This week I went to a radio station to be interviewed in the language I’ve been learning for what must be about five years now.
It didn’t go very well. Yes, I was able to answer the questions. I had a solid grasp of what we were talking about the entire time. But there was a significant lack of fluency, and that haranguing feeling that always accompanies not-yet-fluent conversations, when one’s understanding surpasses one’s ability to articulate. I know what you are asking me. And I promise you that I am an interesting person, with hundreds of insightful responses to your questions. But alas, watch me take your interesting questions and obnoxiously present them back to you with an insipid sì or no.
Perhaps I ought to name this blog “The Insecure Language Learner”, because so much of the process of language acquisition so far has been plagued by a plethora of self doubt. For a language enthusiast such as myself, the beginner’s stage (or honeymoon, I suppose) is always the most attractive. It has been my inexplicable gift that so far in life I’ve always been able to pick up language things rather quickly in the initial phase.* Italian is a particularly easy language to have a honeymoon with, especially as an Anglophone who can simply use the same alphabet and even adopt simpler, and let’s face it, more logical spellings. Four years later, I can stumble through a very basic radio interview, but still make the same mistakes as I did in that first year. It’s pretty frustrating, not to mention when non-language learners (the heathen!) accuse you, “Surely, you must be fluent by now?” No. No, I am not.
Meanwhile, I can have in depth exchanges in written form at my computer, with the allies of instantaneous translators for those escaped or missing words. The pitfalls of Google Translate! It has aided me greatly in the short term and addled me, I am sure, disastrously in the long term. For instance, never being quite sure what words like sviluppo mean, for each time I’ve come across it I’ve marveled at the beauty of the s-v combination (what a wonderful way to begin a word!), acquired the definition, and moved on, not properly internalising the meaning. Perhaps blogging about it here will cement it finally: sviluppo means development, progression, advancement (goodness, how ironic. I promise you that wasn’t on purpose. I even used Word Reference, not Google!).
I’ve heard it said around (don’t expect much academic sourcing from me, by the way, I save that for my essays), that my generation’s intense exposure to search engines and the like has impacted what we retain; instead of the information itself, we remember how we attained that information. I don’t think this translates well (haha! First and last time, I swear) for our endeavours in foreign languages, and I do wonder about the generations after us. That said, the internet is a double sided coin which also dispenses valuable language learning resources from which I have benefitted greatly. To be specific, I’ve found the key to my own sviluppo (who knows if I’m using this correctly), has been exposure to music and cinema, much of which I would never have come across without the help of Google Dearest or YouTube.
I suppose it’s all about exposure in the end, which is why the dedication required for study outside the country of a language can sometimes appear so futile. “This conjugation makes no sense! I shall pick it up when I get there,” is a sentiment I often come across in my own brand of lingual procrastination. Not to mention the horror of meeting a native speaker (I say horror, but there is often joy and excitement, too) and immediately clutching for excuses such as “my Italian’s awful now, I wouldn’t want to butcher this person’s native tongue, I may offend them,” and so on. And so, onwardly, onwardly on. Upon closer scrutiny, all these excuses are deeply flawed.
Perhaps the essence of language learning cannot be boiled down to one thing, especially since it occurs for many different reasons (but often, I imagine, by necessity). But I might suggest something about the nature of elected language learning, for those of us who choose it (especially from monolingual backgrounds), there is a mandatory infantilisation involved as we are obliged to start from the very beginning; from the utterly undignified and often humiliating start. This kind of reflection gives me wonder at the sheer ordeal of coming into the world, as a child, and having nothing to go on in terms of verbal expression. And however often adults, the seasoned speakers, are tempted to belittle these learners, really, the fact of their trying so very hard is quite admirable. I become much more sympathetic to children at this point, and then quite humbled. Considering their effort, I really ought to press on.
*Note: before my study of Italian began, I had very studied Japanese very informally for two years, followed by a two month stint in Japan when I was fifteen. The result being a good vocabulary, terrible grammar, and many, many colloquialisms which invariably restrain me from ever attempting Japanese conversation with perfect strangers. I would come off as ridiculously rude.
**Futher clarification: this was not a major interview, and was set up between my department at university and the Italian radio station so that students could talk about their experience of learning Italian, and what drew them to it. Something which should inspire monologues from a language major such as myself, but alas, not yet. Thankfully, I shall benefit from flattering edits, the photoshop of radio.