When I first started learning Italian in the spring of 2001, it was in anticipation of my first trip to Italy. Naturally, then, I focused on “survival Italian” – how to order in a restaurant, how to ask for directions, how to be generally polite to people. When I got back from that trip, after having fallen deeply in love with the country and the culture, I kept up with my studies.
Now, six years later, I’m certainly much further along in the language department than I was back then when I struggled to remember how to count to 20. But I’m also not nearly where I want to be – or where I think I should be after six years. Granted, I’m trying to learn Italian while not actually living in Italy or surrounded by the language, but still. It doesn’t help that I’m a lazy student! To counter some of that laziness, the husband and I have recently started employing a couple of tutors to get us speaking Italian more than once a week with our regular conversation group. It’s been a good exercise, especially leading up to our trip to Milan, but I find myself thinking the same thing over and over again:
I simply cannot imagine a time when I will not struggle with this language.
Of course, I know I’m not the first or only person to have difficulties learning a foreign tongue, and that many people have stumbled over their indirect object pronouns and definite articles before me. Almost every expat blogger whose blogs I read has at least one story about embarrassing language mistakes they’ve made, and I chuckle while at the same time knowing that’ll be me, too, at some point.
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The good news is that, as far as speaking Italian with Italians goes, I’ve gotten over my overwhelming fear of looking stupid. I’m going to look and sound stupid, I’m aware of this, and I’ve learned to deal with it. This was a big one, because if I was ever going to open my mouth in Italy, I was going to have to overcome that fear. So, there’s one point in my favor. I still get a little tongue-tied and feel intimidated around native speakers sometimes, but at least I keep talking.
What I’ve realized more recently, however, has become the root of not fear, but sadness – I’ve realized that I may never be “witty” in Italian. I like to consider myself reasonably clever, but my clevernes is directly tied to my ability to speak or write fluently in English. Sure, I’ve managed a witticism here or there in Italian, but those moments are few and far between, and they’re always with other non-native speakers (who are speaking slowly enough for my clever thoughts to have time to form and be uttered before the conversation has moved on!).
Will there come a time when I feel confident speaking Italian to anyone? Probably. But will I ever be clever in Italian? I’m not sure what the answer to that question is, and that’s what is making me a little sad these days. Only time will tell.