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August 7, 2020 | Rome, Italy

La Bella Lingua

By | 2018-03-21T18:48:26+01:00 March 12th, 2012|First Person|
Unfamiliar words whirr in a blizzard all around you, roaring and crashing.

ou decide to move to Italy, to experience something new, to see beautiful things, to “find yourself.” This is one of the most exciting things you have ever done, an adventure in the proper sense of the word, and you are giddy with excitement, dizzily drunk on your own courage. You tell all your friends, make your preparations, book your flights; you’re sure you’ve thought of everything, you think you’re completely ready.

But you forgot something. Do you speak Italian? No, you don’t. In fact, you are not even acquainted with a single word of that language. But you do speak a little French and a little Spanish, so you breezily brush off the concerns of the well-meaning and go off to live with an Italian family who do not speak a word of your language. Pizza, pasta, vino rosso per favore: You rehearse as your plane lands. How hard can it be?

Within hours, you realize you have plunged yourself into an icily terrifying pool of isolation. Unfamiliar words whirr in a blizzard all around you, roaring and crashing and dragging you under like savage waves, and your panic only makes it harder to come up for air. You only thank whatever gods happen to be listening that you decided to come here where the odd words are at least constructed from the same familiar letters. What, in the name of Babel, would you have done in Japan?

The simplest transaction in a shop becomes a yawning chasm of incomprehension. The meaning of a casual remark on the bus becomes almost mystically unattainable; strangers assume you are several sandwiches short of a picnic. You don’t really mind this, in fact you pray for them to leave you alone. Even being alone is infinitely preferable to trying to explain yourself with this new lead thing in your mouth where your tongue should be.

So you decide to end the dark ages. Your attack is on two fronts. First, you get yourself a book with verb conjugations and grammar explanations spilling from its pages, because if there’s one thing you believe in, it’s the power of a lump of dead tree to come to your rescue in times of trouble. Next, you go back to basics, you learn the old fashioned way, the way you learnt your first language back before your memories began. You listen, you watch, you are as curious as a toddler. You put two and two together (frustratingly, sometimes coming up with five) and gradually, you work it out.

You earnestly study the ebb and flow of the rivers of words that surge around you every day, catching a drop here and a drop there, until you begin to float. You are starting to grasp the current of conversation, starting to swim with it instead of being dragged under by its power. But still, your tongue remains frozen. Your motivation begins to flag; this task you have set yourself begins to look impossible. The loneliness caused by your enforced silence begins to crush your spirit. Making friends of any linguistic persuasion has proved much harder than you ever dreamed.

Then one day, quite unexpectedly, the ropes that were hitherto knotted tightly around your mouth, strangling your attempts to express yourself, loosen. And suddenly you are speaking. Your brain is spinning into overdrive, whizzing through verb tables and pronunciation guides at lightning speed, your nose on standby to wrinkle apologetically when you get it slightly wrong. The words stagger out from behind your teeth, haltingly at first, even a bit drunkenly sometimes, but before long they march confidently, forming fluent sentences, faithfully lining up in the right order. You relish this control over these words that eluded you for so long. You will not underestimate their potency again.

And the more you learn, the more you discover there is to learn. You master one verb tense only to turn around and find another jeering at you, teasing you with its complexities and irregularities. You congratulate yourself on learning all manner of colloquialisms, only to find politely puzzled faces staring back at your proud one as you realize you have used them wrongly. You find that your vocal cords aren’t the only part of your body that you can use to speak this language, that your hands and arms are a gold mine of self-expression. So you waggle your hands indignantly in front of your belly, you plead with your fingertips to your thumb and you twist your finger in your cheek with a mouthful of gelato, and you feel like a native. You begin to delight in your favorite sounds, the percussive double z, the elusive rolling r, the deceptively slippery gli. You begin to laugh at jokes, are finally watching TV without subtitles, and you have even taken the first few tentative steps towards friendship.

Six months have passed, and no one can say you speak Italian fluently, although many charming waiters tell you this as you order your lunch. This language, so rich and velvety in other people’s mouths still trips you up, bucking and throwing you like a rodeo bull. But you don’t mind so much anymore, you relish the challenge now because once in a while, you manage to hold on.

And guess what? The words it all started with, the faithful pizza, pasta and vino rosso per favore… well, you use them every day. This is Italy after all — if you’re not talking, you’d better be eating.

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