Italian Lessons

Dedication and Sense of Humor are Key in Learning Second Language

By Marjorie Eisenach

After reading a witty, self-deprecating, and insightful New York Times essay by William Alexander, where he details the benefits of learning a second language as an adult, “The Benefits of Failing at French,” I decided to come clean on my relationship with learning Italian. 

It all started when I was a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Wisconsin, having enrolled in intensive Italian, I spent 10 hours Monday through Friday memorizing Italian dialogues. I was hoping one day to join the Foreign Service and become a younger version of Claire Booth Luce. I knew even then that I wanted to attend the University of Bologna during my junior year. But I could barely spit out, “vorrei un panino,” when I went to Bologna two years later.  

I vividly remember one of my early embarrassing “Italian” moments, when I received the results of my very first oral quiz. I was marked down three points for incorrectly answering the most basic of all oral questions, “Come si chiama?,” which translates to, “What is your name?.” My response was, “Mi chiamo Fulvia Bruni.” Since we had been instructed to memorize the dialogues in our text verbatim, I answered somewhat confidently and totally incorrectly this most basic of questions.

I wondered, “How could I go on to study international relations in Bologna, when I didn’t even know my own name?” My first semester rolled on and we were still memorizing dialogues that made no sense to me. Lesson Two included the following question, “Mi saprebbe dire dove si trova la stazione?” Why in God’s name did the authors choose to introduce the conditional tense, indirect object pronouns and the impersonal verb form in Lesson Two? I remember hounding my good friend, who was a year ahead of me in Italian, quizzing her relentlessly on these words and demanding to know, “Why in the hell are they saying, ‘Could you tell me where one could find the train station,’ in such a convoluted way?”

Language pedagogy has changed, sometimes for the better, but learning a second language continues to be fraught with challenges and problems. Never believe those ads when they say, “you will become totally fluent in less than a week.”  That is sort of like saying that you can eat anything you want and lose 10 pounds in one week with no exercise.    

One of my favorite examples that illustrates the complexity of adult second language acquisition is David Sedaris writing about Easter, trying to explain this religious holiday to several Muslims in his French class. With limited vocabulary his crucifixion of Christ occurred on, “two morsels of wood,” and the reason for “the rabbit of Easter” was so “he bring the chocolate.”  

Another awkward moment for me was trying to figure out what “mal francese” was. At the time it seemed important in order to understand a chapter in my text that discussed the lives of political thinkers. A rather wild lot really. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know what “the French disease” might be. But my mind was somewhere else and I felt compelled to ask our program director.

Probably my all-time academic nadir in Bologna was when I was asked something like, “What are the four forms of art?” during a six-week, intensive class in art history. I think my instructor must have been having a really bad hair day and picked on me to vent her frustrations. When I did not have a clue what she was trying to get at, I maintained my silence, and she indicated in rather haughty Italian, “Perhaps, Signorina, you should return home to the United States, if you cannot answer this question.”  

I was always slightly envious of my American roommate in Bologna, still a very dear friend, who had the ability to rapidly reply to her professor when asked what she thought of something that had just been said in class, “non ho niente da dire.” We were all so proud of her for coming up with such an idiomatic way of saying, “I have nothing at all to say.” Really, the whole year I was scared shitless and would never have commented on anything, even under torture or penalty of death.

During my oral exams at the end of the scholastic year, I was lucky to have empathetic professors, who clearly must have taken pity on me and given me grades based on my attendance and diligent note taking throughout the year versus my knowledge of their subject matter.

I know that I will never speak and write Italian like a native, but I continue to try to improve my ability to communicate in la bella lingua. Along the way I have learned a lot about myself, my native language, and have become a better language teacher. My brain synapses are stronger and my knowledge of the world far better for studying a second language.  

I remember many gaffes that I have made in Italian, but who knows about all those mistakes that I’ve executed over 45 years, when I never realized that I was making them? I know that I am viewed as patient with anyone trying to learn a new skill, like Italian. And I am grateful that I can still master a new concept given enough time and persistence.  

About the Author

Marjorie Eisenach has traveled Italy extensively via numerous trips over the past 40 years, and resided in the country for nearly two years. She currently lives in Minneapolis where she teaches Italian language courses and helps American and British travelers prepare for visiting Italy. For more information, visit www.ItalyandItalian.com.  

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