Annually, fifty million predominantly English-speaking foreigners pour into Italy. Yet, despite more than a million links to websites proclaiming to teach the language, few have learned to speak even the most basic Italian. I lay no claim to teaching anyone to become fluent in Italian, but after more than two decades butchering the beautiful language I’ve discovered the key to learning Italian, or any second language, offering you the inspiration to try something that at times seems impossible and enriching your next Italian travel adventure. Each week we will take a look at what will inspire you to carryon as you struggle to speak a second language.
Numerous studies show the greatest fear of most people is the fear of public speaking, surpassing the number two fear, death. Jerry Seinfeld, in commenting on people’s two greatest fears, remarked, “That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” It’s scary enough trying to learn a new language. Now, imagine yourself saying a eulogy in Italian. Yikes!
If you read last week’s blog, Roberto’s Italian Blog, Numero Uno (Number 1), you just might think Seinfeld was right;. After all, you’ll recall that, on countless occasions, I introduced myself to the Italians as Pope Bob and asked one of Lucca’s preeminent butchers, “Posso usare la tua penne?” or “May I use your penis?” That, of course, was something not for sale in the meat department.
Now, you certainly wouldn’t expect things would to go downhill from there, but you’d be wrong.
To this day, I continue to make gaffes and blunders and, sadly, most of them have to do with body parts – Why couldn’t they be about little puppies or pussycats? I must constantly tell myself that making gaffes and blunders is part of the learning process and remember that Italians are very forgiving when it comes to our meager efforts to speak their language.
Without a doubt, you too will make your fair share of such bloopers. There is nothing to do but enjoy them. Laugh, along with the Italians, when you do put your foot in your mouth and remember the upside: you’ll have good stories to tell for years to come. You may even learn to speak Italian!
Many of us, as kids, were raised to be “perfect” little beings, told by our parents to be quiet, and warned not to make fools our ourselves. As we grew older we developed a desire to fit in, to connect with others, but the fear of being ridiculed often overwhelmed us and we choose to play it safe, leaving us feeling paralyzed and unable to take risks. Such fear tended to destroy our spontaneity, our joy and adventure, and did little to develop new friendships. Speaking a second language, especially if it doesn’t come naturally, is taking a big risk. Paraphrasing Seinfeld it’s sometimes easier to stay buried in the background than to speak out.
Yet, if there is ever a “safe” place to speak a foreign language, it’s Italy. As I have mentioned, Italians, especially those in small towns and villages, warmly embrace those travelers who attempt to speak the blessed language. And, I can guarantee you that when you speak even the smallest bit of Italian you will experience a sense of joy and accomplishment that you simply wouldn’t expect. There is something special about the Italians and unless you’re willing to take the risk and speak out, and yes, quite possibly make a fool of yourself, you will miss that.
Taking that risk has enriched my life. In my pursuit to speak Italian I discovered something unexpected and far more important than simply acquiring a new language: I now look at my notions of family, love, friendship and daily life differently; I live everyday like an Italian; I walk everywhere in my city; and, I’m surrounded by great sources of good, local food and astonishing restaurants, not to mention some warm-loving people. I have learned patience and to ask for help when I need it, which has been often as I battled to learn la lingua. I have embraced a new perspective of what is normal, what constitutes a good life. And perhaps most importantly, I now know that I am capable of learning most anything, doing most anything.
Remember, as you learn to speak Italian, you will be in great company; a company of happy, joyous fools, as anyone who has ever tried to speak a second language can testify. Just ask my friend Mary who wanted to mail a ring (anello) to the U.K., but asked the Lucchesi postmaster how much it would cost to send a lamb (agnello) or Stanley who accidently ordered, at one of Florence’s fanciest restaurants, a plate of sanitary napkins.
I am an award winner when it comes to blundering my way through the Italian language. You know me as Pope Bob; you don’t know me as the man who once announced to a group of Italian friends that his friend, Giulio, proudly showed him his amazing collection of diarrhea or as the guy who has inadvertently told hundreds, maybe thousands, of Italians that he was sexually excited to meet them. Yes, you will be in great company. So, there is nothing to do but embrace your fear. Now, let’s get you ready to parli italiano and enjoy a rich Italian travel adventure.
Over the next several weeks we’ll look at those things that support you learning enough Italian so that you too can butcher the beautiful language, things that you won’t find in your typical Italian class or on audiotapes. For example, next week’s blog will show how taking an Italian name will boost your confidence to speak la lingua.
(My Name is Roberto)
Until next week, ciao amici.