Firenze: Linguistic Journeys, or the Periphery of Fluency

I have been hitting some major milestones in Italy with respect to language. I am modestly proud of my progress, challenged as it is now in midlife in ways that it was not when I was a university student.

In the early and mid-nineties, my main occupation abroad was to attend class on host campuses, pick up vocab, monitor hot-spots to be seen in, crush on cute foreign boys, read literature in other languages, journal, travel, and puzzle over train timetables.

Now, I juggle language learning with parenting, diaper changing, working full-time, battling sleep deprivation, monitoring sick children, solo parenting while Jason is away, and constantly moving pieces around on our logistics board to make sure that everyone is where they need to be at the right time with the support they need. Language learning is now done quickly, in concentration, with no time for nonsense.

And, as many Italians have helpfully pointed out, my full-time remote work for my US employer is doing little to further acclimate me culturally and linguistically. I live in a little bubble of English that is punctuated by drive-bys in Italian at stores, caffes, and on the street. I am frequently rattled from my anglophone reverie by a sudden volley of Italian, and lurch as I struggle to quickly shift gears. When the kids come home we speak more Italian as they are being well-conditioned by the Italian education system, and to be fair, I leverage their language often in the service of improving mine as their vernacular is excellent and perfectly deployed.

I completed five months of Italian language class in the Sprachcaffe, and they were helpful hours of instruction, especially to benchmark myself against other Italian language learners who are not, well, Italian people, or my gifted husband.

I irrationally hoped that I would wake up one morning speaking fluent Italian, like those Rosetta Stone commercials we so openly mock, or that Facebook clickbait that has been going around lately. Intellectually I know this to be a hopeless wish, and yet emotionally I cling to it. (Clearly this is a marketing position for Rosetta Stone products.)

Jason and I have been students, at one point or another, of at least 25 languages between the two of us (not to brag, merely stating facts), and we are nothing if not realistic about the human capacity to learn and correctly use acquired language. There is no download, no tiny chip to slip in and launch.

Linguistic fluency is a continuum along which all language learners travel. We find ourselves on various points of the spectrum for reasons that are by turns clear, then obscure. Cultural fluency is equally important – it is not simply learning words and concepts, but know when and how to properly use them. For example, buon proseguimento, which in Italian might be best translated with the British “carry on, then,” does not really exist in English. In English we wish people good luck a lot, and tell them goodbye, but do not have a term for “I hope you enjoy the remainder of whatever you are doing now.” Frankly, I don’t know an equivalent for it in French or Spanish either.

Italians like to wish each other a “buon/a [cosa]”, which in Spanish or French to me seems limited to greetings demarcated by the time of day. In Italian you can be wished a happy anything. They love it. Buon asilo (day at daycare), pausa (break), appuntamento (appointment), pranzo (lunch), and so on. (Funny side note, perhaps it was more a function of life phase, but in Spain I remembered a similar use of puto/a + noun, for the adjectival f*cking.)

But I digress. I wanted to say here how I am going to leave Italian to the side for a moment, and appreciate it as The Water I Swim In and less the Language I Am Learning. I can get very intense about things, which comes as no surprise to anyone who even remotely knows me or both intense sides of my family.

I have met my milestones in the form of soloing a parent/teacher meeting with Victor’s new first grade teacher, Maestra Alessandra, which I navigated with relative calm and used culturally and grammatically appropriate markers of respect by addressing her consistently as Lei with the third person singular conjugation. She complemented me on my Italian! And she is a teacher by trade!

I completed a few business calls last week entirely in Italian as I contacted and preliminarily interviewed childcare help for newly arrived friends of ours, and one of them complemented me on my Italian. On the phone! In the moment!

I am less nervous now communicating in businesses and when getting things done. (Our friend Susan always claims I receive the Vivacious Cute Girl discount at Italian businesses.) I hate feeling awkward, but I don’t feel like I am going to be ticketed and deported for Substandard Communication. So I’ll chalk all those up and call it success.

My next little language project starts on Friday morning. Yes, I am headed back to French language with weekly private lessons from a Parisian in centro, an artist in a studio in San Lorenzo. Why not expand on a language I was once at ease in? Why not enjoy stored expertise? It will be a relief to inventory my French magasin with a native speaker

It’s all in there. I sense it lurking behind the scenes, like a stagehand dressed in black moving props between acts. It bubbles up quickly when I bump into lost French tourists in town. I could not have imagined in 1996 that French – French! – would come to feel like an old friend. Perhaps if I change my focus, and put Italian on the periphery of my linguistic gaze, it will come more easily, like when you get a hole in one at mini-golf because you weren’t really paying attention to what you were doing or where you were aiming.

An obvious overlap exists, so it’s not like taking up a completely new non-Romance language (although I would never say no to that either.) When my brain defaults to Spanish and French while punting in Italian, it is not to brag. Rather, like a rock climber, my brain is grasping and clinging to whatever clefts it can find in that sheer face.

It is really, really hard to visualize che instead of que. When I hear Italian che, I see Spanish que in my mind. I am not trying to; I am just so conditioned by years and years of instruction, living, and travel in French (since 1993) and Spanish (since 1983). I do not reach for a specific language; they just bleed into each other. Language, I am learning again in mid
life, is not a new app to download, but rather hues and shades to mix from the palette at hand.

Next topics: Language as Software; How To Quickly Feel at Home

The Sprachcaffè

Thanks to everyone who responded and commented with your suggestions about how I might best address my Italian language issues.

