Learning Italian is like eating Italian

This week I thought I’d write about the experience of language school, what it’s like learning a new language at a school for foreigners in Italy.  I could talk about the beauty of learning a completely new thing.  I could talk about the neurobiology of language acquistion.  But, instead I would like to talk about food.

Each day at Centro Koine (my school here) we start with the “antipasto,” at 9:00a.m.  This antipasto is formed out of many small but important choices.  For example, how to greet the managers of the school.

What exactly are the choices?  “Ciao” (too informal), “Salve” (too pretentious), Buon giorno” (too difficult to pronounce).  Perhaps, I’m feeling a little extra couragious and want to order some antipasto that I’ve never had before.  I ask “Come sta?” or “Come stai?”  Will I understand the answer?  Will I be capable of continuing the conversation?  Maybe the manager will start to speak in English.  If this happens, the student feels a mix of dissapointment and gratitude.  This is a familiar sensation.  Where has the student felt it before?  Oh yeah…  when the italian waiter realizes that the customer really isn’t ready for the real italian food and says, “Maybe you shouldn’t order the goat intestine, instead I recommend the small pieces of hot dog.”

The second choice is the seat selection in the classroom.  I know that I will have to speak and yes, even work, with my neighboring students.  Should I pick the student who speaks the best Italian, the best looking student, or maybe the most interesting student?  Just as at a resturant, the students rarely change their seats after their initial selection has been made.  Every once in a while, the teachers make the students change seats so they will have the opportunity to work with all of their classmates.  This works pretty well and would probably work well in a resturant, but who would be the teacher?

Then the first course (primi piatti) arrives, perhaps a newspaper or magazine article in Italian.  The teachers tells us to read it quickly and skip over the words we don’t know.  This seems to me a pretty strange instruction.  What would one think if the waiter says, “I would like you to eat it quickly and if you don’t recognize something, eat it anyway and we’ll talk about it later.”  I’m left to guess at what I just ate.  This can lead to some pretty serious confusion.  Maybe, Rachel and I think that the little black things were mushrooms when they were actually rabbit kidneys.  Once, in class, I tried for 10 minutes to convince my neighboring student that the article we were reading was about race relations between blacks and caucasions in the USA.  In turns out that the article was about the life of an elephant in a zoo.  (True story, I swear it.)

The the second course (secondi piatti) arrives, usually a piece of meat, more nutritious but also more difficult to eat.  The teachers call this thing the “ascolo.” Which means the listening.  The class listens to a bit of real italian conversation on a cassette tape player.  It’s very important that these conversations be as real as possible.  The people on the tape should talk simultaneously and they should be some pretty significant background noise.  For example, “Today’s ascolto is a conversation between two men who are working to unload baggage from an airplane that has just landed on the tarmac.  The noise in the background is the sound of nearby airplanes taking off and landing.    The men are eating lunch.  The microphone is hidden in one of the sandwiches between a slice of ham and a slice of cheese.  Between bites, you will appreciate a conversation about the philosophy of Kant.  To help you relax, there is also a dubbed track of relaxing piano music.”

We listen.  Then the teachers tell us to exchange ideas of what we have understood and not understood with our neighboring classmates.  If this were food, we would have been able to recognize it.  Faced with something fundamentally unknowable and a little frightening, we students all do the same thing (whether they are French, English , German, Japanese, American, etc).  We talk about ourselves.

Then, the contorno (side vegetable dish) arrives, usually something light and easy to digest, perhaps a game or a little grammar exercise.  But at this point the children at the table are getting fidgety.  They are irritable, impatient,  The meal has gone on too long.  I should say that, at some point during their sojourn at Centro Koine, all the students become children.  Why?  Well, most of us haven’t been in a classroom for a long time and if we were in one recently, we would have been experts in the subject under discussion.  But at Centro Koine, we don’t know shit.  It’s even difficult to ask to go the bathroom.  Some of us have passed a fair amount of time in class with a full bladder.  We are, essentially, little kids in preschool.  Sometimes we behave like it.

I remember one time where a student threatened to take her toys and go home.  Another time a student nearly had a hissy fit when she wasn’t achieving 100% comprehension.  But my favorite behavior occurred when a gentlemen was really not wanting to do the grammar exercise.  So, he started to talk about all the provacative subjects he could imagine (war, politics, religion, the EU etc. ) that the class couldn’t start the grammar exercise for an hour.  This reminds me of Christopher who when asked to clean his room responds with “Daddy, what is death?”  I will not say which of these that I’ve done, but I will say that I’ve thought of them all.

Finally, the coffee and desert comes, the best part.  The student can speak and understand Italian.  Desert is always good even if you’ve never had it before.  The anxiety with strange things, unknown words, becomes instead a feeling of pleasure.  Unfortunately, you know that after the you’ve finished desert, it will be time to go home.

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