Lingua franca

April 1, 2019

When you gotta go…Works in any language

Back in the early 70s, I was traveling by car with a companion who got the jeep stuck in a ditch in northern Italy. I dispatched myself to go for help. Knowing the rural isolation of the area had probably not sprouted an English speaker, I realized I’d probably have to make myself understood in Italian. We’d been driving in Italy for a couple of hours, so I believed I’d sufficiently gotten the handle on the essence of the language, which to my mind simply meant adding a vowel such as “a” or “o” to the end of the English word. For instance the word for “arrive” in Italian is “arrivo.”

A film noir version?

Armed with this demonstrably powerful linguistic insight, I confidently approached a seasoned farmer and pronounced my problem to him: “Accidento!” He regarded me as if  I were the first Martian he’d ever encountered. Eventually, I drew a picture that showed a car with its wheels in a ditch, and he contacted a relative with a tow truck and a penchant for a quick buck.

In my current travels, I’ve matured linguistically and have availed myself to a useful language app for my cell phone. Thus was I able to inquire of our waiter one evening during dinner as to the restaurant’s live show. I was both surprised and pleased the he’d understood my Italian, and he answered me promptly in kind.

“What was that all about?” Carol asked, impressed by my apparent grasp of some basic Italian.

“I asked him when did the music start.”

“And what did he say?”

“Either ‘8:30’ or ‘Wednesday.’”

Carol thought this both funny and about right for my so-called Italian proficiency, and was even more amused when both ‘8:30’ and ‘Wednesday’ came and went with no band on the stage. I have no idea what he answered me, and I have to allow as well he had no idea what I’d asked him.

All right, let’s try and be adults about it

Whenever I take inventory of all my faults and shortcomings (which I believe I tend to do too often, but Carol hasn’t affirmed that as yet), not speaking another language is always in my top ten. Although Rick Steves seems almost proud of his “unilingualism,” (though I think he uses it to reassure those who believe international travel is too treacherous without a foreign language skill), I believe it a failure that needs addressing. I’ve taken the complete Rosetta Stone course in German and am about halfway through it for French, and I can truthfully say it hasn’t helped at all.

Game, set and match on the subject

After a total of about six weeks here in Italy in the past year, I’m now considering a Babbel course in Italian. Whereas the sound of German to my ears makes me either want to resignedly board a boxcar or enthusiastically invade Poland, and French sounds pretentious and snooty, Italian hits my ear like music. When I hear it spoken just on the street, I yearn to answer it like Bocelli or Pavarotti might.

But my love for the sound of a language fails to incite my brain to learn it. I have to translate everything first, which for German is fatal, because in that language the verbs just don’t come at the end of the sentence; sometimes they don’t show up until the end of the week. But having to translate everything into English first still means everyone must speak to you like you’re a two-year-old. I thinks this is why two-year-old Europeans seem to be so affectionately drawn to me. They think, “look at that old guy. I’m talking circles around him, and I don’t even know what I’m saying.”

I’m going to try to plunge ahead with Italian, though, if for no other reason than I want to be sure I’m ordering a pizza that doesn’t come with liver on it.

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