This year I learned to jump.
It was my plan to do a language immersion — for as long as I was able to.
(It was also my plan to write about the process earlier than this.)
It was my first day of class that I could barely understand the teacher. I was embarrassed, ashamed, thought that I could and should do better. I went up to him afterwards:
“Mi dispiace. Sembra che abbia dimenticato quasi tutto.”. (I am sorry — it seems that I have forgotten almost everything)
He put his face right up next to mine. Now I was really ashamed.
“Are you mad?”, he asked me, in English…with a British accent. I didn’t know how to respond.
“Forse”, maybe…I said.
Ma, non lo so. I don’t know.
“Actually”, he said also in English, “I was very impressed”. From my point of view I don’t know how this was possible.
I seemed to have lost my ear and I was so much older than all the other students…and I was just plain embarrassed. Plus…we had been in town two days, I was really jet-lagged, overwhelmed, disoriented. Frankly, I was a mess.
But you know, I went to school every weekday, after that, with very little exception. For between three and five hours every day, depending on the week. I studied really hard in my hours off. I reviewed the material, gave myself grammar drills, reviewed, reviewed.
I switched the language on my phone to Italian. I cried, doubted myself.
On Day 5, Rb, my teacher, a brilliant, engaging man, suggested that we learn to swear. And here is that story.
At the bakery when I announced to the women there that I had learned “parolacce” — swear words, they cheered, came out from behind the counter and embraced me, cheering.
My next teacher, L, gave me a playlist of songs he liked which I added to my playlist. I listened to them during the seventeen-minute walk to school every day — and back. In the beginning I craved new suggestions for artists…and it was weeks before I was able to discern which were my favorites.
There was a trivia show that I liked to put on in the late afternoons/early evenings while I was making dinner…L’Eredita’. I loved this show. It helped me and challenged me.
My idea was — in some ways — that if I just crammed the language into my head — that perhaps I could trust my brain to untangle everything and just — deal with it all.
I joked about wishing that a computer chip could just be installed into my brain so I would just “have” the language. But, of course…that was not possible. So I doubted myself some more. Cried some more.
For weeks and weeks I attended class and studied. I began, around the one-month mark, to have pretty severe headaches. They would begin after class when I was just physically and emotionally spent, just trying to keep up. Or, I would wake up with migraines after dreaming in Italian. I began searching the internet for “language-learning headaches” — hoping to find some companionship of experience.
But there was hardly any, that I could find. I found one article which suggested that the headaches were perhaps from the increased blood flow — that I was eeking out new pathways for blood circulation in my brain.
At the six-week mark, my teacher S told me that I would never speak Italian because my husband was American. She may have had a point but I was not going to concede to her…and I didn’t want R to think he was holding me back, although he joked about it. She suggested that I go to Esselunga, a large grocery store, and try to find an Italian husband to have — as well.
I used this challenge of hers as an opportunity to work even harder. Boy, I was going to show her. But I always felt nervous around her. Even now, when I try to speak to her directly, I stumble over my words.
We had a rotation of teachers…each one for about a month. A strange experience in some ways because the learning is so intense and they get to know you so very well…but they remain at a distance.
But then, there was my cohort.
My classmates were a motley bunch, mostly 22 years old, one or two older, from China and France, mostly. Other folks, closer to my age would cycle in for a week at a time, from Switzerland, England, Germany, Brazil. Sometimes two weeks. Then we had additions from Norway, Russia, India. When international politics began to heat up, sometimes this caused awkward discussions (and personal apologies) among our group. (I was doing a lot of apologizing.)
I thought I was the only one with headaches, who became so tired from language learning. I felt isolated, not part of our language cohort nor of society really. I had some of the keys to language but still, felt as though I was so far behind.
It was after three months that W, another expat friend, wrote to me “you underestimate yourself, your hard work admirable”.
This surprised me. And helped me.
It was probably that same week that Rb was my teacher again. “Just jump off the cliff”, he told me. “I can see you translating in your head before you open your mouth. Stop translating. Just jump. Just open your mouth and don’t worry about what comes out. Just jump.”
And so I jumped. And the words…they just fell out of my mouth.
I was really surprised because when I spoke more from my heart — sort of instinctually — all the months of filling my brain with vocabulary and rules…well, they did somehow manage to sort themselves out. He was absolutely right. This was, for me, a turning point. At some point, my brain had gotten in the way of me actually speaking with facility.
Of course it was great that I had used analytical/mathematical skills to process the grammar — but in the end, it was my right brain — my lovely left-handedness right brain — which had given me platform from which to jump. And boy did I ever.
I found an article about middle-aged language learners. That generally, although we are a little sloppier with grammar in spoken language, we speak with a wider vocabulary in our extra languages — according to our style of speaking in our native language. I found this really interesting. And true.
Going to the hospital in an ambulance, as well, was a test of my fluency. (If you missed this adventure, you can read about it HERE: L’ambulanza Italiana
It was months later that I had coffee with A, who was Russian…and 22. “Leslie,” she said to me, “there is something that you just don’t understand because you are a native English speaker. All of us, every single one of us, have become exhausted by learning language. We have had to learn English, which made us so tired when we were young. And yes”, she said, “I have also suffered from language learning headaches.” I then asked my husband’s colleagues…when you guys are with us, and you are speaking English, does it make you exhausted?
Well, I was told, it does. One man told me that when he teaches in English it is so very tiring for him. When he teaches in English, he said, he is not funny.
When he teaches in Italian, he is very funny. (Intentionally)
It was at that point that I decided that I wanted to know enough to be able to joke with people…to make native speakers laugh in their own language. If I could begin to master the subtlety of ‘joking’ — then that would really be something.
I began to play with the language. I was less serious in my approach to it because I wanted to Just. Plain. Enjoy. Italian.
When a restaurant server would ask if I was ready, I would answer “Sono nata pronta”. “I was born ready”.
This always elicited a laugh — because they did not expect this from a “straniera” like me.
My excellent friend S loaned me a book in a subject I crave — and I finished it on the train in three hours. Surprising myself, even. Seems that when I love a subject matter, it is not work for me at all.
The last three months…I have no idea where they have gone. In class with F, we generally have read the paper every day. We have discussed trends, the news. With Sm we learned to play Scarabeo — Scrabble. My favorite Norwegian ragazzo was my partner. In English this is my favorite game. But in Italian it is just plain paradiso. In fact, last night I played it with my favorite eleven-year old Italian native speaker. And I held my own. (and so did she)
When the words fell out I learned that I could trust my own mind.
And I am very, very grateful for this. Both for the opportunity…and for the life lessons learned from the challenge.