Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.

Speaking of shame

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It had been a while since I posted. This is not for lack of potential content. Actually the last month and more has been full of experiences that fulfill the potential of this European adventure to expose me to reflection-inspiring ideas. However, it turns out that the life that inspires writing actually takes a lot of time to live. Funny how that works. Now that my travel schedule and language training is taking a bit of a break, I have (at least in theory) a little more time to reflect on what I have been learning. Which has brought me to reflect on how this recent phase of frenetic activity started with my long-delayed return to formal learning: Italian classes.

Learning a new language, especially this beautiful latin tongue, was one of the many wonderful promises of our expatriate assignment. I studied spanish for 6 years in jr. high and high school, but while I did relatively well in class I never spoke with fluency. The ability to actually speak, not just stutter through basic requests, but to speak and think easily in another language has been a long-time dream. Since virtually all experts agree that immersion is the only efficient way to obtain such facility in adulthood, I moved to Italy full of expectation. As I have reflected in an earlier post (Mother Tongue and Limited Proficiency), all has not gone as easily as I expected. Simply being surrounded by the language is not sufficient in and of itself to produce facility with an unfamiliar language.

Perhaps an example can best illustrate my point. Immersion allows a language learner to repeatedly hear common phrases as they occur in daily conversation. Unfortunately, hearing a phrase over and over only embeds it in your brain when you can accurately hear the pronunciation. “Va bene” (roughly translated as “it’s good” or “OK” although the literal translation is “it goes well”)  sounds very much like “fa bene” when you are still learning italian pronunciation. Moreover, “fa bene” could very well be a perfectly reasonable phrase for all sorts of situations, because “fa” is the third person, singular, present tense of fare and fare is the most ubiquitous word in the Italian language. The dictionary definitions for fare fill up three-quarters of a page and include meanings as diverse as “do”, “make”, “build”, “be”, “manage”, and “act”  among many others. When first learning Italian it seems like “fare” is without limit in its applications, and the fact that you hear “_a bene” twenty times a day in all kinds of situations seems to match well with this versatility. I do not know how many times I said “fa bene” in my first months here before my husband was kind enough to correct me. To accurately learn a new language one needs more than just exposure – one also need instruction that can prevent the embarrassment of mis-learning.

Despite the mental fog brought on by the endless permutations of “fare,” however, I have approached my language acquisition task with gusto. For more than 19 months I consulted my Italian-English dictionary, drilled with written verb and grammar exercises, and compiled questions for my language exchange partners in my efforts to learn the language. But mostly, I just dove in and tried it. I knew I was making many, many, mistakes, but my other alternatives were worse: either simply staying silent, or speaking excruciatingly slowly as I stopped to conjugate every verb and to figure out the gender and number of each noun to assign the appropriate article. I just kept trying, mistakes and all, and looked forward to the day when I would finally have the child-free time to take real lessons and kick-start my fluency.

My first activity in my very first Italian class was a reading/conversation activity. We were given a list of statements in Italian that presented opinions about the necessary tools and activities for learning a foreign language. We were supposed to read them all, pick the three with which we most agreed and discuss our selections with a partner, in Italian, of course. The statements were all written in very absolute language (i.e. – “it is impossible to learn a foreign language after the age of 18″; or “the most important thing is to read something every day”). As a result, I only completely agreed with one statement of the ten, the contention that (in my rough translation) “it is better to try to speak even if you make mistakes.” This had certainly been my experience in the prior 19 months. My italian language experience to that date could be fairly accurately described as an extended exercise in “speaking even if you make mistakes.” While I believed this was important to the learning process, however, I was hoping to move beyond this phase now that I was in a formal Italian course.

Looking back over the past 8 weeks since I began my course, the unreasonableness of that expectation seems as obvious as the parallel pipe dream of fluency through “immersion.” Of course a mere 45 hours of classroom instruction were not sufficient to transform me into an easy bilingual conversationalist. Of course I could not decipher the complicated formulas of Italian grammatical structure through 1 hour lessons on roughly 15 specific grammatical topics. Of course the mistakes I made blithely for 19 months of halting speech in my new adopted language would not simply disappear once I finally got formal help to “learn Italian.” It just is not that easy. I was recently informed by an American acquaintance who has lived in Italy for 20 years that Italian still does not feel natural — and that is with the help of an Italian husband and a bilingual daughter.

But here is the irony: the one statement I agreed with about learning a new language is less comfortable to me now than it was that first day that I stepped into the classroom. On an intellectual level I can agree that you have to just speak and not worry about making mistakes, but I am just tired of making them. What is worse, now that I have a little instruction under my belt, I am more aware of making them. Where before I would chatter away blithely ignoring the subjunctive tense, now I am paralyzed every time I begin a phrase by introducing uncertainty (“I think that…”, We hoped that…” etc.) because I now know that I need to conjugate the following verb as congiuntivo and I cannot remember how to form the verbs. Where before the versatile pronoun/participle “ci” was just another baffling mystery of the Italian language, now it is a a very unnatural part of speech (to a native English speaker) that I nevertheless feel that I should be able to use, and use correctly.

