The Benefits of Failing at Italian

After reading a witty, self-deprecating, and insightful New York Times essay by William Alexander, where he detailed the benefits of learning a second language as an adult, “The Benefits of Failing at French,” I decided to come clean on my relationship with learning Italian.

It all started when I was a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Wisconsin, having enrolled in Intensive Honors Italian, I spent ten hours a week, Monday through Friday, memorizing Italian dialogues and trying to learn basic Italian conversation. I was hoping one day to join the Foreign Service and become a younger version of Claire Booth Luce. I knew even then that I wanted to attend the University of Bologna during my junior year in college, and thought the State Department would offer me a chance to live in various places around the world.  I must admit though that I could barely spit out, vorrei un panino, “I would like a sandwich,” which was my first sentence when I went to Bologna two years later, let alone conduct foreign diplomacy.

I vividly remember one of my first embarrassing “Italian” moments, when I received the results of my very first oral quiz. I was marked down three points for incorrectly answering the most basic of all oral questions, “Come si chiama?” which easily translates to, “What is your name?” My response was, “Mi chiamo Fulvia Bruni.” Since we had been instructed to memorize the dialogues in our text verbatim, I answered somewhat confidently, and totally incorrectly, this most basic of questions.  For several years a boyfriend good naturedly addressed letters to me in care of Fulvia Bruni.

I wondered how could I go on to study international relations in Italian in Bologna, when I couldn’t even answer the most basic question in Italian. My first semester rolled on I could barely stay awake during my Honor Poli Sci class that met at 3:45 pm and we were still memorizing dialogues in Italian 101that made no sense to me. Lesson Two included the following question, “Mi saprebbe dire dove si trova la stazione?” Why in God’s name did the authors choose to introduce the conditional tense, indirect object pronouns and the impersonal verb form in Lesson Two? I remember hounding my good friend, who was a year ahead of me in Italian, quizzing her relentlessly on these words and demanding to know, “Why are they saying it in this convoluted way, ‘Could you tell me where one could find the train station?’”

Over the years language pedagogy has changed, sometimes for the better, but learning a second language continues to be fraught with challenges and problems. Never believe those ads when they say, “you will become totally fluent in seven days.” That is like saying that you can eat anything you want and lose ten pounds in one week with no exercise, just take this pill.

One of my favorite examples illustrating the complexity of adult second language acquisition is David Sedaris writing about Easter, trying to explain this religious holiday to several Muslims in his French class in Paris. With limited vocabulary, his crucifixion of Christ occurred on, “two morsels of wood,” and the reason for “the rabbit of Easter” was so “he bring the chocolate.”

Another awkward moment for me was trying to figure out what “mal francese” was. At the time it seemed important as it was mentioned a few times in a chapter that discussed the lives and deep thoughts of political thinkers. A rather wild lot really. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know what “the French disease” might be, but my mind was somewhere else and I felt compelled to ask my program director.

Probably my all-time academic nadir in Bologna was when I was asked, “What are the four forms of art?” during an intensive class in art history. As I remember it, I believe the response the instructor was looking for was something like: architecture, sculpture, painting, and drawing.  I was expecting that she was looking for a much more complex answer, and the above answer never entered my mind.  I think my teacher took an immediate dislike to me and vented her frustrations that particular day on me. When I did not have a clue what she was trying to get at, I maintained my silence, and she indicated in rather haughty Italian, “Perhaps, Signorina, you should return home to the United States, if you cannot answer this question.”

A good friend regaled us with the following story.  He was talking to his landlady on his first evening in Bologna. Trying to make conversation and steer the exchange to topics he felt more confident in discussing, he began to describe as many relatives as possible. When he got to his “nonna,” or grandmother, he stated that she was “checca,” a slang term for a flaming homosexual, instead of the word he was searching for, “cieca,” which means “blind.”

I was always slightly envious of my American roommate in Bologna, still a very dear friend, who had the ability to rapidly reply to her professor when asked what she thought of something that had just been said in class responded, “non ho niente da dire.” We were all so proud of her for coming up with such an idiomatic way of saying, “I have nothing at all to say.” Really, the whole year I was totally petrified and would never have commented on anything if called upon in class, even under torture or penalty of death.

During my oral exams at the end of the scholastic year, I was lucky to have empathetic professors who clearly must have taken pity on me and given me grades based on my attendance and diligent notetaking throughout the year versus my ability to communicate my knowledge of their subject matter.

I know that I will never speak and write Italian like a native, but I continue to try to improve my ability to communicate in la bella lingua. Along the way I have learned a lot about myself, my native language, and have become a better language teacher. My brain synapses are stronger and my knowledge of the world far better for studying a second language.

I remember many gaffes that I have made in Italian, but who knows about all those mistakes that I’ve executed over 45 years, the ones that I never knew that I made? I know that I am viewed as patient with anyone trying to learn a new skill, like Italian. And I am grateful that I can master a new concept given enough time and persistence. But like everyone, I need to be ready to hear my teacher’s voice. It is only quite recently that I really started paying attention to double consonants in Italian.  A good friend tries to caution all students who are learning Italian to pay attention to this when speaking Italian, as the difference between ano and anno (anus and year) and pene and penna (penis and pen) may cause unintentional hilarity.  A recent faux pas was pointed out to me by a French friend who said that my response to my Neapolitan B&B proprietor was not the best.  When he asked why I was visiting Napoli, I responded, “per avventura,” which means does mean by chance or adventure but has the unmistakable meaning to an Italian of “an affair or sexual adventure.” I told my friend, at least I have the comfort of knowing that he saw me return by myself by 8 p.m.  Interestingly enough, this is the same boarding house that my cab driver felt that he had to ensure my safety before he would let me leave the security of his taxi.  He walked the three flights of stairs to ensure that this particular boarding house on a very busy street in central Naples was safe and secure.

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