At the Bottom of the Well: On Language Learning

I have never, never been good at learning languages. Nothing, besides perhaps math, would fill me with so much stress as the struggle to put together even the most simple sentence for French or Spanish class. I remember years of staring down into the abyss of a homework assignment, trying to deal with the multiple problems of congregation, structure, vocabulary and accent marks, in utter desperation. As soon as I thought I had a handle on it, I’d get an assignment back, covered in red marks, question marks and notes reminding me that in Spanish, you use el, not le, like French.

I used to chalk it up to just having a poor French teacher in Middle and High School, those poor formative experiences with learning how to learn a language. But I’ve had a lot of teachers since those first classes, and there is no reason to blame my difficulties on all those people who tried their best to do what I was paying them to do.

Ultimately, it’s never mattered so much that I don’t speak the local language. Though I’d like to be a more polite traveler, keeping English in your back pocket as your native language sets you up pretty well in this world.

Here, though, I sit in the central square of Legnano, appreciating the spring sunlight as perhaps only a Minnesotan at the end of winter can, watching children laugh in the fountains and old men walk in circles, when someone walks up to me and says “Scusami,” and begins speaking rapid Italian. Caught off guard, I completely butcher the sentence I’ve been repeating under my breath as I walk through the streets, preparing for this moment of truth, “Mi scusi, non parlo italino molto bene” and he nods and walks away, surprised that a tourist has wandered this far away from the center of Milan, perhaps. I’m left to wonder for the next hour what he could possibly be saying – do I look like I’m getting sunburned? Lots of people like to politely warn me of this while I’m traveling. Or did he need something? I’ve seen enough beggars and know enough compliments in Italian to know it wasn’t the two most common reasons Italian men walk up to strangers. Worst of all, am I doing something wrong? Am I offending the whole town somehow, by sitting and reading here in my t-shirt on a beautiful spring day?

I didn’t appreciate until now that even though I’ve now spent more than a cumulative month and a half in Italy, I’ve been well taken care of by my native tour guide.

In this way, I feel hopeless and exposed. I am at the beginning stages of my move to this country, utterly overwhelmed by the most stressful and arguably most important piece of this puzzle: la lingua Italiana. And now that I’m here, dipping my toes into what my life will be like in August when I move into my new home by learning how to take the bus to Milano and the proper etiquette to order a coffee on my own, I am finding myself at the bottom of a desperate well of language. From this vantage point the light at the top of this tunnel feels dreadfully, hopeless, unreachable.

Free apps (seriously though, DuoLingo is damn good for a free program) and my basic grasp of Spanish have gotten me part of the way there: I can sit at the dinner table and impress my hosts with my ability to spout the words for most of the objects in front of me: Piatti! Tavola! Bottiglie! Cucchiaio! But beyond the most simple sentences, I am utterly useless. All of which makes me feel like a goofy toddler, which I resent in myself.

Listening to those around me speak Italian – and trying to follow the conversation, which I am decent at – is like swimming in a sea of exaggerated and lyrical pronunciations and watching passionate hand gestures, waiting for a significant word that I know, which I cling to like a bouy. Once I catch that word or phrase I’m suddenly doggy-paddling at the surface of conversation, following a story I’ve already heard, or grasping at the idea of what’s being said, while bracing myself for the next wave of impenetrable language which will eventually drag me down again. Until that happens, I nod excitedly, maybe drop in a “Sì” or “esatto” for good measure.  Then on the walk home from dinner an aunt or uncle’s house I’m asking Gabri to explain to me “So there was a story which made everyone laugh for several minutes that I understood was about a scientist dissecting fish and crustaceans, but why was it funny?”

We’re still going on amazing weekend trips, like Lago d’Orta, northwest of Milano.

Admittedly, things have gotten slightly better in my first nine days here, and that’s not to go unnoticed. I have celebrated the small victory of asking the cashier at the local bar if they sell bus tickets, then proceeding to purchase those tickets. I have ordered myself some food without the waiter interrupting me to inform me that he does speak English, if I’d like. I’ve ventured a few simple sentences during meals or in the car. Certainly, the hardest part of all of this is those family dinners, the many broken conversations, which Gabri so dutifully translates, when no one is sure who to look at, where I try to keep my focus going, even when the conversations moves far beyond my grasp. There is so much to connect to, so much I’d love to be able to say and talk about, questions to ask and stories to tell, but I’m trapped and limited for now, and it’s hard.

People keep apologizing to me for not speaking better English, which is crazy. I just want to shout back to them: I’m here, I’m the foreigner, and I will learn how to talk to you in your own, beautiful, song-like language, damn it.

Perhaps with a bout of unexplainable intuition, I apparently told my mom when I was younger that the language I wanted to learn most was Italian. (Maybe I just was just thinking about how much I loved spaghetti, and recognized the usefulness of Italian for getting more pasta in my life, though). It’s a long road ahead of me, trying to get out from the bottom of this well and into even passable language skills, much less fluency. And it’s possibly one of the more difficult things I’ve ever needed to do. But, my god, I’m going to make it happen.

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