No, I actually didn’t speak much Italian when we arrived here seven years ago.
After countless hours plugged into one of those language-course CD sets, I thought maybe I spoke a bit, but that was delusional on a fairly epic scale.
Or maybe that’s being a little harsh on myself, because in fact I did have a modest vocabulary and the basis of a grasp on grammar.
But as I discovered brutally quickly, those two factors don’t mean you can even begin to speak a language.
The CD language courses you can find on Amazon are all basically much-of-a-muchness in that they’ll give you a rudimentary introduction to a language.
Find one of these courses that works for you and stick with it. In my case, it was the Michel Thomas series, an idiosyncratic, love-it-or-hate-it process that really did seem to instil a fair bit of usable Italian but which, like all the others I dipped into/out of, had one fundamental and jumbo flaw.
They teach you to speak a bit. But they don’t even begin to teach you understand what’s being said to you in reply.
I’m in a bar and in my very best Michel Thomas Italian, I’ve just ordered a beer and a cheese-and-salami pannino.
And the barman replies, “Vuoi che riscaldato?”
And I say, “Wha…?”
And he says – a bit more slowly this time – “Vuoi che riscaldato?”
And I’m standing there like a village idiot because he’s saying something simple and basic and I haven’t the remotest, faintest clue what.
But I’m getting it’s a question because his voice is going up at the end.
And in a sudden Michel Thomas-drilled flash, I understand Vuoi. Do you want…?
Do I want what ? Ris… Rice ? Surely not.
Riscal – dato.
Dato. Doesn’t that mean ‘Gave’ ? ‘
Riscal. Haven’t a clue. Some kind of pickle maybe ? Perhaps that’s it. Is he asking if I want him to give me a pickle ?
“Si”, I answer cautiously.
And a few moments later I get given a nice cheese-and-salami pannino. No pickle. But definitely riscaldato. Warmed through.
On those CD courses in which Mario e Lucia Vanno Al Museo and enquire, “Dove si trova la scultura di Michelangelo ?” and get told by the genial attendant, “E’ al primo piano”, everyone speaks beautifully modulated Italian.
Only problem is that nobody in our bit of Abruzzo speaks beautifully modulated Italian. Slowly or otherwise.
They mumble; they gabble; they knock the ends off words; they drop in bits of slang or, even worse, the impenetrable local dialect; they break-off halfway through a sentence to remark on something totally unconnected before returning to the original theme.
Ignore the fact that even if you could find an attendant in a museum – let alone a genial one – and asked him where you could find Michelangelo’s sculpture, chances are that instead of going up to the first floor as advised, from the garbled mouthful aimed your way, you might think you were being directed to the carpark; or onto the roof; or being advised to come back next week; or hearing a flat denial that a Michelangelo sculpture was anywhere within a 20km radius.
All part of the learning process during which, bit by painstaking bit, you will eventually discover you’re actually beginning to understand what’s being said to you.
And, joy of joys, people will increasingly seem to understand what you’re saying to them.
Linguists will tell you the technical term for this triumph is ‘language immersion’, which you can achieve, as we did, by actually being here; or by paying an eye-wateringly large amount of money to sit in a language lab being battered about the ears in the language of your choice until you can pass for – if not a native, then at least someone capable of saying something and understanding the response.
But it’s a two-way process. A game the other side has to play too.
Luckily for us, unlike a certain unnamed nationality – oh…ok..the French – who’ll feign incredulous, pop-eyed incomprehension at the first sign of a dropped syllable, the Abruzzese will wriggle through a series of ever-smaller hoops to understand and help you.
And thanks to them, after seven years, I think I now probably speak Italian with an Abruzzese accent. It’s actually quite handy, because that Abruzzo habit – or at least the habit round us – of dropping the ends off words disguises gaps in your grammar and you can mumble your way through any unexpected voids in your vocabulary.
This used to drive my Italian teacher Paola to despairing fury.
“What time will you come next week ?” she’d ask.
“Alle diec’ e mezz’”, I’d reply. At half-past ten.
“Not diec’ e mezz’, she’d hiss. “That’s not proper Italian. Say Dieci e mezza”.
If I’d been a bit younger, she’d have probably rapped me across the knuckles with a ruler.
Of course whether I’m speaking proper or lapsing into Abruzzese, any Italian knows in a blink that wherever I might be from, it’s definitely not anywhere in Italy. But as I now know enough colloquial expressions and sufficient profanities – added to the obligatory gamut of quizzical facial expressions and the essential hand movements without which no Italian conversation is complete – I can usually hold up my end.
In a roundabout and long-winded way, this all goes towards answering the triple-barrelled question often asked of me by those seriously or wishfully thinking of following us to Italy, about whether I spoke Italian before we got here.
No. Not really.
But is it easy to learn ? Funnily enough, the basics aren’t that difficult to grasp, and you’d be amazed how many Italian words are basically the same as their English equivalent. Thank the Romans and the spread of Latin for that.
It only starts getting more difficult later.
And do you really need to learn Italian ? Yes you do. Because you’ll miss an awful lot if you don’t. Italians like nothing better than having a chat. And they’ll want to know all about you. If you can’t tell them; or ask about their lives; or join in the national past-time of complaining about the government, or the weather, or taxes, or the state of the roads; or simply pass the time of day, the only time you’re ever going to engage with an Italian will be when you buy anything at the cheese counter.
And you won’t even know how to do that properly.
Which’d be a real shame.