Language / Musings

Things I Learned while Learning Italian

Recently I celebrated three years of officially studying Italian! And while I still feel like a baby on my language journey, I also know that linguistically, and more important, spiritually, I have come a long way.

I never planned to learn Italian, despite having grown up with a grandfather who emigrated from Southern Italy when he was a teenager, and spoke with a rich, thick accent for the 60 years that he lived here in America. Certainly I wasn’t looking to fill time. With three kids in three different schools and competitive sports in the evenings, my days — and nights — were spent primarily behind the steering wheel.

Still, one day, my husband innocently enough suggested we learn Italian before our family’s summer trip to Italy, and that little nudge sparked a passion in me which caught me completely by surprise.

In sharing this post, my intent is not to encourage you to start learning Italian, although I do welcome the company! Rather, I want to encourage you to find a passion and jump into it wholeheartedly. Even though I wasn’t looking to fill time with a new hobby, I was in need of a salve to soothe my aching heart, which presented in my life in the form of lovely and lyrical Italian. (read more here)

In my un-scientific opinion, carving out time for one’s passion is good for your joy-meter, for your brain and for your spirit. Beyond the actual language, here’s some things I have learned while learning Italian…Cose che ho imparato mentre studiavo l’italiano:

40 is not too late (A quarant’anni non e` troppo tardito get started on something brand new. In fact, it might be just the right time to take a good look at your bucket list and start diving in. Bucket list evaluation is exactly how I came to start this blog — one day I reflected on the passions and interests of my life, and realized that I had been wanting to write a book since I was in college. I figured it was time to get going or delete that one from the list, so I decided to get my feet wet by blogging. Tackling Italian came to me in pretty much the same way. An innocent suggestion led to the purchase of a simple Italian for beginners book. Which launched a beautiful, lovely, quirky challenge in my life. And a new part of myself, one which I hadn’t realized existed, was born.

Time can be found (Il tempo si puo trovareDuring the first two years of il mio soggiorno italiano, my Italian journey, most of my study time came in 10 minute chunks while waiting in the car to pick up my kids. While I longed to devote an hour or two in a quiet and inspiring spot, Italian workbooks piled high and channeling my inner college student, I knew that would be impossible. And that I would never make much progress if I put off this pursuit just because the reality of my schedule didn’t match the scenario in my head.

But little snatches of time I did have, and lots of them throughout the day. Often, these chunks were unexpected and irregular, so I always had (and still have) something with me to study or read in Italian — a workbook, flashcards, an article printed off the internet. I installed a translation app on my phone, so I could quickly decipher new words as they popped up. Suddenly, waiting around in my car wasn’t such a time waste. And I found that the more little snatches of time I had, the more I wanted to study. Looking back, I believe that starting off this way actually built a solid foundation in my language learning, without overwhelming me, and kept me coming back for more. After all, in 10 minutes, one cannot learn an entire verb tense filled with countless words. There is no possibility of becoming overwhelmed. But one can learn how to conjugate the most important verbs — one word at a time — in brief study sessions. I quickly realized that mastering the language may take years, perhaps the rest of my life, but I’m certainly finding joy in the journey. And pian piano, slowly, slowly, I’m progressing.

Encourage Yourself  (Incorragia a te stessa) For some reason when I started this journey, I wanted to keep it secret for a while. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I felt a little silly admitting that I was learning Italian just for the heck of it. I suppose it felt like such a luxury, devoting time each day to something that was purely for enrichment and joy. Why not pick up Spanish instead, which would probably be easier to learn and would certainly be more practical living in a city so close to the Mexican border.

But one day it hit me that I did not have to explain myself or defend my choices. I remember sitting on the sidelines of Younger Son’s baseball game a couple of years ago, verb conjugation notes in hand. Another mom who had wandered close to me commented, “wow, you’re really taking this studying Italian thing seriously.” Proudly, I responded, “I sure am.”

Another issue to tackle, particularly in learning a new language and likely all new endeavors, is that you have to make peace with making mistakes. The only way to really progress in language learning is through actual conversations. At first I was scared to make a fool of myself in front of Italian speakers, worried that I would say something embarrasing or inappropriate. Which of course happens, but I try to be gentle on myself. I think of myself as a little toddler or pre-schooler, just a few years old in learning the language. Sono come una bambina. I’m like a baby. I wouldn’t ridicule a three-year-old trying to get a grasp on communicating, and, in my experience, Italians and Italian speakers wouldn’t either, even if that toddler happens to look like a grown woman.

Find your joy, then jump in! (Trova la tua gioia, e poi tuffati!)  Whether it’s crafting, writing, meditating, exercising, learning a new language, whatever pursuit sparks your joy, reward yourself in pursuing it. Most Wednesdays for the past three years, I have gone to Italian class. Awaiting me there is a teacher I admire and a quirky collection of students gathered in the name of a love for learning Italian. I’m very protective of that weekly chunk of time. For two hours, I can dive right into my pursuit, a mental oasis from the other obligations in my life. The tasks on my to-do list are very loyal, and all still waiting for me when I emerge, tired but happy, from my linguistic lair.

Gift yourself the time to follow your passions (Regalati del tempo per seguire le passioni)  Us parents dedicate ourselves to supporting our kids in pursuing their passions, often at the expense of our own. But people of all ages need a creative and spiritual outlet and release. What’s more, I like what I’m modeling to my kids. To show them I’m pursuing a passion simply because it brings me pleasure, mental fulfillment and a sense of accomplishment, while still putting them first in my life. It’s something I wish for them throughout their lifetimes as well.

Summer is a fantastic season for inspiration and motivation. I hope that something wonderful is waiting for you around the corner to add joy to your life

Grazie a Jodina Hahn Gallo, la mia maestra, per aiutarmi con l’italiano in questo posto. 

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