March 4, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Present imperfect

By |2018-04-27T18:16:51+02:00May 31st, 2012|Features Archive|
Perfection, in Italian or English, is an impossible quest.

our Italian is perfect!” This is a remark I hear frequently from my students. And it couldn’t be further from the truth.

I usually respond along the lines of, “My English isn’t even perfect, and I’m the teacher!” I like to use this sort of observation to let students (or anyone else) know that they’ll never speak English perfectly. No one will. Because there is no such thing as “perfect English” — or, by inference, perfect Italian.

I began studying Italian-as-a-foreign-language at the age of 25. I knew a few words, sure, most of which I’d picked up from my Roman family during childhood visits. The rest, which I’d gleaned from my father, were mainly expletives. (He always cursed in romanaccio.) When I signed up for my first Italian lesson at Parliamo Italiano — a small Italian language school in Manhattan — I figured it’d be a cakewalk.

My first teacher was a Florentine named Regina. She was brazen and beautiful, and some of my classmates would even hit on her during lessons. I just wanted to soak up as much Italian as I could from her.

But I also wanted to impress her. One evening I came to class and insisted I be allowed to recite the first canto of Dante’s “Inferno” from memory. She obliged. What else could she do?

I stumbled my way through part of the canto, which must’ve been impressive for an elementary-level student. I think I even managed to impress Regina (emoticons!). When I tracked her down almost a decade later, in Rome, she still remembered me. Success.

But I didn’t make it much farther than that. I quit the school after about a year for various reasons, and never went back to studying Italian formally. I did persist in my studies. I began to read everything I could find in Italian: cookbooks, poetry, novels, and newspapers. I even began writing doggerel in Italian and translating poetry.

It wasn’t until I went abroad that my Italian began to improve remarkably. Living with people who speak no English can have that effect. I spent much of my first year here skulking around bookshops and public libraries. I think I read only one book in English the whole year, J.R. Ackerley’s “My Dog Tulip.”

Studying Italian was a way to get to know my family in Italy. Perhaps it was also a means of reconnecting with my father, who died when I was 15. By learning his language I could still feel close to him, or something like that. Either way, it was as much a question of identity as it was necessity.

I remember the striving for unattainable perfection. I wasn’t raised bilingually, so the deck was stacked against me. In the end I learned to settle for the far more realistic goal of practical fluency and accept that I’ll never be the Italian Nabokov.

Nine years later I’m no longer following my own linguistic development with much interest. I’ve heard it said that most adults reach a stage where they no longer progress. I don’t know if I’ve hit that stage or not, but Italian has by now become a second skin. I hardly notice it anymore unless I’m deciphering a contract or parsing some tangled bureaucratic nonsense. Then it begins to itch again.

But there’s a big difference between feeling comfortable in a second language and speaking it perfectly. Languages are in constant evolution, and no human being can realistically keep up with and master the evolving usage of a widely spoken language like English.

There are too many variants, for one thing. It’s possible that “English” is just too vague a word for the countless offspring of what was once the proud linguistic property of British islanders. How any student of English can aspire to speak perfect English is beyond me. But they do.

I feel for them. I know that every one of them hopes to acquire something approximating the chimera of “perfect English.” Part of my job as a teacher is to allay their fear of imperfectly spoken English. I’ve seen it prevent them from answering such simple questions as, “What are you doing this weekend?”

My best advice to them is, “Just make yourself understood and the rest will take care of itself.” After all, isn’t that the main reason people study foreign languages: to understand and be understood in a language other than their own?

About the Author:

Marc Alan Di Martino runs a small language school in Perugia where he teaches English as a Foreign Language. He wrote the "Man About Rome" column from 2008 through June 2013.