Since we moved to Italy, I’ve been working hard to learn Italian. It’s a bit tricky, being a whole new language and all. Fortunately, I found a couple good Italian classes to help me out. The other day, as I was leaving class, I ran into a new acquaintance who said, “I really want to learn Italian, but I’m afraid I’ll say something dumb.” I don’t remember what I told her, but what I wish I’d said was this:
You don’t need to worry about saying something dumb because you will. No need to worry if it will happen, because it definitely will and, when it does (all the many, many, many times it does), it won’t be so bad. In fact, it will actually solidify your language skills because experienced memory beats practiced memory every time. It’s a good thing. Don’t worry about it, just start doing it. Speak and listen, and mess up as much as you humanly can and when those mistakes occur, embrace them as enthusiastically as possible.
Here are a few of my most recent ones:
At the Gate
The other day, my family was passing through a security checkpoint here in Italy and the guard asked how old my son is. I know the Italian word for 13 – but not at that precise moment. That knowledge had wandered off somewhere, leaving me babbling.
“He’s … ummm… ten-three… I mean, three-ten?”
Just when I managed to cobble together the actual right response, the guard sighed and told me to just go, it was fine. Va bene.
Sometimes, people decide it’s easier just not to deal with you. This isn’t always a bad thing.
At the Restaurant
After a nice meal with my family in a local Osteria, I went up to the cash register to pay. We’re still transitioning for my husband’s job so we need to keep our food and lodging receipts, which I’ve learned must be itemized. The receipt the cashier gave me wasn’t itemized so I asked if he could give me one that was (amazing myself at my own Italian prowess (and sign language) in the process.
While the cashier was printing out the itemized receipt, I thanked him and explained that we needed it for work.
Except I didn’t.
As I learned later, what I actually said was, “Thank you. I need it for my washing.”
Lavorare (to work) and lavare (to wash) are really similar. The cashier just gave me a weird look and handed me the receipt.
At the Pet Store
The other day, I walked into a pet store to buy some clippers to trim my dog’s winter coat. I had already asked another pet store if they had clippers (they didn’t), so I knew how to do it. I was confident as I strode through the door into the second store. But I wasn’t expecting the chorused greeting of two employees standing directly on the other side. The surprise completely blew the phrase out of my head. All I could remember was “Do you have … cut … hair … dog?”
They both stared at me blankly. At this point, I should have stopped and looked up the phrase on my phone but I was frazzled, so I tried again, this time with hand gestures. “Do you have (hold out hands) … cut (finger scissors) … hair (point at head) … dog (for some reason, paw gesture that looked more like a rabbit)?”
At least that’s what I thought I said. When I got home, I looked it up. What I actually said was “Do you have … cutting board … human hair … dog?”
Obviously, it didn’t work. They must have thought I was having a stroke.
They were so thrown that it took one of them several minutes to remember that she spoke English, clearly much better than I apparently spoke Italian.
At the Pizza Truck
I know a little Spanish. You could say I’m at about a four- or five-year-old level. I can get by, but it’s not exactly eloquent.
Now I’m learning Italian, which is very, very close to Spanish, except when it’s not. I’m trying very hard to shove those Spanish words to the back of my mind, but sometimes they get excited and slip into the conversation (unbeknownst to me). This scenario has played out many times since we arrived in Italy. The first was at a pizza truck, which went something like this:
“What kind of pizza do you have today?”
The worker looked at me, surprised and delighted. “Oh, you speak Spanish!” he exclaimed (in Spanish). “How wonderful, so do I!”
A Spanish word (or three) had clearly slipped in and outed me as a Spanish-speaker. The worker, who had been struggling to understand my patchy Italian, was obviously relieved that we could now easily communicate in Spanish.
While I was processing this, he said a bunch of things in Spanish, which I still didn’t understand.
Realizing this, he clarified, “Do you speak Spanish?”
To which I said “unfortunately, no” – in Spanish.
He just looked at me, confused.
This is next level – I’m botching two languages at the exact same time.
In Italian Class
I was in Italian class working my way through an assignment when the teacher stopped me and said, “Did you just speak French?”
I had no idea. But I took two years of French in high school, so apparently, that’s popping up now too.
The point is, don’t worry about messing up. You will. A lot. And when you do, you’ll learn. A lot. Sometimes in multiple languages …