ometimes I flatter myself by saying I speak Italian at the level of a small child. Then, an Italian friend’s five-year-old will start talking circles around me, and I am forced to reassess my abilities.
There is nothing more humbling than learning a foreign language. I didn’t start learning Italian until college, and one of my goals in coming to Italy was to become fluent. But it’s slow-going.
There are good days, like when I pick up a copy of Naples’ Il Mattino newspaper and can read all the stories on the front page without a dictionary.
Then there are bad days, when I realized I’ve made several juvenile Italian spelling mistakes in a blog post or in an email.
Spelling mistakes aside, the process of learning this language has made me infinitely more empathetic to others struggling with English.
There are some things I will never say to someone whose second language is English, simply because I remember how much they hurt my feelings when someone said them to me.
The worst: “You have a very strong accent.” I’ve never been sure what the point of this statement is. Most people who aren’t native speakers have an accent. They’re probably working on it. Or, they’ve already eliminated it the best they can. They probably don’t need you to point it out.
My accent is an extremely sensitive issue for me, I’ve found. Once a Danish student in my Italian class told me I spoke the language like Brad Pitt’s character in the film “Inglourious Basterds,” who came off sounding like a cowboy when pretending to be Italian. Even though I didn’t think was true at the time, the mere suggestion was horrifying. I walked home that day in the pouring Naples rain on the verge of tears. The last time I became that upset about something an acquaintance said to me, I probably was in junior high.
Another statement that irks me: “Don’t worry. I’m good at understanding foreigners.” This implies that normal people — you know, ones that aren’t especially good at understanding foreigners — wouldn’t be able to understand your speech.
I once heard an American say this to a well-spoken Indian businessman back in the United States and thought it was equally rude there. Why? Because it groups all “foreigners” into one category of language skill, which could be offensive to someone (like the Indian businessman) who clearly sounds like he’s been speaking and studying English for 25 years.
I may not be at that level, but having lived in Italy for a year and studied the language for five, I do find it kind of patronizing to be grouped with first-time visitors who can’t speak a word of Italian.
When people say these things to me, I usually just smile and say, “Me la cavo bene” (“I do just fine”), and remind myself that usually whoever says this is usually just trying to show off how well they speak English.
What has never offended me: “Where are you from? You have a lovely accent.” I’ll use that from now on if I feel the need to comment on someone speech.
Or, better yet, I’ll just have a normal conversation with the person and not dwell on cultural differences.
After all, we’re not in junior high anymore.