Growing up bilingual in America created many situations where I would hear people complain, “Learn the language!”. Of course, those who have this on the tip of their tongue are usually the least eloquent. Although I am not in agreement with the attitude that lies behind yelling out this statement, I do believe that learning the language of the country you live in, can absolutely open doors. The country I am from has no official language, since having one would violate our First Amendment rights. With a population that speaks numerous tongues, our freedom of speech is very important to maintain.
Personally, I think everyone should be bilingual, at least. I am on my way to being a polyglot, but it is taking longer than I hoped.
As an American, I learned English but my mother taught me Spanish and my neighbors introduced me to Italian. My mother did not permit me to speak Spanglish. Have you ever met someone who speaks English with an accent, even though they were born in America? You imagine that they are probably fluent in what you believe to be their native tongue; in many cases they are not. There is an entire generation of people who cannot express themselves fully in any one language. They speak each with the other’s accent and have a very limited vocabulary in both regardless. I thank my mother for forcing me to find the words I lacked and therefore expanding my knowledge in both languages.
What tickles me further is when Americans who live in Italy cannot even say ‘excuse me’ in Italian. Tourists are sometimes traveling through Europe and since they spend so little time in each country, they skip the language lesson. After all, English is the global language. Many English speakers come to Italy to study abroad or work internationally. Many of these will spend a year here and never learn Italian. I suppose it is the same lazy mentality I saw in many family members who have lived in America for years without ever having learned to speak English. After growing up with so many examples of what life is like when you do not understand what people say, I knew I had to learn Italian before moving to Italy.
I had been saving all my money for my move so I started at the perfect place for my budget, The New York Public Library. I borrowed text books, work books, language CDs, Italian music CDs and DVDs of Italian films. Every week I renewed or exchanged and added to my knowledge. I found that the library on W.100th St. also had Italian novels, so I took those out as well. I printed out the lyrics to the Italian songs and memorized them. I sang along in the shower, watched the films without subtitles, then watched them again and again. The first novel I read confused me, but it was my first one. I wondered what lions and tigers were doing in Rome and imagined the gladiator games had had something to do with it. I later realized, it was set in India. Sandokan, was an Italian favorite.
I had memorized mini-monologues that I could insert in a conversation. I tried thinking in Italian. I sparked conversations with every patient Italian I could find. I watched RAI-America on Sunday mornings, the only time it aired, and listened to the Italian radio station whenever I managed to find it.
By the time I arrived in Rome, I was fluent and could understand 80-90% of what I watched on TV. I have rarely understood the comedy, though. Either they are really bad (50%) or you would have to have been born here in order to have the background needed to get the punchlines (40%). I laugh the other 10% of the time. I particularly watched a really bad comedy series called ‘Camera Cafe’. Mainly because there was this one character who spoke extremely fast. I had decided that the moment I could understand her, would be the last time I would force myself to watch that awful show.
Many Italians will claim that my knowledge of Spanish made learning Italian a cinch. This mentality annoys me. If this were true, the Italian men who flock to Ibiza every August would be able to say more than ‘vamos a la playa’ ( a song made famous by Italians, of course) and South American domestic workers who have been living in Italy for years, would be fluent in Italian by now. It takes hard work, but it pays off, especially when someone is talking about you. You can pretend not to understand and sock it to them in the end.
After having lived in Rome for a few years, I went back home to visit. It continued to astound me to see relatives who still could not speak English, after a lifetime in America. People absorb languages differently and they have varied capabilities, but I now believe that some people prefer not to bother and therefore the doors of possibilities remain closed. Learning English is nowhere near as easy as learning Italian. English has too many contrasting rules, while Italian is written exactly as it is pronounced. However, French is also quite difficult and I am now able to get by.
I find that the closer a foreign language is to your language, the more confusing things become. After 300 years of the Norman invasion of England, the English language contains an enormous amount of French words, but the meanings and/or pronunciations have evolved and therefore, it can be very confusing. When I first began learning French I managed to order a carafe of eggs instead of water and asked someone if he was a map instead of whether he had one. We all laughed and although I still make numerous mistakes, I will continue to learn French until I am fluent. When I do, I know, more doors will open.
While touring through Europe, I found that knowing the following list of words or phrases was liberating. I sometimes wrote them down phonetically and practiced them at every opportunity. Here they are in Italian
- Excuse me: Mi scusi
- Thank you: Grazie
- Please: Per favore
- I’m sorry: Mi dispiace
- Your welcome: Prego
- Numbers 1-100: google them
- How much?: Quanto viene? (Although correct, “Quanto costa” is text book Italian and you will rarely hear it.)
- Too much!: Troppo
- Where is the Ladies’/Men’s Room: Dov’e’ il bagno?
- Hi/Hello: Ciao (casual), Salve (less casual) Buon Giorno/ Buona sera (Formal) – Pronto (Answering phone, literally means ‘Ready”.)
- Good-bye: Ciao (casual), Arrivederci (less casual), ArrivederLa (formal)
- I would like…: Vorrei…
- Allergies (Memorize all food items you are allergic to or just dislike.)
- Left: Sinistra
- Right: Destra
- Straight ahead: Dritto
- How do you get to…?: Come si arriva a…?
- Post Office: L’ufficio postale
- main square: la piazza principale
- street: strada, via, vicolo, viale
- taxi: tassi’
- bus: autobus / pullman
- train: treno
- airport: aeroporto
- hotel (Always carry something with your hotel address, the key usually has it.): albergo
- Help: Aiuto!
- Fire (Yelling ‘Fire’ instead of ‘Help’ sometimes works better.): A fuoco/Incendio
- doctor: medico (Dottore is a title used for anyone with a university degree)
- hospital: ospedale
- I love you. (If you fall in love, you should know how to say it.): Ti amo!