Saturday, January 9, 2010
The Year I Really Learn Another Language
I grew up knowing people who were multi-lingual. My father could speak English, read Latin, and could speak a bit of French and learned Serbo-Croation before he learned his native English. His mother spoke English, Serbo-Croation, French and Italian. After she retired, she went to breakfast every morning at a nearby diner where the staff was teaching her Greek.
I always wanted to speak another language. I had a great ear for it. Yet I was bored senseless in school; French was a drag, Spanish was stupid. The languages were great, but we were never really taught to converse. We learned isolated sentences, we learned to write. I wanted to speak.
But I must accept some of the blame as well. As soon as it got difficult, as soon as we got into the weird tenses and strange conjugations, I tuned out. So I never got anywhere.
It was different when I knew I was going to Italy. It was my son's eighteenth birthday. It was our big blowout, probably the last trip he'd take with his mother. We spent a week in Italy with one night in Paris. I didn't bother brushing up on my French; I figured I knew enough to get by and so did he.
But I borrowed Italian CDs from the library and I listened to them faithfully every day. I practiced. I learned the basics necessary for travel. And to my great surprise, it worked.
We arrived in Rome and were instantly plunged under a torrent of Italian. I heard no English at all. My son had even less Italian than I did, so it fell to me to make sense of the babble around us, to arrange the car rental, to read the signs on the highways. And I blessed those library tapes for a solid week.
I asked directions and understood what I was told. I went into a village grocery and managed to say, "I'm sorry, my Italian is terrible but I want to buy some eggs." Well, actually, I didn't know the word for "egg". But I mimed the size and shape and the lovely people in the grocery said, "Ah! Uovo!" "Si! Grazie! Uovo!"
I strolled down that beautiful little village's street with a sense of having conquered the world. I'd overcome my own self-consciousness, I'd attained a working knowledge of a language I'd known absolutely nothing about.
From there, it wasn't a big step to the purchase of train tickets to Rome ("biglietti di andata e ritorno") and shopping at the local supermarket. There were plenty of mistakes (including the midnight conversation on the security speaker at the Villa Borghese, when my Italian suddenly deserted me as I tried to explain that our car was locked in after hours) but overall, I did it!
So this year, I want to finally learn a language so well that I can even dream in it.
My first love is Italian. My second choice would be the language of my father's family; Serbo-Croation. But I am determined to learn this time and I know that the only way for me to learn is to have people I can speak with. I do not learn languages from books. I don't know anyone who speaks Italian. My few remaining relatives who speak Serbo-Croation acknowledge it's become a family dialect after all these years. They call it Nashki - ours - and they admit if they tried to teach me, there's a good chance I wouldn't be learning the language now spoken in the former Yugoslavia.
But I do know a lot of people who speak German. And that makes my choice simple: I'm going to learn to speak German.
My girlfriend, who learned it during a year she spent in Germany with her two young children, is very enthusiastic. She's even thinking of putting together a dinner with all her German speaking friends where I can just sit and soak it in.
KB's mother is a native German speaker. She's willing to help me when I get confused.
My brain's not firing on all cylinders right now, but that's no excuse not to begin.
I'll keep you posted.
(Just for fun, I may still try to pick up a little Nashki, too. What the heck. I still remember how to say "kiss me" thanks to my grandmother. Poljubi mej (spelling may be wrong but I'm certain of the pronunciation). And "this is a pencil." Ovo je lapis. I could do better, don't you think?)