Learning Italian


When I started this blog, I had in mind compiling some sort of guide to what it’s like to live in a foreign country. That got wiped out pretty much immediately by the effort it took to live here, and also by the sense that Italy doesn’t work that way.  But I haven’t completely given up on the idea.

After three-and-a-half years, something is emerging from the fog. But that knowledge is less like bullet points and more like a frame of mind.

Lesson one for Americans: Living in Italy is not like going to Florence for the summer. You really do have to assimilate culturally, and your language skills can’t stay at, “Un gelato cioccolato, per favore.” Drat.

Having to learn a new language is a big part of what makes living in another country stressful. Italy adds to that stress by having serious problems with organization, bureaucracy, and a long-standing tradition of nepotism, but language is even bigger. That’s because understanding what people around you are saying is a big part of absorbing the cultural expectations and figuring out how things work. You need to be able to pick up way more than you are explicitly taught. This is especially true of “hot cultures,” which are more context-based.

Another aspect of learning a new language upon immigration is that it absorbs enormous amounts of energy, especially when you start learning in middle age. It especially absorbs social energy, and you’re often not fully aware of it until you realize you’ve been holed up in your apartment for two days Facebook messaging people in English because you really, really need to stop thinking about every word you say. But the only way to get over that hump is to go out and start speaking Italian!

My own particular linguistic bête noire in Italian is using the formal and informal “you.” This is partly cultural: At my age, how many people do I have to use the formal Lei with, and when can I use the familiar tu? There are more situations in Italy where formality is appropriate than you’d think, and you don’t want to mess it up because you might look rude. Sarie tells me that her music colleagues (who are often in their 30s and 40s) will tell her, “Dammi il tu.” But this never happens to me, perhaps because I’m no longer at the age where people are just starting to use Lei with me. The confusion is especially bad with neighbors and friends of friends because I often don’t know where I stand. If possible, I hide behind the ambiguous voi (“you” plural, which doesn’t have a formal and informal) until I hear the Italian use the second person singular, then I follow their lead. But sometimes the other person does the same thing! And since the tu verb forms come more naturally, I’ve also been known to start with Lei only to revert to tu the minute I stop thinking about how I’m saying things!

As you might guess, automaticity is also important, because it cuts down on the energy expenditure and helps to reduce social awkwardness. As long as you’re aware what language you’re speaking, you can’t fully focus on the content of the conversation. To really make friends and get things done, you need to be able to plow through heaps of meaning without having to detour around linguistic roadblocks. You need to move on from being a Latka Gravas, because there are some pretty unpleasant cultural limitations that come with being an immigrant mascot. And if you are particularly verbal in your mother tongue, these limitations can leave you feeling like two different people. Not pleasant.


But there is good news. Once you finally get a handle on the basics, learning another language does start to snowball. You don’t have to be taught every little grammar point. Like a child, or like someone who simply moves to a different English speaking region, you start picking up the inflections, mannerisms, slang, strings of common phrases, and connecting phrases that you need to accelerate into automaticity. Energy is released to pursue other things. Sometimes you don’t even realize how you much progress you’re making until you look back.

Recently Sarie and I went to Dusseldorf, Germany for a few days. German has a good many words that are similar to English and which you can recognize when you see them written on signs, but I really can’t follow the flow of it at all. As we changed planes in Zurich on the way home, Italian crept back into the mix of languages I was hearing, and into the look of the people I was traveling with (Italians dress better!). As I boarded my flight to Milan and the woman in the aisle seat let me into my row, I said, “Grazie!” without really thinking about it. Then I saw that she was reading a German magazine, so I wondered if I had misjudged. It wasn’t until well into the flight that she started talking to her husband across the aisle in Italian. The sense of homecoming, of nostalgia, was palpable.

Funny thing, assimilation.


5 thoughts on “Learning Italian

  1. Oh Laura! My admiration for you is boundless! Not only in the efforts you make – to assimilate – but in your ability to describe the experience!

  2. Interesting insight ~
    makes me wonder what you think about non-english speaking immigrants in the US of A. Language is such an integral part of assimilation that I dont understand why folks who move here to work (seize opportunity) seem to refuse to learn the language

    1. Dana, I’m not sure what the reason is for some immigrants to the US not learning English, but I have a hunch that social support has a lot to do with it. If you immigrate into a strong community of others who speak your own language, and especially if you work in your own language, you may not have the extreme motivation you need to go out there day after day and deal with your own incompetence. If you need to learn the language to get the social support you need, you do.

      Also, I would imagine that you are talking about immigrants to the US in Georgia, who are mostly from Mexico and often enter illegally. These immigrants’ lack of English seriously hampers them, making them almost indentured servants to certain kinds of work (I think of landscaping and restaurants). In places like NYC, most immigrants do learn to speak English. As do most immigrants to Italy (I’m in awe of them when I hear them on the bus). They may still speak their native language on the street a lot (so do I when I’m around another English speaker), but they do know the language of the country in which they live. I spoke with a West African man (native language Hausa) on Sunday who had been making rounds all over Europe to look for work, but he was speaking to me in basic Italian. Imagine!

      And lastly, I think I’m sort of unusual in my drive to assimilate. Many professional adult English speakers still can’t get function independently in Italian after 3.5 years. I had to, because we moved here with no help and I had to figure things out quickly. Studying French in high school helped me a lot. Also, I had financial support (mostly it gave me time) to take grammar lessons for a year-and-a-half. And perhaps most importantly, I realized quickly that most Americans only stay here for a couple of years (unless they are married to Italians). If I’m going to have longterm friends, I HAVE to learn Italian. Isolation is a bummer. And I really want to understand my future grandchildren!

      Does that help? I do know one thing: I have a lot more sympathy for all immigrants than I did before I moved here! Like everyone else, they have a variety of motives, good and bad, for what they do, but some of them come here (or to the US) under conditions that make me want to cry! And I know that my own circumstances have often been difficult and isolating. So if printing government documents in several languages helps such people to get a leg up and fill out their paperwork, that’s fine with me! If they stay long enough, they’ll be motivated to learn.

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