The horrors of learning a new language…

Buongiorno a tutti!

How is everyone?! Today’s discussion will be dedicated to language learning, a subject close to my heart!

It’s been a while since I’ve moaned about how impossible learning Italian is. My lack of moaning is not because I’ve improved so much as because I’ve grown accustomed to my abilities (or lack thereof!). I will add a disclaimer here – to all those that don’t speak Italian, I will sound, without a shadow of a doubt, absolutely fluent. And I will also add, that it’s not often that I can’t make myself understood or that I can’t understand what someone else is saying. If “ability to communicate” is the goal of language learning, then yes, I probably have that nailed. And that is a fine goal if you don’t live here. However, that is absolutely not my goal. I am not content to just communicate,  I want to do it well! I want to come across as the same person when I’m speaking in English as when I’m speaking in Italian. That’s what being fluent is to me.

Our opinions, thoughts and beliefs are what make us who we are. Yet when you’re learning a new language, you’re taught how to order food, book hotel rooms, provide some basic personal information. Quite rightly too. And of course for holidays etc., that’s more than ok. But imagine you’ve moved to your new country and you want to integrate with your new community: try making friends with that rather limited vocabularic repertoire! Expressing yourself well requires a reasonably good understanding of how to string sentences together.  You can get away with pigeon English in English speaking countries – people will know what you’re talking about but it’s not quite the same in the Italy.  In Italian there are 90+ different ways of saying “run” depending upon who by and when it is being done. It’s the same for every verb. You can’t just use one of them in a sentence and expect people to know what you’re talking about. With every single noun, not only do you have to learn how to say it in Italian, but also whether it’s female or masculine  (my little mental dictionary has images of chairs wearing skirts etc.) because that effects all the other words in the sentence. My point is, you may hear me ordering food and think I’m fluent, but I would find it a challenge to discuss the intricacies and potential impact of the upcoming Brexit referendum.  It requires a vocabulary that I still don’t have and a mastery of the congiuntivo verb tense that I don’t have. I could get by but until I can do that comfortably, I feel like the person that I am here is still just a shadow of who I actually am.

However, I wouldn’t change it for the world. I enjoy speaking Italian. Thinking in a new language is not only interesting, it gives a new perspective on everything. Nobody becomes fluent overnight and I give it a good go and, well, life continues.  Sometimes though, something will bring my inadequacy with the language to the forefront: a silly mistake or a comment from someone.And with any other subject matter, that would be like water off a duck’s back. I can take criticism or mickey-taking on every subject without taking great offence. But my Italian, that’s different. Language learning requires such a lot of time, dedication and in fact, courage that it can be a very touchy subject for a lot of people, an Achilles heel. I’ve known people that, despite understanding the language, refuse to speak it because people have been unknowingly insensitive in the past. To put yourself out there and speak to people when you know you’re going to make mistakes, particularly at the beginning, can be an incredibly daunting prospect. Yet, there is no other way of improving other than to speak the lingo and to have someone correct you. Making mistakes really is the only way you can get better.

I must be getting marginally better because comments are generally rare these days. But last week, I received my biggest insult yet! I was in a shop, asking if they had any digital pianos. Alas, that shop didn’t but the owner recommended a shop in the next town that did. Then he added “is there someone that could go with you that speaks Italian?”. I was mortified! It’s not that I was speaking in English to him! So, in need of reassurance, I spoke to a couple of Italian friends who confirmed that “technically” I can speak Italian but that my accent “fa fatica” (is a struggle) for anyone that hasn’t known me for ages. I am a struggle to listen to!!!!!  I mean, I was not expecting to be accent-free but I hadn’t ever imagined that people would find it tiring to listen to me!

After a few days of giving myself a hard time, on further discussion with others, I think in fact the shop owner might have had ulterior motives. I have thus reviewed my decision to no longer speak Italian lest I make people’s ears bleed as they struggle to understand me.

However, my ability to communicate as a result of that experience, has been stunted by the appearance of ‘Evil Sue’, my nasty, judgemental imaginary sidekick. ‘We’re our own worst enemy’ as the saying goes and`Evil Sue` only crops up when I’m feeling “Italianly vulnerable”. During conversations she gives the increasingly `Flustered Sue`, such helpful feedback such as: “why did you SAY that? You KNOW that chairs are girls, you KNOW that you go and FIND someone in Italy and not SEE them (it makes me think the entire country is playing an eternal game of hide and seek). What are you, an amateur?! You’ve been here 3 years!!!”. Meanwhile the conversation with the real person understandably gets increasingly nonsensical whilst I am being harshly remonstrated by ‘Evil Sue’. It’s a terrible vicious circle and ‘Evil Sue’ ends up with an exhaustive supply of ammunition.

