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April 18th, 2007

On learning a new language

by Barbara Wallraff

Itís not an obvious step to take for a writer whose subject is North American English, but I took it: Iíve been living in Florence, Italy, for the better part of a year, just for a lark. Iíll be coming home soon, and before I do, Iíd like to share some of what Iíve learned about language while Iíve been here.

I wish English speakers who think, Who cares how I say it, as long as Iím understood? would get on a plane and go somewhere they donít speak the language. I knew a bit of Italian when I arrived, but mainly I made myself understood by pointing at things I wanted, in stores and restaurants. Pointing gets you only so far. Itís hard to make friends if you canít comment on the weather, apologize when youíve done something stupid, or tell a joke. Once you can sort of do things like that, the challenge becomes to do them better Ė and maybe some day to do them well.

Now I speak enough Italian that the waitresses in my favorite cafe occasionally ask me to translate when one of my fellow Americans comes in and keeps repeating something in English, as if saying it more than once, and loudly, will make them understand. Still, Iím far from well-spoken. As soon as I open my mouth, I identify myself as a person apart Ė possibly a complete idiot, who will need to be told things that any normal child knows, such as that Parmesan cheese is not supposed to be served with seafood pasta or that when a shop closes at lunchtime on a Wednesday, it probably wonít open again until Thursday. OK, there are lots of things I donít know here, but I dislike having it taken for granted that Iím ignorant, because of the way I speak.

Even if I had a complete Italian vocabulary at my command, Iíd be only partway there. One reason Iím glad I chose Florence rather than some other city is that the Italian spoken here is considered elegant. Except, my Italian teacher has warned me, for a few local habits. For instance, some people pronounce ďkĒ sounds as if they were ďhĒ sounds (making the word ďcasa,Ē for instance, sound like ďhasaĒ). It may be Florentine Italian, but itís not educated Florentine Italian. If I couldnít afford a professional Italian teacher and had to pick up the language on my own, who knows what Iíd end up sounding like?

So coming to Italy has given me new sympathy for immigrants to America whose first language isnít English, and also for native-born Americans who donít grow up with standard English. Of course theyíd love to speak English beautifully. If only it were as easy as that!

Iíve been refining my English language skills my whole life, until now Iím confident about how I present myself. When I speak Italian, though, Iím uncertain. Suddenly Iím in a different relationship to everyone around me. Donít get me wrong Ė I came here voluntarily and Iím not complaining. But this adventure of mine has shown me new dimensions of how complicated language is, how hard it is to get it right, and what a big difference getting it right can make.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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