Like most Americans I did not learn to speak a foreign language until I was a teenager. My first attempt, German, was a disaster. I was in Jr. High, the worst possible age for learning a language (or anything else for that matter) and Herr Baker and I did not get along. I managed to somehow eek a C out of my two years of German and I can confidently count to twenty, say ya und nein, please and thank you. I can also order a beer but that was not part of our middle school curriculum. I learned to do that while traveling independently in my 20’s.
In high school after having had such a miserable experience with German I decided Spanish would be my language of choice and after two years of Spanish my comprehension of the language was on par with my ability to speaking German…nada!
Inspired by friends who had already moved abroad, when I packed my bags to move to Italy one of my goals was to learn to speak the language. I was a failure in the classroom but I was quite sure I could figure it out if I immersed myself in the culture.
Happily I was right! It was not an instant process and made harder by the fact that I was teaching English full time and didn’t have the money to take Italian lessons. Friday nights I would hang out with my expat friends and relished speaking my mother tongue. That was the night my brain would get to rest. The rest of the week I submersed myself in Italian and would lie awake for hours at night conjugating verbs in my head. Armed with a Berlitz book I studied on my own. Saturday nights were spent with my new Italian friends who helped me along and were super fun to hang out with. They spoke enough English to help me understand when I was stuck, had a great deal of patience, and open minds. Willie, Cappe, Enrico and their gang of friends will never know how thankful I was, and still am, for their friendship and patience. I rarely see them anymore (life is busy for all of us).
Learning to speak another language can also provide some laughs if you are not afraid to put yourself out there. One of the things I have noticed over the years is that people are scared of making mistakes and clam up even if they are capable of basic communication. We all make mistakes and with luck we learn form them…
One of the funniest mistakes I ever made in Italian came after living here for about five months. The language school I was teaching at closed for the summer so I was out of work for a couple of months. Earning only 10,000 lire an hour ($5.00) I was burning through my bank account and the thought of having no income at all was daunting. A friend, Graziella, came to the rescue, or at least tried to. She knew a family who wanted an English speaking nanny for the summer.
I should have just said no…I have never been a babysitter and have great respect for people who work with kids. That would not be me and really wasn’t me in my late 20’s but I took the job anyway.
The family I went to live with made up of a Fiat executive and his trophy wife whose names I no longer remember. She had two kids from her first marriage who did not live with them and the first word her 12 year old son said to me when I had the pleasure of meeting him was in English and started with the letter F…lovely child!
At home she had a terrible two year old who was to be my charge. She didn’t work at home, and she didn’t have a job. She had someone in to clean her house and someone else in to iron. She sat around all day reading novels and chain smoking. Around two hours before her husband was due to be home she would disappear into her bedroom and get all dolled up. She didn’t do anything with her son, no reading, no games or even coloring, but because she was there he certainly didn’t want to play with a strange woman who didn’t even speak his own language.
He would actually play with me while his mother puffed and read, and there were times I managed to get him to shriek with laughter. While momentarily satisfying for both of us, we didn’t bond. how could we? After two of the most miserable weeks of my life, I called it quits but I learned a couple of important things during the experience. First, I would never choose to work with children again, and second, I learned how to order prosciutto…or how not to.
One day I was sent to the store to buy a few things, including prosciutto cotto (cooked ham). I was instructed on how to order by weight which was helpful and that it was to be senza conservanti (preservatives). On my walk up to hill to the local market I practiced the order in my head but I had forgotten the word conservanti. Since about 40% of the English language has Latin roots I decided that ordering my ham senza preservativi should work until the man serving me just about peed himself laughing. He was actually very kind and translated his response which was “that would be chewy.” by pretending to chew something very tough. I had asked for my prosciutto without condoms…that would indeed be chewy!
I have never made that mistake again but have made many others. Looking at the pesci (fish) on our peach tree (pesca) one day, Mauro’s response was to make a fish face and pretend to swim around the tree. I commented a on buffalo rather than a brufolo (pimple) on my face to one of my bus drivers and he pretended to be stampeded. And the list goes on…
After my disastrous attempt at babysitting came to an end I was depressed and broke as I wondered how I would manage to make it through the summer until my teaching job started up again when one of the best things ever happened…
My brother called me out of the blur. I hadn’t seen or heard from him in a few years but that’s anther story. He had learned from our mom that my summer was not panning out so well and decided to extend an invitation to visit him in Taipei. One of his roommates had just moved out, I could teach English there and he would spot me the money for the flight. Yeah! I stayed with Jeremy for six weeks and had a marvelous time visiting Taipei but even better than that, I actually got to know my brother as an adult and found out that I liked him! We have been friends ever since.
At the end of August I went back to Italy with the idea of spending another year to master the language…haha! That was nearly twenty years ago and here I am…still learning and occasionally still mangling the language.