|Courtesy of McLoy2008, Creative Commons|
Throughout Florence and San Gimignano, my limited Italian worked beautifully. Someone always knew enough English or French to talk to me after I gave them my standard greeting, and my food vocabulary increased by leaps and bounds, supplemented with great words like cinghiale - wild boar. Fun to say, although my dad enjoyed the actual eating of it much more than I did.
On the train to Sorrento by way of Naples, however, I hit a linguistic wall in the form of a Trenitalia employee. I had wandered into the dining car in search of some water and approached the bored-looking woman behind the counter with a smile.
She nodded in return.
"Parla inglese, per favore?"
She gave a brief shake of her head and half arched a brow at me, as if to say "Why would I? And now what are you going to do, ragazza?"
Another head shake. Hm. Well, I'd seen enough ads for bottled water, maybe I could do this.
"Vorrei...una...um...una bottiglia di acqua? Per favore? Naturale, per favore? ("Can I have a...um...a bottle of water? Please? Still, please?")
The woman gave me a look that said, "If it didn't take so much effort, I would roll my eyes at you. Why did you ask me to speak two other languages?" and rang up the water before muttering the total at me. I paid, said "Grazie!" and sped back to my seat to tell my parents I'd spoken a whole non-pasta-related sentence in Italian.
That Trenitalia employee, sullen though she may have been, taught me a lesson that's come in handy many times over the years: it's when under pressure to communicate that you realize the full extent of what you know. That's the premise of language education by immersion: you subconsciously absorb the language you see and hear and, when given no option but to use that language to communicate, your subconscious shoves it into your conscious mind. Terrifying as it can be, it works. Even on Italian trains.