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?


  1. So much! But, the biggest thing is what a rush it can be to be understood.

  2. That no matter how much I practice, I REALLY really don't like German. In any form, in any dialect.

  3. Oh gosh yes. When I concentrate, I can usually pick up a good 90% of what's going on. Speaking is horrible. Some people are understanding and make the effort to encourage me, but an awful lot just look at me blankly. OK, I know my accent's horrible and I'm not very good at conjunctions, but the people that want to understand me, can. Give me a break - I've only been here 6 months!

  4. To me, learning Italian has made me realise that I need be a lot more patient and never laugh (yes I was horrible!) when it comes to having teach others my own motherlanguage or English.

    I've been living in Rome for about a year now and it still is very daunting for me when going about doing daily things. While I'm a lot better compared to when I first arrived here, I've still way to go and half of the times, I don't understand what people are talking.

    Its strange because unlike you, the people who I encounter never want to slow down :-P

    Popped by from the link in Italytutto by the way and thought that I'd say hi :-)

  5. Some birds- yep, know that feeling of joy when you're understood!

    Elisa- Thanks for stopping by! Why do you think we all chose to learn your lovely language and not German?!

    Katja- The first few months are horrible, there's just no getting round it! I remember feeling so impotent. But it does get better!

    Rinaz- Thanks for leaving a message. Like you I have also become very defensive of people learning English or foreigners in England now. I feel their pain!