Issue 7

Che Bella Lingua

 · Nonfiction

Uno — “Mi chiamo Mimi”

Italian is the language of opera. Italian is La Boheme — Mimi in her death throes recalling happier days with Rodolfo while I weep in the balcony. It’s Franco Corelli singing the stirring “Di quella pira” from Il Trovatore, stretching out that final high ‘C’ — all’ armi, to arms, he calls as he rushes off to save his mother from the leaping flames — until you think your heart will burst into tiny bits of shattered crystal. Italian evokes the avant-garde films of Fellini and Bertolucci and the staggering glamour of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. It’s the fiery exchanges of Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato in Travolti da un insolito destino nell’ azzurro mare d’agosto, which translates, “overwhelmed by an unusual destiny in the blue sea of August,” or as we know it, “Swept Away.”

Italian arouses the senses and the sensual. Love and food are braided into a single strand when Dean Martin croons: “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.” In San Francisco’s North Beach, I swoon orgiastically over the lasagna at Tomaso’s, the pizza at L’Osteria del Forno, the garlic perfuming the air along Columbus Street.

It’s easy to understand the passion of Italophiles, real and fictional, like Lucia and Georgie in E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels, who savor the sounds of “la bella lingua” and feign fluency until they’re nearly exposed by La Contessa di Faraglione. A poll to determine the true language of love failed to isolate a clear choice, conjuring instead a blend of the Romance languages, roughly two parts each of Italian and French and one part Spanish. I’ve sampled all three, but it’s Italian that leaves me all aflutter with its lilting and luxurious resonance, its suggestive “ch” sounds, its rhythmic tone and playful inflections, its marriage of carnal and culinary appetites.


Due — Come se dice “bucket list” in Italiano?

When retirement presented itself as my reward after decades of toil, I was ready. I had mapped out in meticulous detail its financial, emotional, physical, intellectual, and social aspects. There were no daring ventures on my bucket list, no skydiving or balloon rides. The things I relished were more cerebral. My long-held dreams, now opportunities, included getting back to the piano or maybe trying the flute, taking science classes or getting another degree just for the fun of it, studying a foreign language. So when my daughter, who lives near San Diego’s Little Italy, told me about the classes at the Italian Cultural Center and asked, “Want to learn Italian?” that was all it took. Strains of Puccini coursed through my head as I said, “Let’s do it!”


Tre — No hablo espanol, je ne parle pas francais…

I’d tried before, not even counting the two years of Latin I took in high school where my shyness and fear of public recitation made the “dead” language the most appealing. I studied Spanish on and off when I had a boyfriend who spoke it fluently. In our three years together we traveled throughout Mexico. They say that “pillow talk” is the best way to learn a language, but we never conjugated verbs under the covers. What my innamorato thought of as encouragement felt to me like badgering.

“You’re stressing me out,” I said. “Can’t you just talk to me instead of always correcting me?”

“I want you to learn it right,” he replied.

My Spanish was “right” in that it was rule-bound, straight out of the grammar books. My pronunciation was accurate, but my accent was pitiful and my comprehension worse. In spite of incentive and opportunity, I didn’t get very far. The kindly locals we encountered on our travels welcomed my halting efforts, but I couldn’t absorb their rapid patter. I buttoned up, refusing to air my limited vocabulary except to order food. Spanish is all around me in San Diego — the Mexican border is just twenty-five miles away — but I abandoned it even before he and I went our separate ways.

I attended university in my thirties and fulfilled my liberal arts language requirement with French. I loved the lushness of the language and welcomed a fresh start in a new tongue. I stumbled through two years of grammar and another of conversation. I read The Little Prince in side-by-side translation and watched French films, studying the subtitles as I tried to separate the words, their syllables tripping over one another like pebbles in a swift stream. I thrilled at my near comprehension of Jean Seberg in “Breathless;” French seemed almost within my grasp when spoken with an American accent. Yet at my apex I was still unable to distinguish between love and death — l’amour and la morte.

My first trip to Europe, a celebration of my graduation and approaching fortieth birthday, began with a week in Paris. I assured Geri, my traveling companion, that I would be able to negotiate the language well enough for our needs. Armed with my French-English dictionary and a Berlitz phrase book to augment my three years of coursework, I failed miserably when put to the test. Oh, I managed to request a room with two beds and to order moules frites and pain au chocolat, but whenever I spoke, the unintelligible reply would whiz past my ears like bullets from an uzi.

