Monday, October 26, 2009

Battling La Bella Lingua

I am ratcheting up the Italian class. This week I decided to take a twenty-hour course at the school where I have been studying with a tutor. (Four hours a day for five days, not twenty hours in one day). The idea behind it is to immerse myself in the language so that I hear the words better. As things stand now, I talk better than I listen. To which Bill would reply, “And how is this any different from your English ?”

I have to say that I am very frustrated right now. First of all, because we are in such an old palatial building, with high ceilings and real plaster instead of drywall, the classroom is like an echo chamber. Whenever anyone speaks it comes out sounding like that special effects part of the Led Zeppelin song “Whole Lotta Love.” And baby I’m not foolin’. I’m constantly cupping my hand to my ear like Walter Brennan, that beloved old codger from all the Wild West movies half a century ago. Any minute now I’m going to start saying, “Eh-h-h-h-h? What’s that you say ?”

But it isn't just the room, it's the people in the room that are frustrating me. Oh, I'm sure they're very nice once you get to know them, but they aren't doing much for my Italian studies. Here's why. One of the students is German. He is learning Spanish and Italian at the same time. He seems very proud of this accomplishment but I think he should really rethink it. The result is that every word begins its inception as a distinctly German guttural sound. Then we move on to the Spanish portion of the word. A slight pause and then along comes some sort of extra vowel at the end, for that Italian flourish. He’s the student on my right. On my left is a Russian with huge tatoos all over his arms. Before I took a good look I was ready to compliment him on his sweater. He speaks without opening his mouth. Sometimes when Boris is in a surly mood (my son Boris that is, I don’t think this fellow’s name is Boris although it very well could be) he refuses to open his mouth when he talks and I threaten to take away his allowance. Unfortunately I don’t have that kind of leverage in this case. I assume this student is in Bologna on some kind of ventriloquism scholarship. Next to him is a very nice man from England. He is, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, a “low talker.” I strain to hear what he is saying and catch maybe every third word, but here’s the odd thing—he’s a loud and long laugher. Although I can hear every nuance of his hearty laugh it is not doing much for my Italian conversation.

There’s an American student from Florida who speaks well and clearly. He’s leaving for the United States tomorrow. There’s also an Italian woman sitting in who is minutes from becoming a teacher of Italian and is gearing up for a big exam. Of course she speaks beautifully but since she is only meant to be a mosca (fly) on the wall, she barely speaks at all. And then there’s me. My grammar is a bit improvisational. I speak in that conscientious way that Americans do, with extra hard “r”s. Fortunately my Chicago accent with its flat vowels is actually helpful for Italian where the vowels are quite precise, not rounded like those you hear in Virginia.

At least I’m old enough to "own" my lack of comprehension and to admit it to the teacher . This cluelessness comes across as extreme interest so teachers tend to like me. I’m always the one asking a ton of questions. Today we had to listen to a dialog between two people and then test our comprehension. The catch was that we couldn’t read along with the tape. Remember when we used to have record players and the most hilarious thing was to put the 33rpm album on at 78 rpms? ( Dean Martin never sounded better.) Well, this is pretty much how the dialog sounded to me. When the teacher asked me what I understood I told her “quasi niente.” (Almost nothing). She asked me what I heard specifically. I told her “macchina.” (Car.) Yes, the dialog was about two people discussing the sale of a car although I obviously missed the whole dramatic arc which is unfortunate. Will Guido sell Maria the car of her dreams ? Will her father lend her the money even though he is reluctant to buy a used car ? And what of her independence if she accepts the loan ? Can she come to love a blue car when she has her heart set on red ? There it was, a stirring drama contained within a couple of paragraphs and I missed it all.

After my admission of defeat the teacher did what good teachers do the world over. She tried to find something positive in my handling of the language. As I recall she liked the way I said “buon.” Anyway, I think I’m stuck with this class. As I see it, I can’t switch to another because of the students when the teachers are quite good and I'm in the right class level. My only recourse as I see it is to bring an ear trumpet to class tomorrow.

1 comment:

Bella Stander said...

"As things stand now, I talk better than I listen. To which Bill would reply, 'And how is this any different from your English ?'"

This made me laugh out loud. Bravissima!