La Dolce Vita: Learning To Speak Italian

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Oct. 15 2009 2:32 PM

La Dolce Vita: Learning To Speak Italian

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I envy my bilingual friends, but I must admit my ugly-American monolingualism never really hindered me. I’ve traveled all over the Middle East and what I couldn’t understand there, translators could. We spent two years living in Paris, where I wrote a book about an Englishman. Nestled inside a bubble of expat Anglophones, I learned just enough French to amuse butchers and bartenders. Whatever else they say about Paris, most urban French know some English.

When we first came to Italy, I planned to exert the same minimal effort, with phrasebook and pocket dictionary. I quickly discovered that even the most educated Italians-lawyers, the ones I had to interview-spoke almost no English. After a frustrating month during which "pizza" "grazie," "gelato," and a winning smile didn’t cut it, I signed up for lessons at a language school in nearby Assisi.

For four hours on each of 20 long, hot August mornings, I sat among a half-dozen brown-robed Franciscan brothers from all over the world and a smattering of Chinese students, and got myself some Italian.

I hate school, and I whiled away the hours in my chair fidgeting, staring at the sandaled feet of the brothers, wondering why they all wear the same brand of sandals, noticing how the French brother actually wore sandal socks-socks with the toes cut off-and musing on how the young brother from Hyderabad, India, came to be a monk instead of a guru.

Rather quickly, I also noticed I was learning some Italian. Unlike the eliding French, whose language my flat Midwestern vowels and English-major pronunciation could never master, Italians actually pronounce every syllable of every word. If I could see the word on paper, I could say it.

The lessons also disinterred dusty memories of junior high school Latin. Suddenly the dead language was useful, just as predicted so long ago. Semper ubi sub ubi!

I rebelled, though, against memorizing the crucial Italian endings: Words are masculine or feminine, and one must remember a different vowel for each verb case. These niceties hinder my presto-quick, basic communication goals. I generally dispense with them, and find I can often get by simply blurting out a Latin root with an Italian flourish at the end. I’ve had a few problems with this. I called a fig a figa ...  and Elio, our retired-Fiat-executive landlord, blushed to the roots of his gray hair, shaking his head and repeating "fig-OHH, fig-OHH." Apparently putting the "a" on the end of "fig" is the Italian slang word for the female sex organ. That’s what I think he meant, anyway, but it’s not in my dictionary, either, so don’t try this at home, because I could still be getting the "a" and "o" confused right now.

Progress has been made. I revel in the bits of the language I can gain, the links that I, an English speaker, can easily make. A teacher is an insegnante , and a sign is a segnale . A teacher here, literally, is a "signer," leading the little ones among the signs.

A crime is a delitto -to my ears, a little delight.

The word for wicked is cattiva -I imagine it related to captive, captivate, capture.

They call a car a machina . Simply, a machine.

The newspapers call the illegal immigrant a clandestino -person in hiding. To be angry is arrabiata -maybe holding within it the medieval memory of sword-swinging, beheading Arabs invading Otranto in the 1300s.

Italian is the language of music- piano , sotto , basso , allegro . It is not the language of commerce or force. Italians talk to their dogs in German or English, because the hard, Teutonic endings are better for giving commands.

I am an old dog learning a new trick here, and I know I don’t have the patience to follow through. I quit my lessons before we started learning the forms for future or past. I am trapped in the present tense, like a three year old.

"Yesterday I go  ... ."

"Last year I do  ... ."

There are days when I feel like I have it all figured out, when I chat by the iron gate with our man Elio about Berlusconi and I understand exactly what he is saying about the leader he loves to hate (" odio "). Then I go down to the grocery store and the disdainful clerk asks me if I have exact change, and I stare at her, uncomprehending, and the people in the long line behind me fidget and snort with annoyance.

I am just beginning to understand the Italian love-hate relationship with English. They do want to learn it, and many who say they don’t speak it actually understand it quite well. They hear it on movies and especially in American music.

That’s why it is surprisingly satisfying to occasionally drop an American f-bomb or, better yet, a stream of them. I realized this when I swore at a woman who cut me off in her car. She looked at me with a mixture of befuddlement and-I did not imagine it-admiration! In New York I would have been just another harried woman in need of a Xanax. Here the same wig-out elicits a measure of awe. Why? Because Italians hear these words on songs and movies, coming from the mouths of Hollywood actors and MTV popstars. They don't exactly know what they mean, but they sound cool.

For a brief shining moment, I speak and they hear the dulcet tones of Fiddy Cent.

Photograph courtesy of Nina Burleigh.

Nina is working on a book about the fate of women after the Arab revolutions to be published in spring 2012.

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