How can I phrase this… I’m bad with languages. Even my own. Inept might be a good word. Perhaps even terrible. In school I wasn’t troubled by getting good grades. Calculus? No problem. Art history? A+. Physics: Let’s go. But languages aren’t like any of the other subjects. It’s not about memorization, tests or critical thinking and analysis. To master a language, you have to speak it and that was my problem. I didn’t speak.
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I’m not sure when my voice started to dry up but it was somewhere in adolescence around the age of 11 or 12. The river of my words slowed to a trickle and the jokes and confidence I’d had seemed to simply evaporate with anyone that wasn’t the closest friend. The more self-conscious I became, the quieter I was. If I didn’t speak, I wasn’t seen and I preferred it that way: invisible I was safe from ridicule, shame, and attention, both good and bad. Instead, I lived in books and my imagination.
I’ve mentioned in previous posts that routine is something I can’t stand. So going to school day after day, to the same sequence of classes drove me nuts. To keep myself entertained and distracted, I’d imagine a narrator describing everything I was doing in a fictional context. I wasn’t even me anymore, I was a character. Instead of walking from my last class through the halls to the bus it would be something like this: “She zipped up her suit, securing the plastic bubble helmet over her head and fastening on the gloves. She’d heard about the little boy who’d left his glove unzipped… he was lucky to have only lost his hand. Walking through the tunnel, she surveyed the desert landscape around her then drew close to the portal where she’d step directly into the sun’s rays. With the earth’s atmosphere in shreds, the UV rays would burn your skin and the dry air would desiccate you immediately. It was the year 2500 and her suit was all that protected her from sudden death.”
Sooooo yeah… that was my internal monologue. Sometimes earth had become an ice planet instead of a desert rock. Sometimes cars were covered wagons or I wouldn’t be going to school at all but some fantasy world training camp for wizards or a medieval finishing school.
When it came to talking to other people outside of my group of close friends, I stumbled, not knowing what to say, dreading interactions. I didn’t even want to answer the phone (something I still hate doing). What if I didn’t know what to say? The less you spoke, the less attention you received, the less happened and the better it was.
By the time I reached high school, I had succeeded in becoming almost totally invisible. People in senior year, who I’d been in school with for most of my life would say, “Hey, what’s your name again? Can I borrow a pencil?”
When it came to my language requirement, I chose Latin for all four years. It was the only language course that didn’t have a speaking component. Long live dead languages. H
In college is when things started to change. I learned how to talk again, even though sometimes it felt more like acting than expressing who I really was. While I struggled to define my own identity, I learned to use language as my tool to smooth things over. Words were my props, my stage design, my lighting, my costume and sometimes my disguise.
All of that went out the window when I came to Italy and was stripped bare of both the ability to communicate or hide behind innocuous words.
When you’re learning a new language as an adult, one of the main things you are faced with is the loss of your personality in the new language. You have the usual fear of looking stupid, of saying the wrong thing, the fact that you can’t remember where your house keys are let alone which verb you should use. In a new language, you can’t perform “you” anymore. “You” are deconstructed, reduced to scraps of paper, strokes of paint, shards of a mosaic, you are fragmented and fragile and every interaction can make you feel like a failure or a champion.
When saying something like, “Give it to me the sugars,” actually got me a packet of sugar, I was a king. But more often I was met with incomprehension. I’d get a few words into a sentence, get stuck on one and the whole train would derail, my face burning red, feeling guilty and stupid when they said “Cosa?” “Che vuol dire??” Or simply “Ehh???” their brows furrowing, eyes squinting at me. It was a feeling I’d had most of my life – that I didn’t belong, that I was incomprehensible. I knew moving here would be hard but I wasn’t prepared for the voice that came out of my mouth to not be my own. It wasn’t Lauren and it definitely wasn’t Laurenissima. Maybe Laurenetta (little Lauren). My voice shrank, it was hollow, it was breakable, just like me. And I hated to see it, that side of me that was so small and scared. But that’s also why I’d come here, to help that side of me to grow.
How is it possible I’m now a tour guide, engaging in a combination of theatrical monologue and conversation in front of new people every day?
I’d studied Italian before leaving the states of course. But here, in the fast paced world of Rome, people didn’t have time to deal with another confused foreigner and I couldn’t talk quickly enough. I’d thought I was more prepared but it was less about knowing the words than about knowing me. If you don’t demand space you won’t get it and that was what I needed to learn. I didn’t have to imagine my adventure in my head anymore, I was living it and damn was it harder than I’d expected.
After months in the country people would be confused at how low my level was.
“Why don’t you want to learn Italian?” they’d say.
How could I explain? “I do want to learn. I’m very shy, “ was all I could say.
“You have to try.”
The people I could speak to first were the Bangladesh guys who ran the fruit and vegetable shop near by apartment. Their Italian was simpler and I could understand them so much better than the Romans talking so slick and fast in dialect and slang. They taught me the fruits. Fragola. Pesca. Pompelmo. And they made me feel welcome. One day a man came into the little fruit shop and they said: English, English! He was from Egypt and spoke better English than I spoke Italian.
“Why are you in Italy?” he asked.
“I teach English,” I said.
“I used to teach too,” he said. He had been a professor.
“So you teach in Italy?”
“No, no,” he smiled. “Here, I clean.” He took his little blue, plastic sack of vegetables and waved goodbye.
The next people I could speak to were Italian children and pets. Kids knew that I was communicating it was time to sit down and shut up and didn’t care if the words were fragmented and scattered or the verb tense was wrong. And, maybe more importantly, I didn’t care about messing up in front of them. I could also fluently tell someone’s pet dog that he was the cutest creature in the world though I couldn’t ask their owner where the bank was.
Adults were still a challenge. I took a language exam which helped with my confidence, immensely (and my verbs). Over the years I’d pay for private lessons here and there when I could afford it and eventually had a tutor I met a couple times a week who was wise enough to just let me babble on, encouraging me to not worry about mistakes. She gave me permission to mess up a million times and knew when to correct and when to just listen and respond like we were having a normal conversation, not practicing a grammar exercise in school.
But the thing that helped me the most was NOT trying to learn. I took a course and an exam to become an official tour guide. The course was four days a week for eight months and it was not about learning Italian, it was about learning literally every last tiny detail about who painted that fresco of the Madonna and child in the third chapel from the left in that church in Fiesole. Not the one there now. The medieval one that burned down in a fire. I had to get out of my own way and not focus on the speaking itself and in that context, it became easier.
Learning a language became kind of like consciously unfocusing my eyes. Or it’s like being in a dream when you look sideways at something because if you look straight on you can’t see it. To speak Italian I had to stop thinking I could learn every detail. I had to let go and just be myself since I wasn’t good enough to act out who I thought I should be in a foreign language. It wasn’t about flashcards, it was about confidence and embracing imperfection. Just like everything else about living in Italy. To stay, I had to learn to speak. In speaking, I was learning to live.