I know the saying: insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I can’t speak Spanish, I can’t speak French, but still I hold out hope for my not-yet-language-averse brain. Maybe this time, I think. Or maybe it’s too late. Who knows? Quien sabe? Qui sait? Chi lo sa?


Quattro — Il primo corso

Jennifer and I signed up for Beginner I and went to the first session, visions of Tuscan trattorias dancing in our heads. Our instructor, Silvia, started us off gently, with pronunciation, forms of address, and a preview of what was to come. At the second meeting we were bombarded with words and phrases and punti grammaticali. I was woozy when I stumbled out of the classroom after an hour and a half. I felt as if I was walking away from a car wreck — no broken bones, just suffering from shock. The shooting pains in my head were no ordinary headache; I sensed brain cells snapping, synapses snynapsing.

The cumulative weight of the class content seemed daunting, but it began to coalesce as we continued. Silvia entreated us not to be too hard on ourselves. It’s ok if we remember only a word here and there, she said; we shouldn’t expect to grasp it all right away. We did exercises in the textbook, watched conversational vignettes, played games with flash cards and photos. We sang along with the Italian pop star Jovanotti — the tune of “Bella” rings in my head, even a few words of the lyrics: “Bella / come una mattina / d’acqua cristallina…” We memorized nouns and adjectives and rules, countless rules. By the end of the eleven-week course our group of ten was whittled down to six. Jennifer was part of the fallout, dropping out after a few weeks due to the demands of a new job, but I soldiered on with the other stalwarts, including Gladys, an attorney who spoke fluent Spanish (an obvious head start), and Erin, whose partner was Italian; pillow talk hadn’t helped her either.


Cinque — Anche la legna storta da fuoco diritto

“Crooked logs make straight fires.” What’s that supposed to mean? This was the closest I could find in an A to Z of idiomatic expressions when I searched for something pithy to make the point that no matter how much or how little Italian I learn, my efforts will have been worthwhile. I will have expanded my horizons and stretched my brain, which, more than any romantic whim, is why I’m doing this.

I monitor the debates about whether or not mental stimulation (along with physical exercise and a healthy diet) can improve brain functioning, even postpone or prevent dementia. National Geographic reported as breaking news in 2011 that “even late in life, picking up a new tongue can slow effects of aging.” AARP cites findings that people who keep their minds active have lower amounts of the protein that forms the evil beta amyloid plaques found in Alzheimer’s sufferers. Another study suggests that learning spurs the growth of new brain cells and increases the connections between cells. A New York Times science writer concludes that being bilingual “can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.” On the other side, leading a bevy of naysayers, is the esteemed National Institute of Health. The evidence is insufficient, they say. Diet and exercise and mental stimulation won’t delay the onset or reduce the severity of dementia; only age and genes are relevant factors.

I vote with my feet, my fork, and my frontal lobes. My diet and exercise regimens are honed, and I check off the mental workout strategies I’ve adopted: read, play a musical instrument, memorize (poems, presidents, state capitals), play Scrabble, do crosswords and Sudoku, study a foreign language.

How about this one: Chi dorme non piglia pesci (“Those who sleep don’t catch any fish”).


Sei — Italia, Italia

After Paris, Geri and I spent three weeks in Italy. I discovered gnocchi and risotto in Milan, gobbled up art, history, gardens, and food in Florence, was overwhelmed by Rome, and besotted by Venice. On our wanderings around each city we tried to absorb the ambience along with the antipasto, but we were isolated by our inability to communicate with anyone but each other.

As a diversion from the big cities, we stopped for a couple of days in Sestri Levante, a postcard-pretty fishing village on the Italian Riviera, popular with Italian tourists but not yet on the radar of foreign travelers. One day, when Geri was under the weather, I headed out on my own. There’s more opportunity to venture into new linguistic territory when you’re alone, but I didn’t have even the minimal vocabulary. As I strolled around the town and waterfront, I was an outsider, missing the essence — the spirit and mood of the place — by not being able to talk to people. I stopped at a pleasant-looking trattoria for lunch and ordered what I thought was a glass of white wine with grilled anchovies and salad. What I got was a carafe of vino bianco and a glass. I didn’t know that if I poured myself a glass of wine, that’s what I would be charged for; I figured that I hadn’t made myself clear and was committed to a jug of wine. I didn’t have to finish it, but of course I did. I poured, swirled and sipped each glassful, savoring its dry, crisp bite as I sat on a breezy patio overlooking the Mediterranean. I drifted through the rest of the day in a tipsy haze.


