Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Profiles in Transit: Teaching Italian by Impatience

Courtesy of McLoy2008, Creative Commons
Italy, the second stop my parents and I made during my first trip out of North America at 15, was my first experience spending time in a country where my only knowledge of the language was whatever I could find in the phrasebook. I refuse to ever start a conversation by addressing someone in a language other than their own, no matter how pathetically, so I had learned the basics: Buon giorno ("Hello"), Parla inglese o francese, per favore? ("Do you speak English or French?"), Vorrei... ("I'd like..." - when in Italy, being able to order the amazing food is critical.) and some other basics, like counting to ten, please, thank you and the omnipresent scusi, for getting through crowds at least semi-politely (which, I realize, is completely un-Italian).

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.

"Buon giorno!"
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?"
"Parla francese...?"
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.


aldo said...

Hey, I work with the CheapOair travel blog (cheapoair.typepad.com) and we're interested in having you guest blog for us. Please contact me if you're interested. Thanks! Aldo.

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Thanks Aldo!

Anonymous said...

Hi Jess

Loved this! I also have attempted to learn Italian over many years with mixed results. All the smugness you feel back home soon dissipates when you have to have a real conversation in Italy and you also have to suffer the humiliation of addressing someone in Italian only for them to take pity on you and reply in English! You might like this post I wrote on this sort of experience when I visited Barga a few years ago, a beautiful place it was too.
Like yr description of the Trenitalia guards too! 'If it didn't take so much effort I would roll me eyes at you'!

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Thanks Jools! I still don't understand the dichotomy between the gregariousness of Italian waiters and innkeepers and the surliness of Trenitalia employees. I think they go to a special, secret school to learn how to hide their natural Italian effusiveness and appear intimidatingly sullen.

Loved your post about Barga - what a wonderful story, and memory.