Mistakes & Misconceptions of Language Learning

During this semester I have had a language learning partner for one of my classes to help me learn Italian and for him to learn English. My language-learning partner and I have been working together for weeks. Talking over Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and having conversations every day since I returned from my study abroad experience in July. After having no luck in my progression of Italian, we created a better system in helping each other learn. For a while, I felt stuck but now I am noticing a clear difference from where I started. The difficult part about learning languages is that it is not always a step-by-step process. If you stop studying it and practicing it you eventually lose that knowledge. Whoever said, “If you don’t use it, you lose it” was right! For those who know me, I have said that my language learning in Italian was very untraditional – having years in between studying, studying in America and abroad, and now being in America again while not hearing the language enough to really understand. These are just some of the barriers but also events in my life that have helped me along the way. With Alberto, who I met in la bella città di Roma, we started our language learning by having many conversations. Our phone and skype conversations were in English but our WhatsApp conversations were in Italian. After realizing that I was not making enough progress, we changed the way we taught each other. Now, I find myself participating more in my Italian lessons and fearing less about how I sound. What we have been doing is a lot different from before and it has been helpful. Alberto has an English grammar book that makes sentences and talks about common words, phrases, and verbs in both English and Italian and how to use them. He teaches me a few chapters during a Skype call while also teaching himself how to use those rules in English. Not only has this helped me understand concepts better, like phrasal verbs, but this method is making me more open to speaking with Alberto. Many phrases we say in the English language are phrasal verbs and Italian does not have these. We realized quickly that not everything translates perfectly. One of the most difficult challenges is realizing that Italian, and all languages, are not a direct extension of English. Now that Alberto is being more of a teacher for me rather than just a conversation partner, I feel more confident to practice and to ask him questions in Italian. Although, it does help getting his approval and hearing “Bravissima Ashalina” when I say something correct.One of the most important things about learning another language is to remain positive and provide encouragement for those that are learning and to also understand the different cultural aspects of the language you are studying. I’ve noticed a distinct change in Alberto and my own language learning progress and it’s not just because we changed the way we learned but because we started being a little bit more positive and offering some words of encouragement during the learning process. Coelho talks about this method in our textbook Adding English. Coelho says, “Students will approach the task of learning English more positively if they have a genuine desire or motivation to learn the language, a sense of confidence in their ability to do so, and some effective learning strategies to draw on” (161). I think this is true for all languages when there is a positive environment, but there is a difference in how those positive environments can either help or hurt the language learning process. For example, while I was in Italy my language learning was very poor up until I went to Perugia for an intensive Italian course. Ho visitato la famiglia di Alberto a Roma poche settimane dopo la programma a Perugia comincia. I visited Alberto’s family in Rome a few weeks after the program began and had pranzo with them during the day, which was a large meal that they cooked for us. I was so nervous to speak and I wanted to scappare into Alberto’s room to hide, but his mom and dad are so sweet and the food was amazing. I stayed and listened intently to the conversation while Alberto translated for me the entire time. I knew I could speak more Italian than what I was showing, ma purtroppo, I was too afraid. I had studied so much, was able to understand my tours around Perugia in Italian, and I was one of the best in my class at speaking and responding to questions. Somehow, I could not make a single sentence. I knew they would not judge me for my mistakes but when I tried to speak, I felt that his mom treated me come una bambina (like a baby). She praised me for such a meaningless sentence made up of simple grammar. Although she was giving me positive encouragement and was trying to make me feel better, I knew I was more advanced than that. I could not prove that I was better, and in the end, I felt worse. This was different from the end of my time in Italy in July when I visited my family in Vasto and they told me my Italian had gotten better from the last time they had seen me in May. And this is completely different from that time in Rome when I was getting pizza al taglio just after my lessons and the man who worked there every day said “il tuo italiano sta migliorando!” my response was “what?” and he responded “I said your Italian is getting better.” Oops. It was a good feeling, but it is strange to me that I am more stressed with some people than others when speaking Italian. On the brightside, at least I did not accidentally say ti amo to someone instead of ti voglio bene while I was in Italy. Ti amo is a deep feeling of love while ti voglio bene is for friends and family that you truly care about. I cannot even tell you how many times I said, “non posso aspettare” potere – to be able to, aspettare – to wait, therefore it should be “I cannot wait,” right? Wrong. To say this is actually, “non vedo l’ora” which literally translates to – I do not see the time. Have I mentioned how much more beautiful everything sounds in Italian!? I want anyone who feels discouraged about language learning to know that it is completely normal, and even though I beat myself up about it, it is all a part of the process!

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I’ve noticed that the reason why I might have had a more difficult time speaking with Alberto and an incredibilmente easier time speaking with my grandmother has to do with what Grosjean discusses in his book Bilingualism about one-language, one-parent (or in this case – person). He says that for language learning it is easier to learn when you associate one parent with one language and one parent with the other. In this way, the child learns at the same time and has a need to always use both. When the child is spoken to in the other language by the other parent, the child can become stressato. I noticed this recentamente in my many thoughts back to my study abroad esperienza, that when my grandmother came to visit in Italy we would have fluent conversations in Italian. I was astonished with myself, but I suppose it is because I grew up with her speaking Italian to my relatives. When Alberto and I first met, although I tried to make an attempt with my poor Italian skills early on in the semester with him, usually after a few glasses of wine, I always spoke with him in English. Without even noticing, I had associated my grandmother with Italian and Alberto with the language we used when we first met.

My conversations with my grandmother are always light-hearted. When I make a mistake, she still tells me I did an amazing job, but that is probably not the best for language learning. I definitely have so many more miscommunication issues with Alberto. Like when I was writing a previous blog for my understanding language learning class about my Skype conversation with Alberto. I had said to him that I felt discouraged in learning Italian – it turns out I had pronounced it correctly over Skype but when I went to type it for the blog I spelled it wrong and accidentally wrote farted. I said to Alberto, “scusa, ma chi fatto due parole come questo che sono tanto similare!?” (Sorry, but who made two words like this that are so similar?) His response was “but why are beach and b*tch so similar?” I was embarrassed but I could not stop laughing, and learned that I will absolutely never use the words scoraggiata or scorreggiata in a sentence ever again.

Again, these things happen with learning a new language but I will never get over that embarrassment! This happened to me when I tried to order bread in Rome and I could explain to the bakery about my nut allergy in Italian but I could not understand their response. Instead of explaining more simply, their voices just became louder, which scared me. There was also that time I was sick and went to the farmacia and said “hai qualcosa per la tossa” a confused pharmacist stared at me until I made a coughing sound and she said le tosse? Madonna mia was it that simple!? What I am trying to stress here, is that you need to make these mistakes so that you can learn, and it is molto importante to have supportive people that encourage you when you do not feel so brave. I think the language learning process has helped me in more ways than I would have thought and it has opened my mind to understand that practice does not make perfect but it certainly makes progress!

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