Sette — Studio alla casa

I study at home. I review what we’ve covered in class, do homework assignments, listen to dialogue and music. Some of my opera CDs have the lyrics to arias in Italian and English, and I sing along while following the translations. I’ve almost memorized “Dove sono” from Le Nozze di Figaro. On walks I ask myself questions and answer them, identify objects in Italian: green tree, tall tree, red flower, yellow flower, small house, large building, fast car, slow truck, big brown dog, beautiful baby.

I study conscientiously, but I study alone. I need practice, one-on-one. I need an Italian with time and patience to speak to me v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y (molto lentamente) using the vocabulary of a four-year-old. I greet Roberto, the manager of La Pizzeria Arrivederci, when I pick up my Friday-night order, “Come stai, Roberto?” and he responds in kind. I praise the pizza (my favorite, the Siciliana, with anchovies, olives, onions and tomatoes) from my cache of adjectives and accolades — molta buona, la mia preferita — but that’s as far as we get. At Pappalecco, a neighborhood cafe and gelateria, the very handsome owner, il molto bello proprietario, Francesco, teaches me a few colloquial phrases that I copy into my notebook, but usually he’s too busy to stop and chat. I want to learn Italian slang and profanity — ”shit” and “damn,” essential to basic communication, aren’t in my phrase book.


Otto — cani vecchi e nuovi trucchi

Beliefs about old dogs and new tricks are commonly held. Most people will agree that older adults have difficulty learning a new language. While it’s discouraging to think that my age is a hindrance, there’s a certain security in stereotypes, those convenient justifications for when we throw up our arms in despair: “I can’t do this. I’m just too old.” I read that increasing numbers of people are enrolling in adult language classes and foreign immersion programs, and second language acquisition has become an area of growing interest in linguistics and education, psychology, sociology, and neuroscience. It would be easy to dismiss it as a generational idiosyncrasy as baby boomers reach retirement age, but it’s not just middle-class American dilettantes: reports on the growing enthusiasm of retired Chinese for learning new languages, sparked by the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

I thirst for knowledge, drawn, like a hummingbird to nectar, to theories relative to second language acquisition. My explorations lead me to applied linguistics and to cognitive and sociocultural approaches.

I don’t know whether to feel comforted or abandoned when my findings suggest that my excuse has been pulled out from under me. A well-documented article refutes what’s known as the “critical period hypothesis” of language learning, that at some cut-off age — some say 12, others earlier — we lose the ability to fully learn a language. Since children appear to acquire language without conscious effort, it follows that it becomes harder the older we get. This thinking has been debunked as a fallacy based on outdated theories and stereotyping of seniors. In fact, adult learners have been observed to reach native-like levels of pronunciation and general fluency, often progressing faster than children in the initial stages. Make that some adult learners; I don’t seem to be one of them.

The Acculturation Model posits that learners’ rates of development and levels of achievement are functions of their social and psychological distance from the second-language community. This is one of the arguments for immersion, the equivalent of tossing a child in the pool and letting her figure out how to swim. But if I ever do get back to Italy, I can’t spend long enough to submerge myself in the language, like the couple in my Italian class who rented a flat in Rome for six months. They count on it to be the glue that will make this year of classes stick. Or like the boyfriend from back in the days of Spanish who became fluent during a two-year Peace Corps stint in Peru.

Another arrow in the later-learning quiver is the belief that intrinsic motivation is likely to be stronger in older adults who have a genuine interest in the language, as opposed to students just chalking up grades. We know from the example of “The Little Engine That Could” that attitude is critical in just about everything. If I say I can’t do it, I probably won’t be able to do it. So if the “old dogs” stereotypes are internalized by learners and language instructors, they may become self-fulfilling prophecies. I’m still not convinced, though. I try to keep a positive attitude, but my motivation wavers. I hang onto my crutch and blame my tired old brain for holding me back.


Nove — I verbi maledetti

I no longer feel as if I’m confronting a dentist’s drill when I drive to the ICC for class, though I do get a gnawing ache in my jaw when I continue to draw a blank on the conversational snippets we hear. In a quiz to check our readiness for the next level, we listen to a narrative and answer questions about it. I strain my ears, but all I hear is ratta-tat-tat. Huh? What did they say? I make up for it on paper, reading sentences and accurately filling in the blanks, and I advance to Beginner II. Eleonora is from Torino, a consummate pro with an extensive background teaching languages and an M.A. in English and French Languages and Literature. I preen like a toddler taking its first steps when my responses generate her enthusiastic “Perfetto!”

