This is something I never thought I would write about, but now that I think about it it’s perfect timing really. So I’m nearing two years of living in Italy and learning Italian. I’m about to go home for 2 months and will be away from my Italian speaking experience. This is dangerous for those who know what it’s like to be immersed in a language and leave it. I’m afraid I’ll forget things, will lose everything I’ve built up and will have to start many things over. However, I know that’s all fear. This post is about what the process is like to learn a language, all the things that are unexpected, the personal growth you get from it, and the hidden humor.
I arrived in Italy in January of 2012 to stay for good. I was getting married 7 months from that date so learning Italian was vital to planning my wedding. At the time I lived with my husband’s parents who only spoke Italian, granted his dad speaks pigeon English. Another reason learning Italian was vital for me is that my husband is in the military and he would often leave me by myself which meant I had to be able to communicate with everyone, run errands alone and such. I feared that if I didn’t make an effort to speak then his parents would perceive me to be ungenuine. I knew there was no way his parents were going to be able to learn English at their age, so it was all up to me to make relationships. Other than that, if I couldn’t run errands by myself then I couldn’t contribute to our family, I couldn’t take away stress from my poor fiance who had to babysit me along with work and preparation for our life together. I also knew I wouldn’t be able to control the wedding details like every bride is born to do. This was a BIG problem.
As the months went by….
So, the first month of being in Italy I was able to catch small words that I heard most often like “ciao” or “va bene” which means sounds good/all right. I had never studied Italian in my life, just 3 years of French and a little Spanish. The French absolutely helped. The first month was definitely culture shocking. I could never relax. Watching tv was in Italian, going to the post office was very challenging, talking in groups made me feel like I was left out and unimportant because naturally people don’t look at you when you don’t understand-they look to your translator. And then, when you want something to be translated every 5 seconds your translator gets tired and just stops translating…so then your completely left out of the picture. You can’t laugh when they laugh, or gasp about what they think is surprising. You’re just behind, handicapped. My way of learning at this stage was to listen, I didn’t have the time for books, I needed to learn Italian immediately. I literally figured out how to speak like a child does: you hear the same word repeatedly when a person does a certain thing and eventually you guess what that means. You later try to say that word in a guessing kind of tone and the other person repeats it giving you the confirmation, just like a mother and a child. I’ve realized that’s why children keep repeating phrases because they need to double check if what they are saying is right! Mothers, repeat back to your children.
Speaking of learning like a child, you also feel like a child at this stage. When you speak what you can say everyone applauds you, laughs, and smiles. You also sound like a child in your broken language. It sounds funny and enlightening but is honestly so frustrating. No one wants to be seen as a child. Of course there is another whole spectrum of this stage…people who don’t know much about foreigners will take them as ignorant or out of place in their wonderful country if they can’t understand anything when they’re at a supermarket. You just have to keep in mind that no one truly understands how humiliated you are unless they have experienced this niche of a life event. Well, I eventually made it through this stage. This stage was probably the worst because I felt the most alone. I was in my own little English world that no one could understand. I couldn’t do simple tasks like going to the post office or dropping off something at the laundromat because all of that required so much speaking. Fabio had to go with me everywhere. I was completely dependent in every area. If I needed to go to the doctor for an embarrassing problem I had to tell someone, I had no liberty or privacy whatsoever.
So my learning plan was to write down words I learned every single month. I did complete a grammar book and it helped me learn the verbs and some vocabulary. The book is called Easy Italian Step-by-Step. By the 3rd month of being in Italy I had learned an amazing amount of vocabulary just from every day life. When you are immersed in a language the words you learn are so random and not related. I had learned much vocabulary on weddings as that is what I was focusing on every day in my errands. I also learned furniture vocab and house vocab. At this stage when you feel like you have some words under your belt you can quickly be confused if someone says a different word that means the same thing! I felt overwhelmed. I also felt overwhelmed when I tried to translate word for word what I would say in English but found out it makes no sense in Italian. For example: light in English can mean many things such as a light color, light outside, the stop light, light instead of heavy…and so forth. Light in Italian only means light in context of darkness “chiaro”. It’s not even translated directly because light=luce in Italian…but if you say luce no one will understand what you mean. At 3 months of being in Italy, I realized that I had not even begun to scrape the surface of the Italian language, but I said what I could.
Around 6 months of being in Italy I could distinguish when someone would say the present tense, past, or future tense, however I still could not use them. When you start to learn verbs you learn them in the present tense. I literally said verbs using the infinitive form (like “I to go to the beach”) before I started to understand to conjugate the verb. It’s not that I didn’t know you had to conjugate them, obviously, but when you’re speaking everything happens so fast and my brain was overloaded. I didn’t have enough time to pause and conjugate in my head before spitting out something understandable. So, at 6 months this is how I felt: I felt like I did make progress, but had such a long way to go still. At this time I was able to have basic conversations and communicate, but the conversation experience always put me down. I talked so slow, pausing, thinking, and talking like a baby, and people naturally looked around, looked at their watch, or whatever. The kind ones would help me complete my sentences which I really appreciated.
