The Italian language is beautiful … especially when Italians speak it. My vocabulary, whilst pretty large now, still sees me grabbing the dictionary every few minutes to look up a word I’ve heard on the radio or seen on an advertisement on the back of an autobus. And I’ve put the hours in, I really have … when we were still in England and had made the decision to move here to live, we bought the language course on cd, loaded it onto our ipods and listened to it … often … dutifully completing the written vocabulary exercises as well. We also immersed ourselves in all things Italian to enhance our learning potential – I made biscotti, pannacotta and spaghetti carbonara (only eggs, no cream – see I really was learning!) But there’s no real substitute for being ‘on the ground’ here in Italy … and that’s when the real learning started.
I remember the first full sentence I learned ‘Mi dispiace, non parlo italiano … ma sto cercando imparare’ (I’m sorry I don’t speak Italian but I’m trying to learn) and used it with gusto when an Italian Signora asked me how to use the pump at a petrol station in San Remo. Well her eyes lit up at my response, however badly I pronounced it, and she told me I spoke Italian very well (at least that was what I understood!) – I also knew how to use the petrol pump so this may have helped the mood. It does wonders for your confidence when you get such a positive reaction – and very few people say ‘That was rubbish’ – or the Italian equivalent – they are genuinely happy that you tried. The only problem is that when you speak even just a few words of Italian, every Italian you speak to then thinks you are fluent and continues at super speed when they talk to you. And when you say that you understand the language well enough but could they speak ‘un po’ lentamente’ (a little more slowly) you get three words at half speed before they revert back to ‘normal Italian’ again.
So in and amongst studying the books and listening to the lessons on the ipod we spent our first three months in Italy in the company of a Dutch couple who ran a campsite we stayed on when we first arrived. I was always in awe of how they spoke such fluent Italian with the other guests. Having a conversation in Italian involved a painstakingly long process – I would hear the question or phrase, understand no more than half of the words, which I then needed to translate into English in my head, then the cogs would continue to turn as I formulated a response in English, then search for the words I did know in Italian to make that response applicable to the conversation. I thought this would never change but I was given the best bit of advice – I was told that the more I used Italian to speak, however badly, I would start to think in Italian and that I would be able to respond immediately in conversations rather spend five minutes on each translation process every time. And they were right … to the point where I can picture a conversation in my head with someone, start the conversation in Italian before I have to stop myself and think ‘It’s OK, it’s a Skype with my mum and dad, I can do this one in English!’
Then we’ve spent the last two years in the company of Italians so we’ve had many more opportunities to practise and improve … for the most part we’ve had no choice … but that’s been what’s made us better so much quicker. We were a bit of a novelty in the beginning and everyone wanted to talk to us … with our basic Italian we did end up misunderstanding quite a few of the conversations but never got ourselves into too much hot water. On a couple of occasions we said ‘Si’ to something then both looked at each other ten minutes later and mouthed ‘What have we agreed to…?’ The following evening we would find out when the other person involved in the conversation would arrive and say ‘Siete pronto? (Are you ready?) and then escort us to his bungalow for an evening meal with him, his wife and a couple of friends. We brushed up on our ‘Non ho capito’ (I don’t understand) and our ‘Cosa, dove, quando e quanto costo?’ (What, where, when and how much?) pretty quickly after that!