I mentioned a few weeks ago that I had been back to Italian school — once again hacking away at my impossible dream of trying to master the Italian language. That’s where I learned about “chattare” and “skyppare”, which unfortunately are about the only new words I can remember, now that I’ve been back in the US for a month. I know exactly how the mythological Greek king Sisyphus felt, damned to a life of fruitlessly trying to roll a boulder up the hill only to have it slide back down again. My “boulder” consists of a dense core of complex verb tenses surrounded by a solidly packed outer layer composed of thousands of idiomatic expressions.
Ten of the verb tenses are for different ways of talking about the past. For instance, if you were in the process of doing something – AND it wasn’t TOO long ago, it would be one tense. If it was a quick, one-shot deal, that’s another. Did you hope something had happened? That has its own tense. Is it in the historical past – say Caesar or Garibaldi?? That’s still another tense. Now I ask you: if, for some obscure reason, I was talking about Caesar’s Gallic Wars and I used the simple, relatively current past tense – would Italians misunderstand me and think I thought those wars were fought just last year instead of almost 2100 years ago?
I mentioned to my teacher that in my opinion, Italian has been around too damn many years and it seemed that each succeeding generation felt a need to pile on another unnecessary past tense. She shook her head sadly in agreement, and added that it was telling that the Italian language had so many different past tenses, yet only 1 future tense.
And speaking of my teacher – she was WONDERFUL. The school is I Love IT, and my teacher’s name is Eva. She has an unlimited amount of patience. Class is all in Italian, but she speaks in the equivalent of our “words of one syllable” in such a way that you can understand almost everything she says. If you were in a beginners’ class, she would tone down those words; if you came in at a more advanced level, she’d use more advanced Italian.
Participation is not only encouraged — it’s required. Class always starts with a group discussion on a subject: what we had for dinner the previous night, where our favorite vacation spot is, what our plans are for the coming weekend…..any topic where we can all participate – no matter how lacking our linguistic skills are. Classroom conversations are a “soft” preparation for the real world out in the town. We’re encouraged to ask questions throughout the class. Since fellow students are equally clueless, when they fracture the language, you know exactly what they were trying to say. If someone has a problem understanding something, everybody tries to help.
After the discussions come the grammar – and verb tenses. I’ve never gotten as far as “use of prepositions” in a class, which is one of my goals. You might think that prepositions would be easy, but let’s remember – the Italians have had thousands of years to make them much more complicated than necessary.
One day I was the only one in class and I asked Eva why she didn’t correct my pronunciation and my horrible accent. She gave me one of those “you must be kidding” looks, and said in effect, I’m an American, I will always sound like an American and her job is to give me the tools to navigate better in the real Italian world – not to perform the linguistic alchemy of turning my flat English accent into a musical Italian one. Of course, this discussion took at least a half hour and was all in Italian, which is exactly what she wanted. Yes, she was there to teach the dreaded verb tenses and useful idiomatic expressions, but her REAL job was to give me the confidence to talk to Italians. If she corrected me every time I pronounced one “d” instead of 2 in the word Radda, we’d still be on the simplest past tense, and I’d have no confidence whatsoever.
So…..after this particular round of 28 hours of class, did I have more confidence? More? Yes. I was “better” at the end. But let’s remember that “more” and “better” are relative words and should not be confused with “a lot” and “good”. I have resigned myself to the fact that I do not have enough years left to ever “master” Italian. However with this class, I’m once again reminded of how much fun the journey can be……and that progress – no matter how slow – is still progress. I am not the kind of person who picks up a language through osmosis….just by being exposed to it; I need repetition, I need practice, and I really enjoyed getting both from I Love IT. I plan to be back conjugating verbs with Eva in September. Like Robert Frost’s poem – I still have many, many “miles to go before I sleep”.