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Learning Italian - La Bella Lingua

Learning Italian isn't something that I decided to do when I was young, but I wish I had! Instead, when I was in high school, many many years ago, I thought it would be great to learn French. Other kids in the high school in Boise, Idaho were learning Spanish, or perhaps German. I don't even recall if they offered other languages at my school at the time. French seemed elegant, refined, literary and Spanish, while beautiful and I can appreciate it more now, seemed oh so utilitarian back then. Boring.
I was never overly dedicated to the learning the language, but I did ok. The problem was that coming from a family with no money and no passports, the thought of going to France seemed like such a pipe dream (I"ve still not been!). And living in Boise there wasn't a soul with whom I could practice. Still, I persisted even into college, minoring in the language.

Fast forward a lot of years. I can't speak much French now but I can understand much of what I read. I also lost my interest in revitalizing what I had learned. My desire to go to France was still there but it didn't capture my imagination the way it had as a child. Learning Italian was more of a hobby at the start, beginning when I met my husband, whose mother speaks some Italian, mostly dialect learned second hand from her mother who grew up in the little Apulia hilltown, Monte Sant'Angelo.

Learning Italian - Visiting Monte Sant'Angelo

I absolutely love her to pieces and I liked the idea of being able to converse with her in Italian. So I picked up some CDs and began listening in my car, baffled by the strange way that the verb conjugations can drop the infinitive, or how the sentence structure flips around to accommodate the direct object (Le ho dato il libro...literally, her I gave the book, vs. I gave her the book), or how there are many different past tenses which are used depending on how far in the past we're talking. It was beyond confusing and I began thinking, ok, I'll learn a few phrases, but I wasn't sure how much further I would really take the learning.

Then I stumbled on the seed of the book I was going to write, FEAST OF SORROW, set in ancient Rome. I began researching everything about ancient Rome and Italy, sucking down history books like they were candy. It was in all that research that I began to fall in love (there is a verb for the concept to fall in love, innamorare). I fell in love with the ancient food, the architecture, the innovation, the learning, the building of an empire. Suddenly I wanted to see the places where my characters walked and lived.

I also wanted to understand the country and its people. And truly, there is no better way to start that process than to learn the language. I started with some classes at the Cambridge Adult Education center, but after the second level, there were no offerings to extend the learning. Fortunately there was a group of us that wanted to keep going and we were able to find a tutor that would work with us. We've continued, now in our fourth year, meeting every week to learn la bella lingua, or the beautiful language.

Yet I still feel like a novice. I am not used to learning something so slowly, or not being able to fake my way through something if I don't know it. You can't do that with learning a language!  But I have to realize how far I've come. I can converse fairly easily with anything general. When I've gone to Italy, I've done pretty well and I am confident that we have better service everywhere we go for all my trying. The fact that I'm doing everything I can to learn how to speak moves me up the ranks beyond the everyday tourist.

Now I want to learn everything about Italy, the history, the politics (molto pazzo!), the culture, the literature, the religion, the food. I don't know if I would want to live there permanently because of all the red tape of doing so, the economy and that the political system is a mess, but someday I would like to have an apartment in Rome, where I could stay for several months a year and travel the country seeing all of its wonders. Guess I better sell some books so I can make that happen!

Some of the things that I love about learning Italian:

  1. I have a much better understanding of the people and culture.
  2. Speaking the same language helps me create greater trust and gives me insider access to knowledge of the locale that I could never have had on my own.
  3. I can understand random conversations on the train, in stores and restaurants (Boston has a lot of Italians who live in and who visit the city).
  4. I can converse with taxi drivers, waiters, guides, ticket booth operators, train conductors, etc., making travel in Italy infinitely easier.
  5. Many of the Italian museums have no English translation on plaques. Non problema!
  6. I understand a lot of Latin and Spanish as a result of learning Italian.
  7. I can get the gist of songs and Italian television shows, which give me greater insight into the culture, politics and the Italian way of thinking.
  8. It boosts my own understanding of the English language, taking me back to the roots of grammar, which in turn helps me in my writing.
  9. It sharpens my mind as I grow older.
  10. There is a whole new world of friends to make that would never have been in my sphere without la bella lingua.

In coming posts I'll talk more about some of the tips and tricks I've got up my sleeve to help with the Italian learning. Or learning any language, for that matter.