Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Learning a language

"Er, what was that again?"

Here are a few things I have learnt whilst learning Italian these past two and a half years:

  • I understand a lot more than I can speak. Maybe that's natural seeing as I'm a fairly quiet person in English too, or maybe it's a common phenomenon. I've seen people who've lived here for years who understand nearly everything but can't string a full sentence together. I guess you can exercise your ears with no effort but opening your mouth and forming the words takes a bit more dedication (who knows? I ain't no linguist). Anyway, this often leads to the frustrating situation of being in the middle of an interesting conversation, following everything and then wanting to contribute but not being able to find the words, so you end up always looking just a little bit simple.
  • Different people speak to me in different ways when they find out I'm foreign. There are those who speak extremely sloooowly and intersperse their speech with random words that they happen to know in English (but which invariably I don't catch because they surprise me in the middle of an Italian sentence and are often spoken with a strong Italian accent). This I find fairly patronising as quite soon into a conversation I think it's obvious that I have the capacity to speak at more than 10 words per minute. Then there are people who speak at normal speed, but perhaps slow down if they are explaining something complicated, or quickly ask "you know what that means?" if using a difficult term. These are ideal conversation partners. Then finally there are those that make no concession to the fact you are foreign, never slowing down and often using slang or dialect. They're a great challenge for an advanced level comprehension lesson, but less good conversation companions as you're always left lagging 5 minutes behind.
  • This is connected with number 1. Due to the fact that I listen a lot more than I speak, I am often called 'mysterious' or 'charismatic'. I am obviously nothing of the sort, I'm just trying to work out what's going on a lot of the time. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE being seen as a mysterious foreigner, but I have wondered more than once if my percieved aloofness doesn't stop people from approaching me.
  • I have learnt to love my accent. For a long time I wanted my 'R's perfectly rolled and I used to plan my sentences before walking into the shop and asking for what I wanted so as not to slip up. I just wanted to fit in really. No longer. I suppose after a couple of years I have realised that you don't have to assimilate to fit in; you can be different (ie, foreign) and still belong. In fact, since I let myself go and started to talk more to strangers I feel I belong more because the fact that I'm foreign can be a conversation starter, leading to more meaningful relationships. Ok, I am only talking about the relationship between me and the fruit-seller or local bar owner, but it's mostly these small things that give you that sense of 'belonging' in a place.

What has leaning a language taught you?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

On sport and keeping up with the pensioners

You know that feeling when the diet just isn't going ahead as planned? You know, when you can't kick that mid-afternoon sugary treat-trap. Or you are incapable of ordering less than three courses and a bottle of wine at a restaurant because it just seems such a damn waste of opportunity not to. And of course you are friends with loads of foodies who all want to outshine eachother by cooking and sharing with you their yummy creations. Since I am a exceptionally greedy and have the self-control of a gnat these are major obstacles to my post-christmas healthy eating plan (or perhaps I should do some goalpost-adjusting and call it "run-up to easter healthy eating plan" so I don't have to remind myself of the two months I have passed in eating).
As I have almost given up hope of changing my ways I decided that the answer was sport. I am profoundly unsporty but my boyfriend E has been known in the past to pull on a pair of shorts and, well, I don't actually know what he did afterwards because I shut myself in the bedroom to read with a bar of chocolate, only looking up again when I heard the door slam to see a red-faced E pulling sweaty layers off and getting into the shower.

So we organised a trip to the park, me in my mish-mash of 'sporty' clothes and set off jogging round the lake. Let me tell you something, it is a lot harder than it looks this jogging lark! I was being lapped by over-60s whilst going about 1 mph faster that walking pace. After one lap of the lake I collapsed in a heap panting on the floor. "Are you tired already?" asked E, jogging on the spot and looking at me concernedly. " ...think?" I managed to get out. "Just...bloody...go" (I don't think sport brings out the best in me).

Anyway, after that occasion we tried going together again but sadly after my 1 or 2 laps of the lake I was incapable of doing anything but sitting on a bench waiting for E to finish his one-hour marathon around the park. Not good for the morale.

Happily, I've now found a better jogging companion. My housemate is just as unfit and lazy as me and together we have contentedly jogged at snail's pace round the local park and done a few (but not too many) excercises.

I've now been jogging a grand total of 5 times and at the risk of sounding like a smug sport-convert type person, I already I feel loads better. I eat less and have more energy. Hopefully, by the time easter with all it's associated goodies arrives I'll be strong enough not to have to warrant a pre-summer diet!