After 9 months of living in Italy I felt like I was on the verge of something big. I had just figured out how to speak in the past tense. It was seriously like a light bulb turned on and from a certain day I started speaking in the past tense. I started to gain confidence at this time, but still shaky of course. The down point of this period was that I could say so much but just not enough to express myself. As a female I love to talk so not being able to say what I want to say is so hard! You feel bottled up and ready to explode. Every time I would skype my family I would be the one doing all the talking because I just had to get it all out.
Once a year had passed by I couldn’t believe that I had been learning a language for a year, it went by so fast. I finally felt like I was included, like I could blend in a little, I was much, much less frustrated. The only problem with my language at this time was that I was starting to worry that I came across rude! Any time I would interact with the pharmacist or with someone in a store I would say only what I could say, and nothing more. All I could do was smile and hope that the person on the receiving end of my blasphemous Italian would let me off. So, I started to pay more attention to the way I said things, my tone, and facial expressions. Obviously, that wasn’t all of it. There is a way to say everything in every language. Did you know that it’s rude to ask a person “where do you come from?” …I didn’t know. I realized that Italians had never ask me that question directly, instead they would say “so…you’re not from here are you?” or “are you Italian?” …Never knew, now I know. Apart from the rudeness, I was also teaching English to a class of 7 year olds at this time and it’s amazing how much they taught me. I would tell them something in Italian but couldn’t write anything on the board because I didn’t know how to spell it! I had never seen these words before, just heard them and repeated them. If I did write something on the board I would have the kids help me spell it, sometimes they would take it upon themselves to run up to the board and correct me. They taught me all the animals, the Italian sounds that those animals make, and how to pronounce many things. They taught me lovingly and patiently, all in good humor. I owe those kids a great deal 🙂
As of today it has been exactly 1 year and a half of my learning experience. I still can not speak in the future tense, but I figured out the present continuous tense a month ago and I’m happy with that. I’m starting to have an ear for the language meaning that I can understand so much that if I don’t understand a word then it really sticks out. Today I’m not embarrassed anymore to ask people what things mean. Sometimes you have to let people in on your level of speaking. If you don’t, they will speak a mile a minute and you won’t get anything! I still have trouble with people speaking fast. I like to listen to the pope on the news because he speaks really slowly and I can usually understand him. The only thing that frustrates me today is when people don’t understand my accent. I can say completely correct sentences and people turn heads. My husband suffers from this as well when we go back to the US. He’s been speaking for about 4 years now but people just are not used to accents I guess. So at this stage of speaking I will have good days and bad days. Good days are when I don’t have to translate much and when everything just seems to flow. Bad days are when I completely am brain dead and have a hard time understanding and getting sentences out. Bad days happen when you are tired, stressed out, or have been speaking English for a while and then have to switch over. It’s amazing to me how your mind works. Every bilingual person I’ve spoken to talks to me about the bad days, they tell me it’s normal, wheww!
When you learn a language you start out extremely shy and you talk very quietly. You don’t want to make mistakes or make yourself look like an idiot. Overall this experience has been so humbling and humiliating. It also gave me a great sense of accomplishment and I feel much mentally stronger today. There is no way I can be shy in my own language now, I could speak in front of millions and not care at all! I have a new found respect for any foreigner in my country who is trying to make it. It is so difficult to be humiliated daily, but yet these people know they don’t have a choice and they push through. I will never again make fun of people with accents or say demeaning comments like “if you’re in this country then you should speak English.”
I have learned a great deal about my own language. Part of this is because I teach, the other part is because my husband is Italian and speaks English. I can see through him that English is very confusing and doesn’t make sense often. Why do we add “up” to the end of everything? Turn up, shut up, close up, hang up….
I try to be the immigrant that I would want to be friends with. I interact as much as possible with the natives just because I always hated those people in the US who stuck to their click and never ventured out. I chose to live here so I just have to put myself out there and get over it. I’ve realized the benefits of this attitude already. There is such a drastic difference in the learning of another culture when you interact with people regularly than when you just stick with your comfort zone or expat group.
Well, two years will be coming around the corner and as they say it takes two years to be fluent. Let’s hope for the best! Haven’t had any Italian dreams yet but I have forgotten some of my English! I owe so much to my husband’s parents and family because they have taught me everything I know. They have corrected my mistakes on days and have let me talk gibberish for hours on other days all with nods and smiles. They have all been so supporting and encouraging through it all. We all now can have realistic relationships because of their help, and thank God they realize I’ve been genuine this whole time.
If I could say anything uplifting to those going through this process, know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Know that you will be the most frustrated in your life, but that it’s all worth the personal growth in the end. You will gain attributes in a unique way and when you accomplish the language you will feel like you can accomplish nothing more difficult! You will eventually feel on top of the world ready to conquer all.
In bocca al lupo