I have lived in Tuscany for nearly 10 years and the more I understand the language, the more I realise I have to learn…
The thing about the Italian language is that it may be complicated and baffling but what it lacks in simplicity it more than makes up for in beauty. This is the reason I am in love with it, which is lucky because no matter how little progress I make every week in my lessons I am still determined to understand and eventually to apply those wretched tenses!
Of course, if you live here, there is no question that you need Italian just to get by. Even visitors will find that Italians in general cannot speak any English. It’s not that they don’t study it at school, but that they do not practice conversation and find some of the sounds we use difficult to pronounce (‘th’ & ‘s’ being amongst the trickiest).
The best moments for a novice Italian speaker are when you finally come to understand jokes… Recently a friend of mine told me this one in Italian:
Dante: “The Luccese people have started burying their dead with their heads above the ground!”
Me (Not realising at this point it was a joke!): “What?”
Dante: “Yes – so they don’t have to fork out for a photo!”
Me (Now suspecting that this was a joke but not quite sure because I am apt to make really big translation errors and I might have got this whole thing completely and disastrously wrong): “Is that a joke?”
Dante “Yes” and dissolves into giggles – not particularly at the joke but at my terribly slow sense of humour. I’m also laughing. Again, not so much at the joke but with relief that I haven’t just made yet another faux pas and also because I’m learning new and interesting stuff about my new home. I now know that the Luccese (like the Scottish and Yorkshire folk in the UK) are renowned for being tight and Italians traditionally put a photo of the dead person on their grave… I feel like I fit in here an iota more because of this insignificant gem that I now have in my possession.
Language isn’t just about being able to complain to ENEL (doesn’t seem to have any effect on the national electric company anyway!) or buy the right amount of chops at the butchers. It’s about communication on a grander scale; understanding the culture and fabric of a place and it’s people and embracing them in the process.
It’s all about accepting, understanding and participating. Personally I think I can do the former fairly well, the latter I try my best with and the understanding? Well, I console myself that every day I get that little bit better so in another 10 years I might be able to laugh instantaneously when I hear a joke! The important thing is that I want to learn the language and every Tuscan I have met has responded positively to this.
If you want to improve your Italian (or indeed start to learn from scratch) you should visit your local commune office. Many towns run Italian courses for stranieri which are free and take all nationalities and abilities. Good Luck and remember that if you ever get stuck on a word you should follow my 5 year old’s advice “ just put an ‘o’ on the end of the English one” and you know what – he’s often right!