Italian Language – Part II

I have more to say about learning Italian.  Or in my case, it would actually be accurate to say that I have more to say about NOT learning Italian.  Some people have a talent for languages, and then there are people like me who are linguistically challenged.

Alan is one of the talented ones.  When we started traveling together in Italy, he knew about seven words – all of which were in conjunction with food, and none of which was a verb.  I had taken quite a few lessons by that time, and had a MUCH more extensive vocabulary.  But somehow, he managed to weave those seven food words into something that Italians responded to positively, whereas I could create an actual sentence and be met with a blank stare.

In general, my Italian consists of forming an English sentence and then plugging in Italian words, which can cause great confusion for Italians – particularly combined with my flat American speaking style.  When they answer me, I try to fit their words back into an English sentence, which of course is futile, and then since I’m trying to translate each word as they say it, not surprisingly, I never get past the third or fourth word before I’ve totally lost the thread of the conversation.

Alan’s obvious language superiority made me feel quite bad about myself, until I started closely examining what made him so infuriatingly good.  I believe it’s that he’s a great mimic.  And the most important part of mimicking others is being able to duplicate the rhythm of their speech.

I remember reading that batters who can hit a fastball actually see the ball differently from those of us who can’t even see it on instant replay.  To their eye, the ball seems to slow down so they actually know where and when to swing their bat.  Well, that’s what Alan does with Italian.  He would never try to figure out a word-for-word translation.  Instead, I think to his ear, the words slow down and he’s able to get an overall sense of the meaning of the sentence.  And then when he speaks back, he might be saying the Italian equivalent of “we was went”, but the rhythm of both the individual words and the total sentence is so perfect that the listener has no problem understanding him.  And yes – he can not only hear, but also pronounce, the difference between one “t” and two.

While I’m usually trying to come up with which one of Italy’s 17 complicated verb tenses to use, Alan realizes that the truly important thing in any language is the idiom.  When I hear them, they send me totally off track, since I’m trying the futile word-for-word method.  He treasures them and considers it a wonderful opportunity to really delve into the language. Needless to say – the Italians adore him.

Dinner with friends: Alan's language skills insure still another great meal.

So I’ve stopped feeling terrible about myself and have accepted the fact that he has a certain gene that is woefully missing in my DNA, whereby he hears Italian in a way I’ll never be able to, no matter how many tapes I listen to in my car or how many classes I take.  This lack won’t stop me from bumbling along, but I do realize that there aren’t enough years left in my life to ever master the language.  My only hope is that at some point, Apple will come up with a harmless, implantable microchip that will make flawless Italian come out of my mouth.  True — it might take some of the fun out of life in Italy, but it would certainly be a help to me when I have to argue with the gas company after they have decided to bill me for someone else’s usage.  But that’s another story……


2 thoughts on “Italian Language – Part II

  1. Susan, I agree with your analogy of how one listens to a foreign language. I studied Italian tapes before going to Italy, but again, I was trying to hear each word, and missing the whole point. In addition, my language skills would freeze when trying to reply, and I’d become mute. What a good thing you have Alan to keep the conversation going!

  2. Dear Susan,
    My long lost twin sister of the exact, the very exact, same missing DNA gene!
    All year long I pray that the genome project people will locate the gene and learn to install it before we return to Orvieto each spring.But alas, until that day,I can still say,”Una pizza Margherita per favore”.

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