Friday, April 20, 2007

Let's Speak Italian

As a student in high school I studied two languages for five years: French and Latin. I always got very good grades and though obviously I never became fluent in Latin, I thought my French was not too bad. When I went to France for the first time, it was quickly brought home to me that I was hardly fluent, in fact, not even vaguely acceptable, according to the French people who turned away from my efforts, shaking their heads and saying anglais, English, disgustedly.

I was also quite amazed to see how, in Europe, many people are not only fluent in a language other than their own, but in fact many languages. I once knew a young Dutchman who spoke 7 languages and, if I were to judge by his English, fluently. But, although I had a very good grounding in the grammar of a romance language, I did not pursue French any further. However, since Canada is a bilingual country, everything is labelled in both languages and I can still read it passably well.

When we were to return to Italy in 1979, I decided that I would take a three month intensive course in Italian at a local community college. The teacher was a trilingual lady, born in Switzerland of an Italian mother and French father, and of course, English speaking. The wonderful thing about Italian is that every letter is pronounced, as opposed to French where there is no confusion in the written word, but to my ear many different words sound the same. I really liked the Italian language and I found enough confidence that I managed to say what I wanted to say passably and sometimes understand the reply.

On my return, I continued with the next level course, but there were only two levels of Italian given at the college. After a while I found that the second level class was being cancelled for lack of students. So my interest in Italian dwindled away, although occasionally I would revise what I had learned, and study more material on my own, especially if I intended to visit Italy.

In the early nineties, I noticed that the Continuing Education Department of the university was offering Italian. Thinking it would only be beginners' level, I did not follow it up. But the next year I noticed that they were offering three levels. So I went to look into it. I discovered that a young dynamic Italian woman, Luisa, had come to Vancouver, to be with her boyfriend, a graduate student in Physics and she had single-handedly organized an Italian section in the Language Department of Continuing Education.

At the first class she sorted us into various levels and, after having revised before the course, I ended up in the highest level, with Luisa as my teacher. It was a three hour class, once a week, and I enrolled in this class for two semesters, every year for more than ten years, but with different teachers over the years. The class was always given in Italian, never English and it was taught using the modern communicative method, rather than the grammar driven method.

In 1997, Luisa decided to organize a three week trip to Italy for a group to attend a language school in Florence and to do a little touring during and after the course. While attending the school, the members of the group would stay with a local family who would provide room and board. I decided to go with her and my husband came to Italy to join me at the completion of the course. We stayed another three weeks, touring around and staying with our friends in Bologna and also with my daughter's Italian in-laws in Biella.

This six week trip pushed my Italian to another level, with my comprehension increasing dramatically and I started to read books in Italian.

I will write a separate post about this trip another time, and the two other trips I made with Luisa and her groups. One was to a school in Taormina, Sicily, in 2000 and the other was to Verona in 2002.

When I retired in 1998, I enrolled in the Italian Department at the university to take Italian 300, the third year level course. This was an extremely interesting experience. The professor was woman from Rome, who had been a high school teacher in Italy and tended to be rather authoritarian which did not go down at all well with the young Canadian university students.

There were about 15 or 16 of us in the class, with me, obviously the oldest at 63. However, there was also a German woman, in her early fifties, who had a PhD in Spanish, in the class. Unfortunately, when she spoke in Italian, she threw in masses of Spanish words, which was rather disconcerting to say the least.

It was also interesting to see how the young 21 year olds treated the oldies. To half the students we were invisible, but the other half were friendly enough. Often we were paired up to do some exercise in class and this sometimes caused a bit of a problem.

During this course I learned a lot of advanced Italian grammar and managed to write a paper of 500 words, in Italian, every week, on a topic of the professor's choice. I longed to have a paper returned to me with no red marks, but it never happened. However, I always got an A on the paper and I did well in the Christmas and Final Exams, so I did not disgrace myself thank goodness.

I still take Italian on Saturday mornings, although not every semester. The level of the students' Italian skills can be so mixed that it is very frustrating. Sometimes I enroll and, if the class is pitched at too low a level, I drop out.

My spoken language is problematic, which happens when one only speaks it once a week and goes for months without speaking it at all. However studying Italian has been a great interest for me over the years and it stood me in good stead with my daughter's in-laws, i miei consuoceri , since they do not speak English.

I'll always love the Italian language and one day I hope to return to Italy again to study it further.


Lee said...

The French have always been and will remain so, no doubt, chauvinistic and arrogant about others using or trying to use their language.

I think, in Australia, being so removed from other countries of varying languages, for example, Europe...we are not mixing with other languages so we have little choice other than our own language, English. Unless one travels extensively and frequently there is little opportunity to build on our linguistic skills...other than to study languages...but as you've discovered the best way to learn is to the countries of origin.

ipanema said...

I agree with Lee when it comes to the French loving and safeguarding their language deemed no par with anyone's. :)

To be citizen, one has to pass French Language exams according to last year's new immigration law. As much as the US and Australia are imposing on testing the English Language, etc. for immigrants.

