Winter term just finished at the community college where I teach beginning Italian, and I’ve got a week now before the Spring term starts and I get a whole new crop of eager students. This last term was a tough one for me, mainly because I had a disproportionately high number of students who were really on top of their studies… Which is a good thing, don’t get me wrong – it’s just that it meant I couldn’t hang out on auto-pilot the way I have for the last few terms.
For instance, one student brought something to my attention that I had literally never seen before in the book that I’ve had in my possession for probably seven years – and had never noticed in other Italian books or classes (though of course as soon as I realized it I heard it everywhere, figures). I’ve been teaching it incorrectly for the past year. While it should be exciting for me to learn something new, furthering my own language studies and skills, it was quite discouraging to know that I’ve been confidently (blindly?) teaching something and my students have been trusting enough to accept it. It only reinforces in my head that the more one learns, the more one has to learn.
I wouldn’t come anywhere close to calling myself fluent, and I know I routinely make mistakes on simple things (just ask my Italian teacher!). It’s easy to be frustrated by learning a language, even if – maybe especially if – you’ve got several years under your belt and you feel like it should come easier by now. So in the face of these stumbling blocks, it’s important to remember something that I tell my students everyday – “Sbagliando, s’impara” – by making mistakes, one learns. It’s the Italian version of “practice makes perfect,” and I ought to take my own advice!
While there’s still a long way for me to go before I reach what I would consider any kind of mastery with the language, I also know that most people who walked into our house last night during our Italian conversation group’s meeting would have been unable to understand what was going on for three hours. And I did pretty well. So that’s something to hang my hat on, at least for awhile, until I stumble over something else.
Another thing I tell my students when they’re asking for clarification on a tiny grammatical point is that yes, it’s great to know the rules inside and out… And don’t let not knowing the rules get in the way of communicating, either. If a non-native English speaker were to come up to you and say, “Where does me get a bus?” you’d know what he meant, right? Well, that’s the point. The Italians might giggle at a silly grammar error once you’ve turned and walked away, but they’re going to know what you mean and you’re going to be able to communicate. And that’s the goal.
Now if I could only learn to swallow my own medicine.
Photo by: LanguageHub