The Early Years
When it comes to learning a second language, the Federal Government lists five levels of language proficiency: Elementary, Limited Working Ability, Professional Working Ability, Full Professional Proficiency, and Native or Bilingual Ability.
When confronted with this information I assured myself that I’d be at Full Professional Proficiency within a year or two, and speaking like a native shortly after that.
After all, when I was in my twenties I had learned to speak an African dialect, Chinyanja.
How hard could it be to learn the language of Dante and Puccini? And with the new research coming out proclaiming that learning a second language would keep my mind and spirit young, given the fact that I was now clearly “middle-aged,” I was eager to get started. And, who doesn’t want to stay young?
Things started well enough. I quickly learned to introduce myself (Sono Roberto), ask simple directions (Dov’è la toilette?), make reservations (Vorrei una prenotazione) and order food (Vorrei la pizza…pasta…risotto), not realizing how important these acts would be to the learning process.
I didn’t speak Italian as well as Donald, who had spent his graduate year living in Rome and, as a result spoke the language quite well. But, that didn’t matter. It wasn’t a competition. Or was it?
I started my ‘studies’ in Lucca, famed for its’ centuries old walls and the tower with the trees growing on top (Torre Guinigi). The walled-city was one full of history, great shops, lip-smacking food, and friendly residents.
When I began this quest to speak Italian I had only known a handful of words. These included pizza, pasta, spaghetti, lasagna, macaroni, vino, and grazie. Can you guess the theme? I used these seven words over and over again, to order food and drink, as well as to the thank Lucchesi for the massive amounts of food and drink I consumed. Soon, I was speaking in full sentences, communicating with the local Lucchesi.
Granted my full sentences were short, as typified my the sentence, Ho fame, which meant I am hungry. Still, I was making great progress and I was convinced, had I been tested, I would have easily reached the second, possibly the third level of the Fed’s five level test for language proficiency.
But before long little errors crept in: at Renza’s fruit and vegetable stand, I constantly asked the kindly owner for fish (pesce) when I wanted a peach (pesca). On more than one occasion I ordered beans with whipped cream, confusing the word fagioli (beans) with fragole (strawberries).
I was somewhat comforted by my friend Anette, who wanting to tell a group of Italians that the new pope was very vital (il papa è molto vitale), managed to blurt out, il papa è molto virile. Yes, according to Anette, even the new pope, like so many Italians, has a very a strong sex drive.
The more I spoke, the more errors I made. Why didn’t I see the gaffes coming? Clearly, when it comes to learning a new language, no one wants to make a complete fool of himself or herself and knowing only a handful of Italian words makes one not only feel small, but ripe for making a ton of gaffes and blunders.
One day we went to a little osteriain the stunning hill town of Barga about an hour outside Lucca. I was excited to be in Barga. In addition to being recognized as “The Scotland of Italy – I have no idea why – Barga was known for it’s spectacular vistas and good food.
We made reservations at a little trattoria, high on the hillside. It was charming, old school Italian, with red and white-checkered table clothes and candlelit wine bottles dripping with wax atop the tables. Determined to speak Italian to the approaching waiter I said, “Buongiorno;”then added, “è un bel giorno.”
“Sì, è un bel giorno,” he replied.
Thrilled at my accomplishment, I then ordered a plate of cane, which unfortunately meant dog, rather than the delicious looking meat (carne) that I had seen the man at the next table enjoying.
Donald rolled his eyes in disbelief. I was so besides myself when I realized my mistake I turned torwards him and uttered something that sounded like, goo, goo, gai, pan.
Yes, after a full year, I now spoke Italian like a baby.
I need to get serious, I told Donald. So I hired a tutor. My first lessons focused on food and drink – che sopresso! I decided that when we returned to Italy ordering a meal in Italian would be my first goal.
On my first day back in the beautiful walled city of Lucca I asked for a piccolo gelato or small ice cream. It wasn’t a complete meal, but I had successfully ordered food. On day two I ordered a medio gelato. On each succeeding day I added a new word: grande, followed by extra grande, then enorme, and finally gigante, which I have since learned is not even a word. But it did get me a gigantic gelato.
I endlessly repeated the FULL sentence, Ho fame (I am hungry) – yes, I was, and still am, endlessly hungry.
On our last night in Lucca, we went to Ristorante Da Francescowhere I ordered vino rosso, acqua con gas, prosciutto con melone, lasagna, and sorbetto di limone, a complete meal, if not a complete sentence.
After three weeks in Lucca, not only had I met my goal, I had substantially increased both my vocabulary and my waistline. I gained seven pounds.
That night, I went to bed no longer so sure of myself. How could I have thought that I would have ascended the heights of the Fed’s Language Proficiency Scale? Now, after two years trying to learn the damned language, I was horrified to admit that I still sat at Level One, commonly referred to as ‘Crawl Level.’ In other words, I still spoke Italian like a baby.
Next week I will continue this quest – The Middle Years.
Goo, goo, gai, pan,