Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Italian by Osmosis....on learning Italian by living it

When I first met my husband five years ago while walking 1000 kilometers across Spain, I didn't speak a word of Italian. I spoke Spanish (I studied it for 18 years between school and college), and was in the process of trying to learn a bit of French and Swedish. Italian? Not really. I never really thought about the country of Italy much, much less the language.

After that very very long walk across Spain, I spent time in Italy with Gianluca before returning to the US. For the next two years, I went there when I could, which was twice a year. Then, in 2009, I moved to Italy. By that time I could communicate in Italian, but I wouldn't say I could really speak.

What's it like to learn a foreign language by immersion as an adult? It's hard to explain, because I don't really know how it happened. That might sound strange, but learning by immersion just kind of sneaks up on you. I didn't do language classes.... I tried, but I quit after two days. Italian grammar is just so frustratingly complicated that it made me yell and throw books. I figured that I would learn better if I didn't really know I was learning. I thought in Spanish, and I altered Spanish to sound more Italian, because that works well enough. People figured out what I was saying, and corrected me, and I would replace the Spanish word with the new Italian word, or in some cases I tweaked a French word that was similar. In this way, Italian ate my other languages. I can't speak I word of Spanish anymore, as a result.  My Swedish is also gone.  I learned words by comparing them to other languages, or by having people pantomime things out for me. If people around me spoke English, I would ask them what the words I didn't understand meant. I have always completely and utterly ignored the grammar, because I find that I start using it correctly without realizing it.  Studying it makes me blow steam out of my ears. I also mostly ignore the several formal tenses, but they also started appearing more-or-less correctly in my speech. I don't know how to use the subjunctive, or the various past tenses, but I think I use them almost correctly most of the time. Well, maybe not the subjunctive. But I expect that will come with time.
This is me when I study Italian.

In this way, I gradually started understanding. I remember one specific moment about a year and a half ago when I was in the car with my husband, and we were listening to a talk show on the radio. I was zoning it out, until I realized that I understood what the radio was saying. I UNDERSTOOD! Not everything, but enough to know what they were talking about. I started paying attention to conversions around me at parties, and was able to pick out bits and pieces. The feeling that I was understanding at least some of what was going on around me gave me the confidence to leap in head first and try to carry on conversations. I found that I was able to carry on a conversion more easily in Italian than I ever could in Spanish. I think all of my technical grammatical knowledge actually held me back in Spanish. I would be thinking so hard about what the proper way to say something would be that I couldn't get anything out at all. Because I studied Spanish for nearly two decades, I felt like I should be able to speak it perfectly, so I psyched myself out. With Italian, I didn't have expectations of myself, and because I didn't know the grammar, I had nothing to ponder on before I spoke. So, I just let words fly. Sometimes I was understood, sometimes not, but in that way I did learn. Italian by osmosis.

I speak quite well now. I am I guess what you'd call weirdly fluid. I can understand just about everything, say just about anything, and my grammar is often correct, or nearly correct. I can mostly read, and I can't write hardly at all. My accent has gotten a lot better, so very few people can tell I am American from my accent. However, I do still sound foreign, and most people assume I am eastern European when meeting me (it probably helps that I look it), which isn't that great of a thing around here. However, recently someone thought I was Chinese....yeah, I don't get it either.

That said, I'll leave you with two examples of funny slip-ups in the learning process:

-While on vacation, I asked my husband if he wanted to go relax on the scamorza. I was trying to ask him if he wanted to go to the beach (spiaggia), but instead I invited him to relax on the smoked mozzerella cheese.
-I was at my mother-in-law's house for dinner, and I overheard her talking on the phone. I thought I heard her say, "Vorrei un pisellino," and I was shocked because that means "I would like a penis." Apparently I confused pisellino (nickname for penis) for pisollino (nap). She wanted a nap.


  1. After I had lived in Florence for a year. I found myself having a changing of the guard with houseguests: a group of German friends were departing, and my Italian friends from Novara were arriving. I bid adieu to my German friends in German, and then turned to my Italian friends and started speaking English to them. It took a couple minutes before I could reset and start speaking Italian!

    BTW, everyone in Italy thought I was German solely because I had a beard and drank beer.

  2. I completely understand that! Switching between three languages is not for the faint-hearted. At times it feels like I have a switch board in my head.