The Fear


There’s quite a few English ex-pats living close by and occasionally I bump into some of them. There’s several active groups that meet for coffee and a chat, or organise meals out, but I don’t belong to any of these. I don’t actively seek out other Brits to associate with, and haven’t adopted that mind set of, if we’re all from the same country then we should be friends. I have met Brits who have assumed because I’m from England, we can be friends and within minutes of meeting them I’ve realised we have nothing in common but our country of origin. I have a nice mix of English and Italian friends, people I choose to be associated with; this said I also have a list of Brits inside my head I’d avoid like the plague should I see them across the road. I really don’t understand this ‘we must stick together’ mentality, surely it’s better to integrate into Italian society rather than segregate yourself.

I am surprised how many people live here that do not speak any Italian. I think there’s three camps they belong to. Camp one is the people who actually find learning the language difficult and genuinely struggle with it. Camp two contains those people that have tried and given up along the way for various reasons and camp three is the one that those people who have no intention of ever learning the language belong to. I don’t understand these people from camp three. One morning in a coffee bar, an English woman I had met previously, and didn’t really take to said to me that the waitress spoke English, so I didn’t need to speak Italian. I wanted to say, keep your nose out of my business you interfering witch, but instead smiled and said, “I’m just being polite.” The response I got shocked me, “Why bother learning the language,” she said, “quite a few Italians understand some English, besides you can manage to get by.” I don’t think I smiled before I said to her, “But I don’t want to just, manage to get by. Why would I want to miss out on so much by remaining ignorant?” Now it was her turn not to smile, I glanced across at the waitress and she was smiling. She’d obviously overheard our exchange as my drink was on the house.

I know that learning a new language isn’t easy, I struggled with French at school; although some of it still resides in the recesses in my memory and has at times proved useful. I tried to learn to  read music as a teenager, but it defeated me, and to this day all I know about music is the mnemonic for the notes on the treble clef, ‘every good boy deserves fudge’. At least I gave it a go, so in the case of music I belong to camp number two.

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Talking to a friend a week ago, I said, I think it’s fear that prevents some people from getting to grips with a new language, it’s okay to practice asking for two slices of pizza in the mirror at home, but for many people the fear kicks in when they have to do it for real. Is it fear of getting it wrong, fear of being misunderstood or fear of being laughed at? I don’t have the answer to these questions, all I can say is, no one will laugh, they may politely correct your pronunciation but more often than not, they’ll serve you with your pizza.

I sometimes think phrase books make matters worse, they contain many phrases that on paper look good, but in practice are not so good. In one book I have in my possession there’s the following phrase: dove è la libreria (where is the library). Let’s assume you actually do need to ask this question, what will you do when you get to the library, you obviously can’t hire a book, as you needed a phrase book just to ask directions so are unable to read the written language. Another of the phrases is, Can you direct me to the fire station? How often is anyone going to need this one, and surely if your house is on fire what is the chance in the panic you’d recall the phrase.

I said to my friend that I think people should learn phrases they are likely to use in everyday life, things like, ‘I’ll have three bottles of this wine please’ or ‘What times does the supermarket close?’ I also think people should practice as often as they can, asking strangers simple things like, ‘where is the post office?’ and although they do not fully understand the response to their question they are getting valuable experience in conversing, before long it’ll start to fall into place. The watchword for language learning is a little and often and in my opinion learn the verb conjugations you are likely to use, I, you and we, once you’ve those down you can learn the he, she, they, conjugations at your leisure.

Photo used with permission

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4 thoughts on “The Fear

  1. I wouldn’t say I have the fear, but I have a certain lack of confidence when speaking Italian, which means I mumble and then people understand even less. I’m working through it though. On another note, I once had a phrasebook that contained the useful sentence: “Excuse me officer but there is a woman being harassed on the promenade”. I’ve not needed that one so far…

  2. being around an Italian speaking builder on a daily basis helped me with the language, a tip I give people is learn all the verbs for I/me only at first, and also try to use a new word in conversation each day, even if it’s just asking for screws/light bulbs at the feramenta. My favourite phrase in an old phrase book was, ‘Help my wife has fallen’ I’m sure there’s many a fallen woman in the Italian countryside.

  3. I love Italian and tried to put my few years of study to use when I visited Rome. What you learn in school is a lot like what you see in the guide books – not able to help you as much as you would like in the real world. I don’t understand the third camp either. I try to at least learn to say I’m sorry I don’t speak X do you speak English in the native language of where ever I am traveling, along with a few key phases (hello, goodbye, please, thank you, I’m sorry, slower please…).

    I’m living in Japan right now and struggling with the language despite having a few years of study under my belt. Why can’t textbooks or guidebooks have the things we really need – like how to converse with the dry cleaners? Or setting up a mobil phone and internet service contract.

  4. I’ve got loads of ‘Instant [insert language]’ courses which are fab for getting by – I love just being able to pick a few words out or say hello. If you’re going to live somewhere where English isn’t people’s first language, it’s just basic courtesy to learn whatever is.

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