“Three months in Italy!” friends exclaimed. “You’ll be fluent after that!”
I sighed then, and I sigh now, even more so. Fluency is very difficult to achieve in any language. I have spent four years living in Thailand, and whilst I became comfortable enough in the language, I know I was far from fluent. Fluency seemed to recede further into the distance like a mirage; the more I learned the more I knew fluency was a long way off. Likewise, a year studying Mandarin full-time saw me with a good stock of characters and language, the equivalent of a degree major in Mandarin, but I always lacked the comfort I had in Thai. Of course, fluency means different things to different people, and whilst I dream of achieving a higher degree of fluency in any language, a comfortable ability to express myself in most everyday situations is all I want to achieve now. And I know how difficult it is to do that. And how unlikely I am to even get close whilst here in Italy.
Once we knew we were coming to Italy, I started teaching myself some of the language. I dug out an old Italian conversation book I had purchased for our first visit to Italy 15 years ago. But it is now 2013, and so I also downloaded as many (mostly free) apps as I could find for my iPad, and a couple for my cellphone. I started with the basics, and started learning a bunch of verbs, as I prefer to know “doing” words than a bunch of boring vocab giving me the words for professions (especially given our current employment situations), or for subjects studied at school (language courses are directed at young students, not middle-aged matrons), or for various body parts (if they hurt, I will point!). I lay in bed on cold Sunday mornings memorising verbs, and practising vocab, and shaking my head at the vagaries of Italian grammar and conjugations.
Then we arrived in Italy. I stammered and my mind went blank in the first week. So I organised a few lessons, and got the much needed practice that gave me more confidence to try speaking it, and that explained some of the grammar that confused me. And speaking even the basics (though I’ve pretty much given up on the possibility of ever being able to roll my Rs in the Italian way) became easier.
And as I spoke, and listened, I smiled at the Italians who wanted to try out their English, and had several conversations at the market or in restaurants where I spoke Italian and they spoke English. I got frustrated at the Italians who panicked when they saw me (an obvious foreigner) approach them, and refused to talk to me, instead rushing off to get a friend, colleague or family member to speak English to me. (Especially when I knew I could conduct the transaction in Italian.) But I really loved the Italians who gently corrected my grammar or vocabulary (a surprising number), whilst appreciating the effort I was making. Who knew that the Italians, who seem to think rules are made to be broken, would be such sticklers for correct pronunciation and grammar?