Personally, I find French Language sexy. :)

I believe Italian isn't so much a hardship for us to pronounce as it belongs to the same Language Family as Spanish which we study and our national language is peppered with words of Spanish origin. Perhaps we should do more on enunciation. :)

mhr said...

Ah, the power of clich├ęs :)

jmb said...

Hi Lee,
No doubt my French was terrible, at least the accent, because we had Australian teachers who had never been to France. And there was/is absolutely no chance to use it in Australia. Although I did belong to the Alliance francaise.
Still I enjoy Italian more and have had fun with it.

jmb said...

Hi ipanema,
The French are renowned for the protection of their language, but I always thought they should be more tolerant of people trying to use it.

Of course, more than twenty years later, when I returned, I found there had been a big change for the better.

As for Spanish, sometimes I hear someone speaking Spanish and it takes me a moment to realize that it is not Italian. Especially when I actually understand some of it.

jmb said...

Hi mhr,
Not offended I hope. As I said above, when we returned in 1988 for a month, I found the French people much more friendly. Perhaps because my daughter was with us again and she had just graduated with a degree in French. However, she spent every summer before that taking courses in Quebec and probably had a Quebecois accent!

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

A very interesting post about language learning in general and your own Italian studies, jmb. Well done for being determined and persevering. Looking forward especially to your post about the Taormina trip!

jmb said...

Hi Welshcakes
I'm afraid I've never really mastered the language despite all that effort. I reached a plateau long ago and never seem to be able to push past it. I need to go live there for three months and go to school every day. I have studied all the grammar but I have never got to the level where I am thinking in Italian, although sometimes stuff rolls off the tongue easily without thinking. But usually I sound like an anglophone translated into Italian.

Janice Thomson said...

Good post is wonderful you chose to enroll in Italian classes again. Your perseverance is commendable.
I too, love languages and the difference in words and phrases and have recently renewed studies in Spanish.

I have a French friend with whom I converse regularly and she is so not chauvinistic about her language. At one time she had a hilarious blog about the ridiculous phrasing the French use but there were very few of us who seemed to see the humor in this.

jmb said...

Hi Janice,
I've looked at Spanish now and again and even have a Spanish dictionary which I use to look up phrases in books I read. But I really don't want to get any more confused so have not pursued it.

As I said in some of the comments, I don't believe that the French are so difficult nowadays, I hope not anyway.

Have you ever read French Toast, by Harriet Welty Rochefort? It's hilarious. An american from Iowa who marries a French man and lives in Paris for years. I got it from the Library and my daughter, who is a French teacher, bought it French for her students to read.

Gattina said...

Your post about Italian draw my attention ! You know Americans, English and Canadian people don't really need to learn another language. A lot of people speak English in Europe. But we need it badly to communicate amongst each other for the creation of a united Europe. I am German, I live in Belgium since about 45 years, my husband is Italian and our son has both nationalities. So I speak german, French of course, English because I worked my whole life for American companies and Italian which I learned in Italy with the family. My Italian is now a little rusty for speaking because I don't have many occasions, but there is no problem for understanding or reading. When I have to speak Italian, it takes me about 20 min to get into it again. Don't you have an Italian speaking community where you live ? Italians are special immigrants ! they always stick together and speak Italian !

jmb said...

Well gattina, it's true a lot of people speak English in Europe but many do not. I fell for that trap when I was in Holland and knew not a word of Dutch. Even in Amsterdam many people did not speak English so I would look for a young person, perhaps a high school student to answer my questions.
As for Canadians not needing another language, French is our other official language and although you don't need to speak it where I live it's essential in some parts of Canada. But every sign, all packaging has both languages.
When you live in Europe, you are so close to all other countries you can go for the weekend to another country. So you get the opportunity to use those languages.
I live on the west coast of Canada, a huge country, and we have to travel far and stay for a while when we come to Europe and it costs a fortune.

In Vancouver, the Italian community is relatively small and they do stick together. But there are few recent immigrants and often the older ones speak dialect , or they are children of Italian immigrants and only learned dialect. It's also a pretty in-group.
Toronto is the big centre of Italians, although whether the dialect story is true for them I don't know. I do know that the University of Toronto has the best Italian department of any university in North America.
You might like to peruse my other posts about Italy. I've made quite a few, starting with my honeymoon in Italy, 46 years ago.

Moof said...

French ... the language of my childhood! However, I want to emphasize that mine was Canadian French. I'm also in agreement with Lee, from personal - and sometimes painful - experience. However, I was never ashamed of my native tongue, which is every bit as valid a language in its own right as any language spoken across the puddle.

Great post, jmb! You've definitely poked me right in the middle of my little liguaphile heart ... :o)

jmb said...

Hi Moof,
Why would you be ashamed of your native tongue? Quebecois literature has a great place in the scheme of French literature and now even Francofonie is respected.
My daughter, who has a PhD in French literature and spent every summer in Quebec, when she was a undergraduate, doing courses, had great trouble the first year she was there. She lived with a family for six weeks and could not understand the mother. I don't remember if it was the accent or the vobab. She never had that problem again, thanks goodness.