Improving requires correction and so I like to be corrected. I have a friend who tries to help with my accent. Apparently I mispronounce my ‘t’s in some words. She’ll say a word with ‘t’  in it, I’ll copy it exactly, she’ll tell me it’s nothing like what she just said and repeat it, I again copy it exactly and so it goes on. On one occasion another English speaker was listening in and he found the whole conversation amusing as he couldn’t tell the difference either. It would make for a good comedy sketch show I think. By the end of these sessions, myself and my friend are both about ready to kill each other. I’m comforted by the fact that my English learning Italian friends also struggle with the English accent. They find it difficult to differentiate between the sound of “bed” and “bad” and “growing” and “groaning”. On moaning to my mother about it, she found this interesting article about how adult brains just don’t differentiate certain sounds.  I’m marginally more comforted that it’s not me being inadequate so much as it being difficult for everyone when they’re older!

So the point of this blog? Firstly to try and explain to people that think I’m fluent, why  I don’t feel remotely fluent and why it’s important to me to be a lot better at Italian than I am! Secondly, to explain to my Italian friends why during some conversations it must seem like I’m having a stroke (please don’t frown and look bemused, try not to let on that you’ve noticed and then it might improve!). Thirdly, to provide a bit of solidarity to the other language learners out there that are struggling with the same internal ‘Evil’ sidekick. I shall certainly be trying to speak to myself in a more constructive, less scathing tone in future! Fourthly, to warn people of the dangers innocent comments can have. It’s a very fine line indeed and I have absolutely no doubt I must be guilty of hurting people’s feelings too (apologies to those if I have)! I mean, some of the mistakes people make are so hilarious one can’t  help but laugh and in general that’s ok. Everyone has war stories of the time when they asked someone if there were “preservativi” in the jam for instance (“preservativi” does not mean preservatives in Italian, it means condoms)!!! If you’d learnt a new language without embarrassing yourself on at least several occasions I don’t think you’d be human. In summary, it’s a minefield but what I think I’ll do personally is to be more flowing with the positive feedback with my language learning buddies in the hope it tames their ‘Evil’ sidekicks and I think that really is half the battle!

LagodiFiastra (3 of 6)

Italian learning might be a challenge but when you wake up to such beautiful scenery every day, it’s all worth it





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10 thoughts on “The horrors of learning a new language…

  1. mpic

    I met Sue three years ago, and I swear that she made huge improvements, both in grammar and pronunciation.
    At the beginning some vowels and consonants (“R” in particolar) were terrible, but now they are more than enough to be understood by any Italians.
    Moreover she understood congiuntivo better than lots of Italians I know.

    • Aw, thanks Mauro! Much appreciated. I’ll shove Evil Sue a bit further back into
      her cage.

  2. Stuart Wire

    Hi Sue,

    I get the same reaction with my French. I was blind for a while many years ago but had just enough sight to see people I was talking to in English immediately look at my wife to carry on a conversation I started. the whole “does he take sugar?” routine. My stumbling attempts to speak french these days are treated with the same reaction, they look to my partner for help with a slightly pained expression on their face. However, I will not be down-hearted!

    Julie (my partner) has taken to asking random strangers in supermarkets to correct her grammar. This approach has sparked some interesting discussions in the cheese aisle and led to some new friendships.

    Just comfort yourself that if, like me, when you walk around the town and hear a loud Brummie woman asking for help in really, really bad Italian (french), you can reassure yourself you are closer to fluent than you are to being devoid of any understanding.

    Also when it comes to accents I unfortunately am a natural and unwitting mimic, but one french man completely threw me last week. He was speaking to me in French and English with a French/Glaswegian accent!

    “je suis heureux d’aider, by the way” imagine David Ginola speaking like Billy Connolly and you will get the idea.

    We are always are own worst critic, relax enjoy the journey. We drove from Suffolk to Chieti last summer. That involved Dutch, Belgian, German, Swiss German and then at least 3 versions of Italian (the Italian spoken in Milan is not the same language as is spoken in Chieti I swear!) I just had to enjoy the perplexed looks and embarrassing gender mistakes. I play a character and use him to my advantage. I have never had anybody be deliberately rude about my language skills, although that may be down to the fact I am quite a big bloke! But like you even my confidence gets knocked, I just like to think my character is the one struggling, not me.

    Good to read your Blog.

