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Italian for beginners

Updated: Dec 15, 2022

I often reflect now on my own learning experiences and the ones that have impacted me most. I think that being willing to look at our own engagement with learning is an essential part of the 'deschooling' process. It can take some courage, but unschooling requires a good dose of courage, so being truthful to ourselves is a natural place to start. Plus, our own experiences are the only firsthand knowledge we're ever going to have of this magical process, so why not dive in and explore.

So, the experience I always come back to is learning Italian when I was 18 years old. I loved languages and planned to go to university to study Spanish and French. But first, I decided to take a year out to learn Italian and experience life beyond my small Yorkshire town. In September 1987, a month after my 18th birthday, I flew to Rome to be the au pair for a six-year-old boy for nine months. I knew a couple of sentences in Italian, and the mother of the family spoke some French. No problem.

I was excited to learn a language from scratch. I had been a motivated language student, with penpals in Spain and France, and a Spanish friend with whom I did summer exchanges. But language learning at school had been uninspiring. The textbooks were desperately dull and there was a lot of repetition. It also seemed like these classes were a great excuse for half the class to mess around, so not a huge amount got done. I was sure I would live abroad some day and, unlike other subjects, languages seemed to come easily to me, so I pushed through regardless. When it came to A-levels, there were just four of us in the Spanish class and a few more in French, so the school experience became more engaging and enjoyable. Plus, we had a real live Spanish person as a teaching assistant, so I could enjoy chatting to someone whose accent didn't have a dubious Yorkshire twang.

And so, I arrived in Italy, keen to learn, and curious about how this learning would come about. It occurred to me that I would be learning Italian just like a child learns their first language, and I think that turned out be pretty accurate. And, as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. Most of my learning came from my young charge, Francesco, who had no sympathy at all for my comprehension struggles. He spoke to me as fast as he spoke to anyone else, and I just had to try to keep up. If I didn't get what he was saying he would either laugh at me or get impatient, so, for my own self worth and to keep life peaceful, I really had to learn the basics as quickly as possible.

I was also sent out to do the daily shopping from day one in my new house. This was not your average supermarket trip, which I could probably have got through with just a polite "grazie". I had to visit several local shops and ask for quite specific things in each. My signora left me a detailed list in the morning along with some Italian Lire and, after taking Francesco to school, off I went. The people in the shops soon got to know me and my list and blessed me with infinite patience and good humour. Occasionally I would have to admit defeat and hand the list over to them to decipher, but usually we all made an effort not to do that.

The streets of Rome also provided plenty of learning opportunities. A walk for any woman involved the frequent rebuffing of young men with the unlikely chat up line, "Ce l'hai una sigaretta?". I'm guessing (and really hoping) that life has moved on for young Roman women in the last 30 years, but back then this was standard fare. The answer is obviously, "No, non fumo" and to keep on walking. If anyone persisted, then there were a number of other answers that had to be delivered in a smart, confident tone. Equally, a lot of people I encountered were just engaging and curious, so I would often get into conversations with people about where I was from and what I was doing. All good learning territory.

I had a dictionary at home which I would consult when absolutely necessary, but mostly it all came through listening, observing and talking. By Christmas time, when I returned home for two weeks, I could hold a pretty good conversation.

I did have one attempt at formal learning, brought on, no doubt, by some insecurity about verb conjugation. I signed up at the Dante Alighieri Italian school which was in the centro storico of the city (near the beautifully named Vicolo del Divino Amore). I was supposed to go once a week for a class that lasted two hours or so. I managed to get through two of those classes. They were not only mindnumbingly boring, but the teacher, an older Italian man, somehow managed to drain this lyrical language of all its joy. As I sat there looking at a blackboard of well conjugated verbs, I felt like I was looking at a different language. It was dull and lifeless, and seemed so disconnected from the colourful streets of Rome and its people, and from the intense experience I was living out daily. I had a million questions and thoughts about the language floating around my head, but none were getting answered there.

Luckily for me, there were several other au pairs in that class, all similarly bored out of their skulls. It didn't take us long to spot each other and, by class number three, we were meeting in the little cafe across the square and enjoying two hours of cappuccinos and regaling each other with stories of our adventures in Rome. I learned no Italian whatsoever at the Dante Alighieri institute, but I did make some great friends, so my time was not wasted.

Meanwhile, back in my daily life, the learning was thick and fast. I took mental notes throughout on how this process was happening. As my vocabulary expanded, a new word would catch my ear. Of course, it had always been there, but I hadn't been ready to hear it until I had built up a context for it. After hearing the word a few more times in different sentences, I would figure out what it meant. Then, I would finally feel confident to use it myself. Once I'd used the word a couple of times, I would consider it 'my word', stash it away with the rest of my words, and not think about it any more.

I have several particularly vivid memories of moments when I figured out different words. The first I remember was shortly after arriving, when I only had a few words in Italian. I had seen or heard the word caldo and knew it meant hot or cold but wasn't sure which. One day, my young charge pulled his hand away from some water saying it was too "caldo". I touched the water, and found that it was hot. Mystery solved!

We spent a day with a relative and her young son who was just two. The mother had a little game she played where she would ask the child what noise an animal made. "Come fa la mucca?" went the question, and the little boy would make the noise ("moo", in this case). I sat and listened, making a mental note of which animal was which according to the noise the child made.

Some weeks later, and now with some more sophisticated Italian under my belt, I heard a phrase "Come mai...?" and was intrigued by what it could mean. I went out one evening (no doubt with my good friends from the Dante Alighieri institute), and got back home at 2am. My signora had been worried about me and greeted me in the hall with a rather cross "Come mai alle due?". Rather than feel bad or regretful, I'm ashamed to admit that my teenage self was just delighted to have figured out that strange turn of phrase (it roughly translates as 'Why on earth...?'). I remember then looking out for a chance to use it myself on someone. I don't remember now, but I'm going to guess that Francesco was the lucky person.

So, that's how I learned Italian. After nine months of full immersion, I returned to the UK. In the September, I went to university to study Italian and French. I didn't have any Italian qualifications but I joined the advanced group and didn't feel out of my depth. Some of my Italian was a bit colloquial and not spoken beyond Rome, but for the most part it was pretty good. When I compare that to the hours and hours of tedium required to master the French language (and my level of Italian was now way superior to my French), it just makes me appreciate the power of motivation and real life learning.

I like to hold this personal learning triumph close because it was so enriching and deeply satisfying to me. My autonomy was essential to it, and I don't believe that anyone could have intervened to make me learn more or learn faster. There was an intricate and 'uncontrollable' process at work in my brain. It couldn't be directed because it was adapting constantly to new circumstances, bringing just the right knowledge to each individual moment. Just like a baby learning to talk.

I often think about this and other experiences (successful and not so successful), for the insight it gives me into my children and my own life. We're often quite dismissive of our own educational experiences, and I'm sure that many people lay their own school years aside when thinking about their children (I certainly tried to for a while). But if we don't recognise and explore our own experiences, we can't really appreciate them in our children. Taking a close look at when and how you were truly motivated and engaged, whether at school, at home, at any point in life, will illustrate that your natural processes were and still are naturally alive, just as your children's are.

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