Language Learning and Me: Italian

Claire Handscombe
Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay

A while back, I interviewed a few people about their experiences learning different languages. My hope is that by discovering what others are doing, we can be inspired to try different things that work for us.

Here, Ashleigh shares her langauge learning journey with us.

Why Italian?

I didn’t so much choose Italian, as it chose me. My husband is Italian and before we were even considering getting married we decided to come to Italy for a year or two. I decided to learn the language and from the first week I attended lessons and began speaking daily with my mother-in-law in Italian (after she declared her distaste for the English language and her refusal to use it with me). And lucky I did, because that year or two became 4 or 5!

Had you learned any other languages before? What were they, and dhow did they help you with Italian?

I had already spent a good 10 years studying Japanese with several stints in that country too. The wonderful thing about having shed sweat and tears over learning to read, write and understand Japanese was that once I began learning Italian, I felt it was an absolute breeze! I couldn’t get over how simple it seemed and my fast progression delighted me no end! I suppose I already knew the tricks of learning a language as well (ways of remembering vocab or grammar etc) and possibly the biggest lesson I had learnt from my Japanese was that learning a language can be a most humbling and embarrassing activity. Get used to it, get over it and learn to have a good laugh at yourself! Though I am still working on this philosophy in practice.

What are the particular challenges of Italian, particularly when compared with other languages you speak?

The language is more similar to English and so I felt really comfortable expressing how I feel in the language. I have arrived at a fairly advanced level so that biggest challenge is expressing myself as an Italian would, rather than how an English-speaker would.

How did you go about learning Italian? Did it differ from how you learned the other languages? With hindsight, do you think your approach was the right one?

I threw myself into it whole-heartedly. I did 3 months intesive course, I watched television, I read my first novel 6 months after beginning the language. I feel that my techniques were the right ones and I have felt that my progression has been rather rapid. I do feel that I need to be easier on myself, however. I need to learn to not care about making grammatical mistakes, but often I will be held back worried that I will make mistakes. I know that the most important thing to do is express what you need or mean, so I need to care less what other people think. I also had one very patient husband who would explain my mistakes and help me out.

What resources would you recommend to someone wanting to learn Italian? And what advice would you give them?

I would recommend doing a course and getting the bases covered. They should then try as hard as they can to make friendships with Italians (after all, you are in their country) and not just foreigners. The latter is a fatal mistake and not the way to enjoy the culture or the country anyway. My advice is to read books, newspapers, watch television only in Italian, do everything you can to integrate yourself into the language and society. You also need to try to create situations in which people cannot speak to you in English (usually they like to practice with you) like going and taking gym classes or other types of group activities like volunteering!

Do you still deliberately try to improve your Italian, eg by using a vocab book?

I don’t use text books anymore, but I do use online dictionaries on a regular basis. When I have a doubt, I look it up. Working in an Italian environment, I try my best to read a newspaper article in Italian everyday to improve my business Italian and help me to understand my environment as well. I always take care, also, to use correct grammar when I speak or write. Being lazy doesn’t help you to improve and people appreciate your effort.

Do you think it’s important for expats to learn the local language? Why?/Why not?

I think it is essential for anyone who doesn’t want to live in a bubble. The only way to understand your host culture is to interact with its members and even learning to understand the idioms and expressions helps you to understand why people behave the way they do. I myself didn’t like the idea that people could talk about me or say things in my presence that I couldn’t understand and even if I could understand, the inability to defend my point of view or make a joke was extremely frustrating. I feel that I have gotten a greater understanding of my husband’s culture and even him through understanding the language. Furthermore, what a wonderful opportunity to improve your curriculum vitae, not only because you have another language that you can list, but because you can show that you rose to the challenge.

Finally, it is an issue of respect. How can you live in a country, expect to enjoy its food, its culture, its art, its fashion and take all that it has to offer if you, in exchange, cannot even be bothered to learn to communicate with the lady in the supermarket, the person who makes your coffee or even someone who is trying to offer you friendship.

In the end, more than anything, I think it is your loss.

What’s your favourite Italian word or idiom?

There are so many, not to mention the plethora of colourful and super cathartic swear words they employ quite regularly. One I particularly like isHai voluto la bicicletta? Ora pedala!, the equivalent of the English: “you made your bed now you have to lie in it”. It literally translates as: “you wanted the bicycle? Now pedal”. I just think it is so much more expressive!

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

Washington, DC

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