Surviving the language learning curve
17th August 2006, 0 comments
The moment had arrived for my Italian lessons to bear fruit. After having lived in Italy for only two months, a colleague invited me to a local soccer team's end-of-season dinner.
Our group of monolingual English speakers sat clustered together at one end of the banquet table. A bilingual friend served as a buffer, translating snippets of Italian conversation that drifted our way from the other end of the table. After the antipasti, first and second courses, salad, wine, dessert and coffee, the evening was finally winding to a close.
And then it happened. Paolo, the team's leader, leaned back in his chair.
"Natalie," he called to me from across the room. "Ti piaceva la cena?"
The clinking of espresso cups against saucers ceased. Everyone stopped chatting and turned their gazes toward me. Gulp.
I wasn't ready to make my Italian-speaking debut in front of thirty strangers, but at least I had understood his question; he was asking if I had enjoyed the dinner. Luckily, I knew just what to say.
"Si, ho mangiato tutti," I said, smiling.
A moment of silence, then the eruption of laughter. Not mere giggling, mind you. More like roaring. Some even had tears streaming down their faces.
I thought I had answered, "Yes, I ate everything." Obviously, something had been lost in the translation. With a smile still plastered on my red face, I leaned toward my bilingual friend and hissed, "What's so funny?"
Between gasps, she informed me that I had just said, "Yes, I ate everyone." Apparently, I should have said, tutto instead of tutti. What a difference a little vowel can make.
Miraculously, I was not emotionally scarred by this linguistic blooper. In fact, it would be the first of many instances on my path to bilingualism in which I would feel—well, like a fool.
Two years later, however, I was able to hold a conversation with the fruit and vegetable vendor, conduct teacher conferences with my students' parents, and survive meeting my boyfriend's parents (who would one day become my parents-in-law), all in Italian. And if I can do it, so can you.
If you're planning to live overseas, you'll probably take a foreign language course at some point. But is that enough? Language classes can certainly provide grammar rules and vocabulary basics. But don't stop there. It's what you do outside of the classroom that can catapult you from mere observer to active participant in a foreign culture.
Make friends with non-English speakers
It's easy to hang around with other expatriates; you speak the same language, experience the same culture shock, and probably share a similar cultural background.
As cosy as this all sounds, these people won't help you to learn a foreign language. I'm not suggesting that you shun all English speakers, but forming friendships with the natives will significantly enhance your overseas experience.
Join a group
If you don't speak the language at all, start with activities that include both non-English speakers and bilingual speakers. Look into sports clubs—hiking, skiing, cycling, horseback riding, or try a local sport. Church and volunteer groups often welcome foreign members.
Take a class
Look for a class on local crafts, fitness, cooking—anything visual will do. I joined an aerobics class a month after arriving in Italy. The only words I understood were, "Five more, four more, three more," but at least I could watch the instructor and follow along.
Many people across the globe are eager to learn and practice English. Put up notices at the university or in coffee shops around town to find someone who would like to exchange English conversation for lessons in the host language. Meet for an hour each week over coffee, and speak for thirty minutes in English and thirty minutes in the foreign language. If you're just beginning, look for someone who already has a good base in English.
Carry a pocket dictionary with you
You'll be surprised at how worn the pages of your pocket dictionary will become if you constantly keep it with you in a purse or backpack. Even if you aren't sure how to look up foreign words—as with Hebrew, Chinese, or Arabic, a dictionary can still help.
After standing for ten minutes in front of sacks of unidentifiable foodstuffs in a Japanese supermarket, I finally thought to pull out my dictionary. I looked up the word "sugar" in English and showed the Japanese translation to another shopper, who showed me which sack was which.
When I first arrived in Japan and overheard a man giving commands to his dog in the park, I realized that the dog understood more Japanese than I did. Humbling. Beginning foreign language learners make mistakes that are strikingly similar to those of native-speaking children. But if you wait for perfection, you'll never communicate. Be prepared to make mistakes—lots of them. Embarrassing ones, even. Be ready to feel left out when someone tells a joke and you have no idea what the main idea was, never mind the punch line.
Sometimes you'll feel like yelling, "I really am rather proficient in my own language, you know! I can hold an intelligent conversation, and even tell jokes!" Keep reminding yourself that your linguistic gaffs will make for great stories one day. Like anything worthwhile, you'll have to work at it before you can reap the benefits.
Learning your neighbours' language lends itself to cultural insight like nothing else can. I had lived in Italy for over a year before I realized that the wildly gesticulating men yelling at each other in the cafés weren't actually angry; they were merely discussing the local soccer team.
And learning that the Japanese language rarely employs the word "no" eased some of my frustration when a shop owner would smile and nod her head, even though she didn't sell what I was looking for. So take a deep breath. Open your mouth. Speak the language. You won't regret it.
Natalie Lorenzi, ESOL specialist (English for Speakers of Other Languages), is based in Italy.