Excluding some very informal lessons over aperitivo – she gave up on trying to correct my pronunciation, and our “lessons” became discussions about our love lives – I’ve never really had Italian lessons. Partly because I’ve never had enough money to spare, and partly because I’ve always felt like I should be able to learn the language well enough just by being in the country.
If, like me, you choose not to have lessons, you need to find another way to learn the language. There’s a common belief that expats magically become fluent in a language simply by living in a new country, but my own experience, and the experiences of other expats I know, have shown me that it just isn’t true. In a city like Rome, you can work in an English-speaking environment, live with English-speaking people, and socialise only with other expats, while getting by with a few basic words – “ciao”, “grazie” and so on.
I was determined to reach a decent level of Italian – to integrate, to have Italian friends, and not end up as one of those embarrassing expats who’s lived in the country for years without being able to string a sentence together. I taught myself a bit of grammar from books and listened to a lot of Italian music (Renato Zero is surprisingly educational), but I mainly improved through conversation exchanges.
Shortly after moving to Rome I joined Conversation Exchange, a website that enables language learners to become pen pals or meet up to practise their speaking. I liked the idea of meeting up with locals, especially if they were around my age and we shared interests. The worst case scenario is that you don’t click, but even if you only meet once, at least you’ve both had an opportunity to help each other with your English/Italian. Every conversation in a foreign language, no matter how awkward, helps you to improve
In the past two and a half years, I must have met up with at least ten people from the website, usually starting with a coffee or an aperitivo. Some I met once and never again, some I met regularly for a few months, and others have become friends. There were a couple of odd ones. Luca (the first of three) who messaged me obsessively and was deeply offended when I tried to tactfully break it to him that I wasn’t interested in meeting again. Vincenzo the Stronzo who had just bought an apartment and didn’t have the money for a drink (“so let’s go back to my place”) and who didn’t have any furniture in his living room (“so let’s go in my bedroom”).
But apart from those two, I’ve generally had very positive experiences. It’s a good way to practise your speaking in a relaxed environment – ideally over a glass of wine – and you’re less embarrassed about your mistakes. You can stumble over verb endings without feeling too foolish, because you know that when you switch language in ten minutes’ time, your conversation partner will make a mistake too. There’s no judgement, and you’re both willing to be patient with each other.
I think it’s the hours and hours of conversation exchanges that have made me reasonably fluent in Italian. There are so many things that have helped me to learn – cheesy pop songs, struggling through La Repubblica articles, listening to my ten year old students chatting in the classroom – but it’s the conversation exchanges that taught me how to speak.
The other day I met my conversation exchange partner/friend Giulia for aperitivo, and we were discussing the fact that I only speak to my boyfriend in Italian. “Don’t you find it strange?” she asked. “Because you’re not the same person in Italian. You’re different when you speak English.”
She wasn’t just talking about the language, but about my personality. My conversation exchange partners are the only people who notice this difference, as with everyone else I speak entirely in English or entirely in Italian. People like Giulia get to see both sides of me. But until she commented on it, I hadn’t been aware that I was different in Italian. I know I’m less eloquent in Italian – obviously I’m less eloquent – but apart from that?
Her comment led me to reflect on my Italian self. I can still vividly remember the excruciating conversations in the early days of learning Italian. Even if I could basically communicate, I knew how boring I must be. There was so much nodding and smiling, nodding and smiling, racking my brain to think of something that didn’t sound as though I’d learned it from a phrasebook. My sense of achievement at being able to remember a verb was completely overshadowed by the awareness that I must be boring everyone to death.
Now, at last, I have some kind of personality. I must have, otherwise I doubt Valeriano would be able to put up with me for long. But I’m not exactly the same person in Italian as I am in English. Unlike people who are raised bilingual, who grow up switching effortlessly between languages, those who learn a language from scratch as adults are forced to create a personality for themselves.
It’s difficult for me to list all the ways I change when I speak Italian, as it’s something very subtle and subjective, but I’m aware of a few things. I suppose the most obvious is that I become less English and understated, and a bit more “dramatic”, for want of a better word. Everything becomes slightly exaggerated. Hopefully not to the point of caricature…I haven’t yet adopted the hand gestures, and there’s no risk of me accidentally sounding like I’m doing a Super Mario impression. But I’ll throw in the occasional “Mamma mia!”, exaggerate my reactions, use a “cazzo” when it’s appropriate. Translating everything I would say in English into Italian – especially all the pleases, thank yous, and unnecessary sorrys – just doesn’t work. When you communicate in another language you have to get rid of a lot of the verbal habits from your native language, or you sound ridiculous. To compensate for the missing words, you inevitably end up substituting with more appropriate words and phrases in the second language.
I’m certainly more direct in Italian. I have to be. When I’m speaking in English, it only takes a split-second to think of a more polite/indirect/evasive way of phrasing something. Speaking Italian probably forces me to be more honest, as I don’t have the linguistic dexterity to be dishonest. If someone asks me for my opinion in Italian, I’m more likely to just be blunt and say what I really think. In a way, it’s quite liberating. There have been conversations with Valeriano that were actually easier because they were in Italian. With an English boyfriend I’d have been anxious about saying the right thing, overanalysing every word. But with an Italian boyfriend I just have to go ahead and say it.
Sometimes I worry about my Italian self being a little unsophisticated, and it’s partly for that reason that I recently bought myself a proper Italian grammar book (Si! L’italiano in mano by Claudio Manella). Although I know that most people couldn’t care less if I screw up the congiuntivo, I’d like to improve my grammar, and of course my vocabulary is a never-ending work in progress.
As for my pronunciation…Italians will always smirk at my Englishness, and Valeriano mi prende in giro, but I honestly don’t care. I can speak in Italian for hours. I have a personality, of sorts. I’m no longer the tongue-tied girl nodding and smiling, because I finally have something to say.