Tag Archives: parlare

Fear of Speaking

14 Nov

Pasquino, the most famous “talking statue” in Rome. Used since the 16th century to post messages and claims.


Lately I find myself thinking about language a lot. In Rome one hears a polyglot of tongues, from French and German to Swedish, Senegalese and Chinese. I have been asked for help by a Chinese tour guide, whose English was perfect, but who knew only the fewest words in Italian. In the market I heard an immigrant vendor speak almost simultaneously in Italian, English, German and Pakistani. On a bus headed to via Appia Antica, a French woman sought help in Italian, but the bus was full of Germans and English-speakers, no Italians. I was surprised to find my Italian was the common denominator as she spoke no English and we managed quite well in our shared foreign tongue. Yet English is the usual common denominator, the language in which an Italian and a German, for example, will engage to find clarity.

Old joke:

What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual.

What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual.

What do you call a person who speaks one language? American.

I want to be fluent in Italian, but my progress is so erratic. One day I am sailing through the Roman landscape, doing my errands, giving directions  in Italian to people in the street (people are always asking me for directions), answering the office phone without totally losing my cool at the sound of an Italian voice, and navigating the whole hospital experience. I learn something new in Italian every single day and think how marvelous it is that after less than 6 months in Rome, I am not only surviving but thriving. Then the next day, I am totally flummoxed when the fishmonger asks me how I am going to prepare the fish. Dashed by the reality of my limitations, I struggle to stand up and walk talk again.

I pride myself on my English skills:  I am often asked to edit others’ work, I am consulted on English usage, and I am even funny in English, I am told.  When I worked with a group of linguists in the U.S., we challenged each other with word games, had in-depth discussions about usage, and compared grammatical structures of languages from Arabic to French to Japanese. How I admire multi-lingual people! Yet I am here, in a love affair with this bel paese, where they speak one of the most beautiful-sounding languages on the planet, and I feel like a 3-year-old in my language skills. I may get the gender right, but screw up the conjugation. I can only use four of the 21 tenses and I misuse prepositions all the time. How many times have I hit a point in a conversation where I have no idea what the right word is because my vocabulary is so small? (Non so la parola in italiano, ma….)

I tune in-and-out of conversations around me. Some days it is just too difficult and I revert to tourist-speak or totally block-out the people speaking mellifluous Italian around me.  I was in my doctor’s office again the other day for post-surgery bandage removal. He and another doctor were chatting away while they cut off the mummy-wraps. I know they wondered if I was following along, and in fact may have been gauging my comprehension, but I was on a different plane.  I was a bit stressed and had much on my mind that day (not to mention the fact that they were wielding scissors across my tender thighs). I tuned out when it would have been a marvelous opportunity to practice. Will the day come that I comprehend everything being said around me?

When we learn a language, we accomplish so much. It honors the people and the culture. Learning the language allows us to stand on our own and helps us navigate challenging situations without having to pray that someone else will come along with the language skills to help. I’ve written about how great the hospital staff was, and because we each knew some of the others’ language, with un misto di lingue I made it through.  But what if Ric and I land in a situation where there is no misto? What if I have to make a go of it in Italian for health, safety, or legal reasons? I must become fluent. I have no right to assume someone will speak English here for my convenience.

When we learn the local lingo, we can participate in a conversation, not simply ask and answer survival questions. On a personal level, I want to be able to engage people in Italian. I envy these very social people who can chit-chat about anything, everything, and nothing. Mastery will allow me to better serve my employer and represent my country. I want to be able to make people laugh in Italian on purpose, not because I am so terrible at it.

I should give myself some credit for progress. In the three months I have been taking private lessons here, I have progressed thanks to the tutelage of my fantastic instructor.  (Who will think I am sucking up when she reads this.) She makes me speak and causes me to think on the spot and try to muddle through in Italian.  In fact, I think in just 6 months of living here, I have made more progress than I did in the prior 2 ½ years of community college classes, because outside of the classroom in Portland, I was surrounded only by English. Here the situational immersion is obviously of benefit, but those classes in the U.S. gave me a valuable foundation to build on. (Grazie Lina & Kathy!)

However, when someone speaks English better than I speak Italian, I will always go to that safe place, unless I get over my fear.  I fear being wrong, miscommunicating, looking stupid. So what I am going to do about it? Reading and writing are an important part of becoming more sophisticated in the language. I do quite well at comprehension in simple readings and on the Internet. And although it takes a lot of effort, I am starting to be able to write more clearly in Italian. The process of forming sentences in writing, using my own thoughts, is powerful. I am tired of learning phrases like “Dobbiamo prenotare le camere in albergo per nostra vacanze.” (Pimsleur, I love you, but come on!)

Here is my plan, my commitment:

  • I am going to write at least part of this blog in Italian as well as English
  • I am going to put myself out there and attempt to engage more people in spontaneous conversation in Italian
  • I am going to work comprehensively on one new vocabulary word a day. This means not a simple definition, but to more fully understand words with multiple meanings, words that are nouns and verbs, words that have colloquial expressions intimately tied to them.

Here is a link to this same material in Italian. (GoodDayRome, now in Italian, too!) By the time I post this, it will have been edited by my instructor as I have made this a part of my formal training. Over time, I pray the correction ratio will plummet as I get stronger.

She laughed when she read the part about “sucking up.”

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