Language Learning – It takes a village

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It used to be easy being a language learner in a country where the language is spoken. Pre-internet (yes, I’m dating myself) there was no opportunity to chat daily with friends back home, stream movies, download music, and have a translator on demand – unless the translator was a human you were involved with romantically. This was my experience 30 years ago.

Flash forward to today. I am so happy that I have the opportunity to chat with my friends and family (in English) everyday if I choose, I can watch movies in English, and listen to music in English. It keeps me very connected to my family nd that is incredibly important.

And, I can do two of the above three in Italian, and I do as well. But it still isn’t easy learning the language.

Why? four main reasons. 2 are out of my control

  1. I am an introvert and prefer my solitude. This was true in the States as well. So instead of being out amongst the people, I reach my people-limit and run home. Hence, no practice speaking with native speakers.
  2. I am a linguist and I analyse everything to death. “Why is that pronoun being used and not another one?” “With what exactly is agreement being made? The possessor or the possessed?” “Why do you change prepositions because of the noun and why isn’t governed by the verb?” You get the idea. I exhaust myself
  3. People discover I am an English speaker and they want to practice their English with me. That’s completely understandable (i did it too back home), but as a language learner, I really need to practice speaking the local language. I already know English really well  😉
  4. People hear that I’m struggling in Italian and assume I understand as little as I can speak. They try to find someone to speak English to me. Once, I walked into a Pizzeria and when the guy realised I didn’t speak Italian (this was when I had just arrived to Italy), he just turned around and yelled, “Inglese!” Basically, he was calling someone to deal with me. He didn’t even ask if I spoke English; he just assumed.

Let’s focus on 3 and 4.

We have all done it. We’re taking Spanish (or another language) in school and we meet a native speaker of that language. Oh goody! An opportunity to practice! DON’T DO IT! If nothing else, ask the person if you can practice his/her native language with him/her. If they are super fluent in English they may not mind at all But if they are trying to learn the language, you will be doing them a greater service by speaking to them in English.

If you have never studied, seriously studied, another language, then you will not understand the process of learning a language. That is when it’s super easy to lose patience with this person who is fumbling with words and conjugation. One of the biggest misperceptions is that one knows another language or he/she doesn’t. Language learning is NOT binary – meaning it isn’t YES/NO. You did not come out of the womb knowing English. You learned it the first couple years of your life by listening and trying it out. Then you made mistakes as you honed your language. Then as you started to learn the rules of the language, you started making new mistakes.

Language learners go through the same process – except they aren’t babies that are expected not to talk. They are adults that know what it is like to have conversation. And now they are trying to communicate in a new language. Even if you have never studied a different language and you have no idea what this experience might be like, try to be understanding and patient. We will all be better for it.

As for those of you in country trying to learn the language, I have found the smaller towns are best. They are thrilled to have a foreigner and most of them have never left their village (so they don’t speak anything but their dialect and Italian. And the older generation is fricken adorable. They want to help you with everything. And, if you happen upon a nonna (a grandmother), they will probably cook for you! 

Buona fortuna!!!

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