Realizing that I rent office space from a private language school in Firenze, yesterday when I arrived I asked their front desk how I might become a student. Iris and Lara were at the front. I have to say that, at this point, I know all the staff at the Sprachcaffè fairly well, and have puzzled out their names, relative job descriptions, and minor personal histories. They are all always very cordial with me.

A placement exam and rate sheet were whipped out from underneath the counter before I could even finish saying “diventare studentessa.” The placement exam was an old-school paper exam of 80 multiple choice questions. I took it back to my desk and completed it. At the top, a single line was reserved for “languages studied.” I faithfully listed English, Spanish, French, Latin … Di più…

I brought the exam back. The front staff found this turn in events, I think, somewhat interesting. I have been a bit of an anomaly now for four months and more in their salotto. Lara said my exam would be marked, and then Lorenzo, their senior faculty, would meet with me.

The Sprachcaffè is a for-profit school and are clearly accustomed to walk-ins who wish to take placement exams and who must then be quickly placed. Minutes later, Lorenzo materialized and said he would be with me shortly.

“So, here’s your exam,” he said. I had scored a 40 out of 80, which is about what I feel like most days in Italian. “Have you ever taken Italian?”
“No,” I said.
“But you speak Spanish and French? How many years did you take?”
I’ve long since lost count of how many years I spent in Spanish class, off and on, between 1983 and 2008. “Mmmm quindici anni?” I guessed. “And a masters degree.”
“Molto bene,” Lorenzo noddied, stroking his chin. “E francese?”
“Tre anni,” I said, “e un anno …in Strasburgo… en faisant une maîtrise en letters modernes à l’université là.” I lapsed into French.
He looked at me closely. “And never any Italian?”
“Mai,” I said.
“This is very interesting. I do not know if we have a class for you.”
Oh please have a class for me, I whined internally.
“Because your errors are very random. Some very easy questions you missed, and some very difficult questions you got right.”
“My errors all come from Spanish and French,” I admitted.
“No, no,” Lorenzo exclaimed, “Spanish and French are also your friends in this. Especially French, which is not simply a friend, but a cousin! a brother! twins!”

As we continued to talk, he gently pointed out the things that I said in Italian that were borrowed too earnestly from Spanish or French. Loans I did not even realize, because I am usually thinking two steps ahead and grabbing whatever is on the shelves as I barrel down the aisles in Italian. 

It’s like I have a jigsaw puzzle in a box, and some random pieces are missing – quite a few, really – and I don’t know which ones they are until I build the puzzle. Is it a border piece? A corner piece? Some huge chunk of sky? Who knows. Maybe, as has happened before with us, I have a thrift store puzzle with a picture of a lighthouse on it but it’s really a puzzle featuring a horse paddock. That can’t be right though. If that were the case, my stealth language would be Mandarin, which is most definitely not the case.

“For example,” Lorenzo said, “You say ‘dico’ a lot, which I know you are taking from the Spanish, ‘digo.’ But we don’t use it like that in Italian?”
“Why not?!” I replied. “It’s a great use of dire.”
He laughed. “I don’t know what an Italian says. We say nothing. We do not feel the need to re-explain ourselves in such a way as the Spanish might.”

He looked at me again. “Also, I heard the way you said ‘speso.’ Your accent is Neapolitan. No one else but Naples says it like this, ‘shpeso.'”
“I think it is from German,” I replied, coloring.
“No, not German.” Lorenzo laughed. “Neapolitan for sure.”

Why should I color? I didn’t even know what that shpeso sounds like to a native speaker. I am not trying to signal anything by sounding stealth Neapolitan to a Tuscan, although it would explain a bit my Ferrante obsession. Just wait til he hears me say “goodbye,” which still comes out of my mouth like a lazy Catanian, “arriverdeeerrrrrrsh…” With a shrug.

Napolitani, “Mangiamaccheroni”

I am being diagnosed with linguistic tics and regional borrowings I did not even know I had. What else lurks in the Broca’s area of my left frontal lobe?

I have no idea why I pronounce “often” that way in Italian. I am an accent and language sponge. It is like the creative spirit versus the internal editor. I just sponge, sponge, sponge, and sort it out later. Or dream about it. Or get frustrated and have bizarre high-level linguistic hearings with my patient husband.

He tapped the table with his pen. “Look,” he said. “I recommend a mix of a class setting and an individual lesson. The class will help you see how you are progressing, and the individual lesson will address your, ah, specific needs.”

I’ll try a class on Thursday around lunch, and schedule a private lesson with Lorenzo for next week, around the same time.

I checked in with Jason about the Neapolitan accent comment. “Sounds about right,” he said. “French + Spanish in Italy = Naples.”

I am looking forward to getting some of this sorted out. I know it’s in there, much of it. But I want to add what is missing, and identify what is useful. I feel like I am conning the Italian people – at moments I know I can be understood, but I cannot stand it when their normally patient brows furrow as I stammer on and continue filling my cart with the linguistic equivalent of Spanish ramen and cheap French crisps. And the occasional paquete de jamón ibérico and foie gras.

I’d like to make peace with the role of Spanish and French in this pageant, and recognize them for when they lead me down a helpful path, and not just when they throw me in a ditch. Today, and mark me, my Italian is like an episode of “American Pickers,” those two guys cruising around rural America offering $14 for a metal Coca-Cola sign. It’s not like I want to win the Strega prize, or run for public office in Italy. I’d just like to get fingerprinted in Firenze without snark
y Neapolitan police officers making fun of my Italian accent.

I should have referred them to Lorenzo …