On learning a language and becoming a person

I started taking Italian lessons a month-and-a-half before I left for Italy. Well, I was taking Duolingo lessons before that for a few months but I don’t count those lessons much after the quality of my experience with a Real Live Tutor. No offence, Duo.

My six months anniversary with Marina hits on October 10th so, as with all anniversaries, I’m assessing the state of the state of my improvement. I guess as arbitrary as they are, anniversaries are still good for taking a moment to assess or else we’d end up being goldfish. And you always want some proof of advancement or else in its absence the effort becomes wasted time that is soon abandoned. With the approaching anniversary, around two or three weeks ago, I started realizing that I’ve become a Real Live Person during lessons.

The first lessons were absolutely agonizing. I wanted to get in as much as possible before the trip (again, just a month-and-a-half) so I signed up for three one hour lessons a week, and to distribute them sensibly I chose Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 7:30 pm. I would say that the Friday night lesson was the most problematic because–let’s face it–Friday, but they were all incredibly stressful. I’m not comfortable talking one-on-one and although the talking was all her, it is still just me and one other person speaking to each other. There’s no down-time when others speak and your mind can rest. I characterize these lessons as “speaking to each other” very loosely since I had a toddler’s understanding of Italian at the time and my tutor speaks very little English. I chose her partly because of the idea that immersion is more effective, and partly because she also speaks German (and Spanish) and so I’ll have the opportunity to restart studying German after a certain time. Given this setup, a lessons effectively meant that she spoke Italian and I squinted in confusion. For an hour. I’m honestly uncertain how I managed. Or equally how she managed. It was no less than emotionally crushing.

I only vaguely remember those early lessons. On my home website I have notes as a hierarchy of pages for every lesson, for all of the homework (compiti) and audio she assigned, and for pages categorized in different areas of grammar and concepts [ed. I have a lot of these webbooks for music or my art collection or etc.]. When I go back to Italian > Marina on Preply > 2023-04 > 04-10 lunedi dieci aprile and review the spare notes, I see a record of a two- or three-year-old barely forming thoughts. There are basic and short vocabulary lists along with some slightly-to-very misunderstood usage rules. And so I guess that gets to the point.

Around two weeks ago I started feeling like I’ve become an actual person during lessons with her. I can express thoughts that I have and stories and impromptu observations to her even if they are only in fragments. Noun phrases, sentences with slightly-or-worse-off verb conjugations, mal-used prepositions (oddio the prepositions) still communicate some of my thoughts, and an aggregation of those bits communicates–from her engaged responses I get the impression there is at least some communication–a clear intent and not just come si chiama? wrote phrases getting parroted back to her. And I myself feel the intentionality surfacing.

(One of the most useful exercises she recommended was for me to start talking to myself and writing down what I was doing and what happened during the day, and so I started writing a few sentences every-or-every-few days (beginning with Italian > Marina on Preply > 2023-08 > 2023-08 diario quotidiano). Those entries have become fertile ground for new words that I may remember or at least may start to remember. Even when nothing has happened I can think of the simple, daily events that I am unable to describe and the diary exercise forces me to look up and use the words to describe it. Highly recommended).

There’s a humorous story I just told her (“tell” being, as has been stated, very relative) about how during one of our first few lessons she said she lived in New Mexico. She grew up in Italy and for reasons I’m still not sure why she teaches there. Or so I though. A week ago I finally had the ability and opportunity in an ad hoc conversation to ask her how she manages in America without speaking English. I assumed that her neighborhood was an Italian community like many other ethnic communities.

I think you can see where this is going.

She gave me one of those kindly, teacher looks used when a student asks a Very Basic But Understandably Simple question and said: well, everyone speaks Spanish here since it’s the primary language and I realized that there was no nuovo when I heard “New Mexico”. I was too taken back by my own stupidity to bring it up then but the next week I explained my misunderstanding and how oblivious I was (ok, really still am) in those first several months. “Ho caputo il tuo nome è molto poco più” (“I understood your name and very little else.” (thought probably badly phrased)).

And so that’s what really gets to the point: being able to tell a story and make a humorous-of-sorts comment and talk about your day and what happened on the weekend, and to interject thoughts that pop into your head. Those experiences are not so much taken for granted as a prerequisite for being a person. It’s nice to be at this point for my six-month anniversary. I’m not sure when-or-if I’ll switch to German with her–I’m sure she’ll have an opinion and it will be in the negative–but I don’t mind spending another six months becoming more of a person.

Lessons are still very stressful though.