Chapter Four is about food, i cibi. I’m in my element, many terms dear and familiar, others a delight to learn. We create menus, role-play serving and ordering at restaurants. Grammar and vocabulary are infused with culture: Italians don’t eat eggs at la colazione (breakfast); they prefer pastries (so do I, like the saccotino — chocolate croissant — at Pappalecco). What we call “toast” is a grilled ham and cheese sandwich in Italy, while toasted bread is pane tostato (um, toasted bread). They don’t drink cappuccino in the afternoons and prefer beer to wine with pizza. I work up an appetite during class, go home and cook up some linguine, pour a glass of vino rosso.

But the food is just a sugar-coated diversion. Those cursed verbs are starting to bare their fangs. We become inundated with regular and irregular verbs, different forms for different voices, different conjugations for different core endings. I feel besieged, and we’re still in the present tense. Basta! Enough! Verb conjugations had me whimpering for mercy when I studied Spanish and French. I wonder, as I did then, how necessary is it, really, at this stage? An odd attitude for a self-professed grammar nut, but I rationalize that one should be able to converse at a stumbling level before being bullied by the rules. Children learn to speak by repeating what they hear; later on they go to school to get it right. It’s always been my contention that if I say, “I eat pizza today,” “I eat pizza yesterday,” or “I eat pizza tomorrow,” you understand my meaning. I sigh in frustration when I learn from my friend Nazli that the core of all verbs in English and the Romance languages — “to be” (I am, you are, it is) — doesn’t exist in Arabic. It’s considered unnecessary. I woman, you hungry, bird yellow. See? It works. On the other hand, my research discloses that Arabic is considered one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn (along with Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean).

Gender variations have always seemed cumbersome and pointless, sexist too, though I know they’re at the root of Romance languages. Una casa, a house, is feminine and un fiori, a flower, is masculine. Dogs and cats are masculine, tigers are feminine. Why are breakfast and dinner feminine but lunch masculine? They just are. The different forms for people are particularly vexing: a male student is uno studento, the professor is il professore, but their female counterparts are una studentessa and la professoressa. It’s a rigid formalized equivalent of our own antiquated and for-the-most-part abandoned labels like authoress, poetess, and aviatrix; though we’re still stuck with die-hard vestiges: princes and princesses, gods and goddesses.

Contrary to what movies and cartoons would have us believe, English is not the language of prehistoric cave dwellers or the Bible. I make the common mistake of holding up English as the standard for other languages, which my linguistic studies indicate is consistent with language transfer patterns. We take configurations from our first language and try to apply them to the new language we’re learning, though they’re often incorrect. Because we say, “I am hungry” and “I am thirsty” in English, our inclination is to translate it literally to Italian: “Io sono fame,” “Io sono sete.” But Italians say “Io ho fame,” literally “I have hunger” (or thirst) and use the same construction for hot and cold, sleepiness and fear, right and wrong.

This transference is a stumbling block for adults more than for children, an indication that we older learners are, regardless of other strengths or shortcomings, too opinionated, set in our ways. If I want to learn like a child I have to put aside my biases and preconceptions about how I think the language should be constructed. In Italian, “get over it” translates as “ottensere su di esso.”


Dieci — Sono scrittrice

I’m a writer, una scrittrice. (Henry James, on the other hand — to use the august Italophile as an example — is uno scrittore. Doesn’t the former sound more scribbly, the latter more serious?) As a writer I have a predilection for language, the use of it, the sound and shape and resonance of words, how they combine into sentences and paragraphs, how they express thoughts and ideas, create pictures in readers’ minds. But my writer’s appreciation of language doesn’t seem to aid me in learning a new tongue. It doesn’t help that I find myself writing about studying Italian — like now — when I should be studying Italian.

I stroll through Little Italy, a neighborhood known for its Italian restaurants, markets and specialty shops. It celebrates its heritage with rotating street banners brandishing famous past and present Italians and Italian-Americans, film stars around Oscars time, baseball heroes every spring. I breathe in the redolent atmosphere as I pass the old men at sidewalk tables in groups of three and four, sipping espresso and jabbering away. I wish I could join them: “Ciao, fellas! Come va?” I’m taking a conversational class next, but I approach it with my hopes dimmed in the bright beams of reality. I worry that even after I take course after course, even with relentless study, I still won’t be able to carry on a conversation or comprehend spoken Italian in the real world. Italy is where it might all come together, and I’m aiming for next spring, but it would be for only a couple of weeks. In the meantime I’m thinking of hiring a tutor this summer, a student perhaps, someone kind and patient with a flashing smile and a sense of humor. We’ll sit at one of those little outdoor tables and make conversazioni in la bella lingua.

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