There is another memorable moment from my first day of class: I learned the word vergogna. At first I thought it meant embarrassment, because in the Italian-only context of the class where everything must be learned from context, this seemed the most appropriate translation. When I later looked it up however, I learned that the more precise translation is shame. Whether used to substitute for embarrassment or shame, the word has been painfully relevant in the weeks that have followed.

At the suit shop when we are buying Tyler’s new suit I deliberately interaction with the salesman in English. I don’t feel like I have the vocabulary to discuss cuts and fit in Italian and as an international company I know the staff speak English. At the end of an extended conversation he learns that we are not visiting; we actually live in Milano. “Oh, how long do you leeve here?” (English is not easy for him, you see) “Almost 2 years.” I feel vergogna that I have demanded this interaction be conducted in English, when it is now obvious to him that I have far less excuse than he does for my difficulty in my non-native tongue.

I meet the mothers of the Gigglemonster’s classmates and I try valiantly to converse with them in Italian. They are patient with me, and listen politely while I struggle, and stammer — a direct result of my new-found consciousness about just how poor my Italian really is. They make a point of calling me over to their group as we wait outside the gate for school pick-up to begin and they do their best to include me in their developing friendships. But they chatter away in Italian, talking over each other and exclaiming dramatically, true to all the classic Italian stereotypes, and I stand there in silence, able to follow only part of what is being said, and feeling like an outsider. I am wishing there were a polite way that I could just stand alone to avoid the embarrassment of my incompetence, and I feel vergogna for this response to their friendliness.

I snap back in response to my wonderful mother-in-law’s effort to encourage me about just how well I am learning Italian. Twenty months of frustration and embarrassment and loneliness come gushing out as I deliver an impromptu lecture about the difficulties of struggling with language every day. She doesn’t understand; she doesn’t hear all the mistakes I make and how humiliating they are; for her Italian is a fun exercise while for me it is a necessary tool that I do not wield as well as I need to in order to function in my daily life. She is as gracious in receiving this undeserved outburst as she is in everything else, but again I feel vergogna. I have received her kindness and support with recrimination rather than gratitude, and that is something of which to be ashamed in any language.

Shame is not a comfortable emotion. I have had moments in the past few months were I began to long for this experience to just be over. I began to anticipate the luxury of living in an environment where I speak the language better, not worse, than most people I meet. I began to dream of escape from days punctuated by embarrassment, and the shameful light that embarrassment casts on my own lack of maturity. As the limits of even intensive study have killed my dream of easy fluency I have wanted to throw up my hands and say “what’s the point? I am leaving in a year anyhow. Why keep struggling?”

But the answer is that there is a lesson in shame, if I will only learn it. If I abandon my efforts and resign myself to the shame, then it really has been pointless. All the study, and the effort, and the embarrassment will have borne no fruit in my life. I will not speak Italian well, and, even more importantly, my understanding of myself will not have been transformed by this experience. BUT. If I keep trying even when it is frustrating and difficult, I will have learned that I can do things even when I do them poorly. I do not like doing things poorly. It is not comfortable. But it is also NOT shameful. To continue to try, to make mistakes and not give up, to be the slowest person in the conversation and keep trying to participate; that is something to be proud of.

Up until very recently when people ask me if I speak Italian, or when Italian friends assert that I do speak Italian, my response has been embarrassed denial. “No, no, no. Non davvero. Not really.” But I recently realized something. The very first Italian phrase I learned, before even moving to Italy, was  “non parlo bene l’italiano” – “I do not speak Italian well.” From the very first days of my residency here I have been using this phrase to apologize when I do not understand something said to me, or to explain why I am speaking so slowly, or thinking of the right thing to say. I do not say “non parlo italiano” – ” I do not speak Italian.” I say “non parlo bene.” And that is true. I don’t speak well. But I do speak Italian. And that is quite an accomplishment.

I speak Italian poorly, and there is no shame in that.


Author: Serena Gideon Rice

In early 2011 my family moved our home, temporarily, from New Jersey to Milan, Italy. In the process I quit what had been my dream job conducting policy-directed social science research, to focus on my other dream job, raising our two young children. The three-year adventure was exciting, exhausting, disorienting, fulfilling, and countless other contradictions. It also birthed in me a desire to share my reflections on life's joys and challenges with anyone who cares to reflect with me. Now that we have returned to the US I'm finding that the new perspective I gained in Europe has come with me, and gives me a whole new way of interacting with my home. There's still so much to learn and share! I hope you'll share the journey, and add your own lessons to my daily education.

One thought on “Speaking of shame

  1. Oh Serena, how beautifully written (as always). Your post resonates with me and I applaud you in your efforts to not only learn to speak Italian, but to continue to do so when it doesn’t come easily. If it is any comfort, any discipline requires leaning a new vocabulary, whether it is in another language, or in your native tongue–I have flashbacks to my time in Princeton and your frustration and feelings are what I felt while in seminary; it was a struggle. Perseverance is a very good quality to have and will definitely help you hold your head high in your last year of residency in Italy.
    Big Hugs,

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