who had studied in college and graduate school while in Italy, taught at the college level but after a number of years, went out on her own to teach students privately. Seriously?! What we wanted to learn was far beyond: “Buon giorno.” “Where is the bathroom?” We wanted to have a conversation, we wanted to be able to put meaningful sentences together. We wanted to know the fundamentals of the language. We wanted to understand the grammar. She has turned out to be exactly what we were looking for: she is classically trained herself, she is demanding, she is knowledgable, and most importantly, she can teach!
So this brings me to the actual learning of Italian. Before starting to study the language seriously, I never deluded myself that I was fluent but I believed that I had a fairly sizable vocabulary. I could grunt out a few words and make myself somewhat understood when I needed to in Rome or Florence or Lecce. But I always knew I could never, with a straight face, say, “Io parlo Italiano.” (“I speak Italian”). Not even close.
We have found that Italian is a disceptively difficult language to learn as I think most languages are when you are not fully immersed. The pronunciation can be tricky but made somewhat easier, I believe, if one has studied Spanish or Latin. The hardest part is the vast exceptions to the grammar rules, also the large number of idioms that, by definition, make literal translation impossible. In these cases, we rely strictly on memorization because there is no rule to which to refer. And then there is the masculine and feminine, plural and singular agreement with nouns for adjectives and articles that tend to trip me up. I’m not really complaining, just more challenged by it than I thought I would be. Truly, a humbling experience.
As with anything we learn, whether it’s the game of golf, playing the piano or speaking Italian, it’s all about practice, practice, practice. My husband and I try to speak with each other at home between classes but that quickly evolves into conversations in English about whether we got it right or not. I try to take advantage of my mother-in-law as my full immersion person, but I don’t do that nearly enough. While our instructor is away visiting her family in Calabria in the summer, my husband and I get together with a number of her other students at a local restaurant every Tuesday evening and speak Italian to each other.
My husband and I have been studying Italian for a year and a half now. I have come to realize that becoming somewhat fluent is a slow, probably lifelong, process. You never stop practicing and learning. Among the many materials our teacher has recommended to us to enhance our study, there is a book entitled “In Other Words” by Jhumpa Lahiri. It’s about the author’s lengthy journey to learn Italian, to express herself in a foreign language, and how she believed true mastery always eluded her. Like the author, I have made learning Italian a major goal and am completely driven to achieve it. This book has become one of my most valued tools because it is written in Italian on the left side leaf, with the English translation on the right leaf. I try to read a few pages every day and translate as much as I can on the left side before I peek to the right side to see if I’m correct. Besides helping to teach me, I feel a comaraderie with the author when I hear her frustration at not being able to communicate with the ease she expects after so much study. The reward and encouragement comes in those moments when I am either speaking Italian with my mother-in-law or with my teacher in class and, off the cuff, I express myself with words and sentence structure that I have learned, and they understand me!
I may grimace about Italian grammar rules and exceptions but I love it! And, we are told, it is helping to keep our brains supple! I see progress being made. When we speak in Italian, as of now, we speak only in present tense indicative mood (“Abbiamo parenti in Italia.” “We have relatives in Italy.”). But with the many verbs we’ve been taught to conjugate and the many words we’ve added to our vocabularies, we can say a surprising amount in that tense and mood. We convert something we may want to say in another tense into the present indicative – “The plant has died” becomes “The plant is dead.” “La pianta e’ morta.” As our teacher frequently admonishes: use what you know and keep it simple.
Of course next year will be the true test when our family will take our every-third-year trip to visit our relatives in Italy – forced FULL immersion. Sink or swim time, baby!
Ci vediamo! (See you!)