    Bonne journée


  3. Thankyou for writing this, it made me smile. So, I grew up abroad. My family lived in the Middle East and Europe through out my childhood. I graduated from Highschool in Germany and also lived abroad in England and Belgium. I have had several similar experiances to the ones you describe with French, although I have found British-English and German fairly easy (phonetically and anecdotally). Over all, I have found (perhaps as many adolescents have) that I get by with a “cheat sheet” method. I learn by rote “sections” of the goal. Then I navigate the rest. Your example is that you want to be able to discuss politics and so forth. Learn anecdotes BY ROTE. Watch Movies and memorize them. You don’t realize, but this is how you learned your own language, originally. Listen to TV Broadcasts, learn and memorize them by rote. Practice them by rote. Then when you have a “presentation” piece, you can navigate points. This practice works on a number of levels, with social situations. In Germany I found that talking to a Dutch friend was helpful, since his first language was Dutch, but he spoke fluent English and also much better German that I did at that time. He told me cultural anecdotes, which explain “why” people say things, and he also told me (and explained to me, since I didn’t get the point) various German “jokes”. Regarding the pronunciation issues, again~ the cheat sheet method. My mother was an elementary school teacher. She also taught English as a Second Language (ESL) in Germany. She relies heavily on flash cards, which are hugely exaggerated. You know the ones that say “EEEE—ssss—ieeeeeee” , sound it out, giant phonetics, etc. She has always prompted me with “sound it out” comments. Memorize the sound of the vowels. Sing the songs, in that language, so you get the cadences. And you should silence your evil twin Sue by explaining to her that native speakers DO THIS AS THEY GROW UP. You meet them as adults, after they have already watched all the movies, memorized the jokes, learned political opinions by rote, and so on. Regarding the gender articles, it helped me to simply discuss this informally with native German/English speakers. They have funny anecdotes about the articles. Their stories form a sort of road map, for navigation. My French is actually (now) somewhat more advanced than German, but I totally identify with your occasional moments of mortification –lol I recall that there have been moments in visiting France, where random people such as the waiter or the guy at the train station literally reduced me to tears, on the spot. Again, I found speaking informally with friends about anecdotal experiances eased this tension. They can tell you stories from their own lives, their relatives (usually), about what they think about religion or politics, that help you feel more comfortable in your environment.

  4. I’m a second year student and feeling like I’ll never get anywhere, …whats with those books and CDs called ‘how to learn Italian in 10 weeks’, it’s a lie! I laughed when you said about ‘vado a trovare…’ some things you could just never guess.

    • Hello!!! Yes, I think probably we could sue them under the trading descriptions act or something!!! There’s hundreds of those little things you have to remember. You don’t watch anything on TV, you watch things IN TV .As though there’s a little team of actors behind the screen!!! (Although admittedly, “on” the TV doesn’t make that much sense either!!!!). Anyway, keep going with it! Good luck!

  5. Peter G

    I’ll try to remember the preservativi! I once told someone I was pregnant in French, if that helps (I am full loses something in the translation).

  6. Kate Nesbitt

    Oh THANK you Sue!

    I read and laughed through this piece twice…I share so many of your feelings. My favorite image of yours is of feeling like a shadow of who I actually am…Is there an equivalent saying in Italian? I need to look that up. I don’t know how to make friends without being able to make or understand a joke or be a little silly, and that seems a long way off. It’s especially daunting if it’s more than one on one and the native speakers start throwing in dialect…Oh brother! I so look forward to a day when the Italian person listening to me (as kind as they are) doesn’t squint their eyes in the effort to understand! You know the squint?

    I have been living in Italy for three years and thought surely I’d be farther along by now. I arrived with my son and husband (for his work) without having studied Italian before. Sadly, I wasted the first year thinking I could study with online courses like Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur plus a once weekly tutor. HA! For example, in NONE of those courses do they explain why people say this strange word “salve” to you when you say “ciao” for hello, or repond with “altretanto” when you’ve said “arrivederci” for goodbye…Or when you spend five minutes practicing how to purchase ricotta cheese before walking into the local cheese shop only to find out one doesn’t purchase meat or cheese in “Kilos” but in “Etto”s and there are in fact FIVE kinds of ricotta cheese (with very different uses!) and you must know why you are buying which one….then losing your place in the cue to think -which took you 20 minutes to figure out the first time, since one doesn’t stand one person behind the next as I was more familiar with. This time ordering in only sign language and nouns.

    Needless to say, I have redoubled my efforts in year two and three, but fluent I am not! Our dear brave son whom we threw into the local public school for 4th, 5th and now 6th grade is miles (kilometers?) ahead of me…you might feel better if you saw the number of hours the Italian 6th grade children spend on studying Italian grammer. He also has had a private tutor 4 hrs per week outside of school to help with homework and language practice. And even HE isn’t fluent, though his accent is great and he can sling bad words and gestures like a 6th grader :-/

    Oh well, It’s awfully lovely to live here and I am very happy to have found your blog.

    All the Best,


  7. Pingback: GOOD LUCK

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