Speaking in Tandem

Italian and US flags

Every Thursday evening at the Anghiari library there is a program called Tandem.  It’s an hour long torture session where native English speakers and Italian speakers come together and speak to each other in both languages.  The director of the library is a British woman named Merrill, although we called her Mary for years before we found out we were calling her the wrong name.  Her assistant for Tandem is Dodi, an American who has lived near Anghiari for over 20 years.  Even though they are both native English speakers, they speak fluent Italian.  There’s hope for me yet, I suppose.

Please Don’t Pair Me with Him

Merrill and Dodi size up the group and see how many English speakers and Italian speakers there are.  Then they assign us to small groups, roughly equally divided between native tongues.  They leave us alone for about a half hour where we’re supposed to have conversations with each other in English and in Italian.  Since the whole point is to learn conversational Italian or English, you’re supposed to correct people when they make mistakes.  This is how you learn, right?

I’m so out of my league here that it’s pathetic.  Really.  The native English speakers I’m paired with are so far ahead of me with their Italian skills that I just clam up and let them do all the talking.  This is not a stretch for me, being the shy, introvert that I am.  Every now and then they feel the need to bring me into the conversation by asking me a question in Italian, to which I usually look at them with a blank face while trying desperately not to look as dumb as I am.  Sometimes I mutter a one word answer, or babble something about how I understand much better than I can speak (which is true so it’s not really a lie).  The problem is you can only get away with this for so many weeks before they start thinking you belong in the remedial Tandem class.  There’s not a remedial Tandem class, but there should be.

At the halfway point, they mix us up and pair us with others.  I guess they think this will make it easier for the people I’m paired with to get an actual conversation going.  And I do look at it as a kind of clean slate and am always ready to jump into the next group with a fresh start.  Plus I know that means we’re halfway done and surely I can make it through these last 30 minutes.

But there’s always “that guy”.  The guy who is a native English speaker but speaks Italian very well.  The guy who rattles off verb conjugations like Dante and looks past me like I’m an insect on the wall of linguistics.  And he’s always British or Australian – someone who probably looks down on my inferior “yank” English anyway.  I sit there watching the volley of Italian being hurled past me and wonder why the heck this guy is even here.  If I spoke Italian as good as he, I would be out in the piazza with all the old men talking about who did what to whom this week.  Now that’s a conversation I could get into.

The Longest Hour of My Life

When I was a freshman in college I thought for about 30 seconds I might want to major in a science.  During that ill-advised moment, I registered for Chemistry.  For one hour four days a week I went to that class and suffered through sheer agony.  None of it made any sense to me and I felt like one of those beakers that puffed out toxic fumes when you poured the wrong thing into it.  How I managed to pass (barely) that class remains a mystery to this day.  Maybe the professor took pity on me (not likely) or maybe I guessed right just enough to make it out.  That experience taught me two things:  1) the sheer beauty of social sciences, and 2) that an hour is a looooong time.  Those hours were nothing compared to Tandem.

I love it when we start late.  As with most things Italian, this happens with some frequency.  Things rarely run past the ending time, so I’m guaranteed a shorter torture session.  Sometimes I try to distract Merrill and Dodi, gleefully speaking English and engaging them on all sorts of topics.  They’re onto me, though, and nudge me along into my group, sometimes with “that guy”.  So, I sigh internally and smile externally and try my very best to keep up with the volley of Italian that’s being hurled past me.

I have noticed that my groups tend to speak way more Italian than English.  The Italian speakers are happy accommodating the English speakers in their quest to have an Italian conversation. Where’s the tandem part of this?  I would love to be asked a question about which pronoun you should use when referring to your sister-in-law (Italians have a really hard time with he and she, getting them mixed up quite frequently).  Or how to say “I’ve got to go to the grocery store for some more pasta”.  That would make me feel helpful and remind me that I have a healthy command of at least one language.  But my groups always end up speaking in Italian and I guess that makes the others in my group happy.  I’m always with a bunch of English-speaking over-achievers who take delight in showing off their Italian skills.

I should adopt a better attitude about Tandem.  With each day that passes, Thursday looms on the horizon, getting closer and closer.  I’ll admit that I don’t study as much as I should.  Frankly, there are weeks that I don’t study at all.  So I can’t assume that one day I will wake up with a miraculous grasp of Italian.  I only have myself to blame for my inadequate language skills.  After being here for over a year, it’s somewhat embarrassing.  I know languages don’t come easily to me and I know that they do for others.  I stood behind that excuse for a while.  I have to say that I’ve found it easy to live here and not possess conversational skills.  If you stay in your little bubble you’re fine.  We speak English at home and our good friends all speak English and use it almost exclusively with us.  We have many friends who don’t speak English and our conversations with them are limited to “how’s it going?” and “nice weather”.

But the simple truth is that I live in Italy and I should be able to speak their language.  I’ve done so many things that have taken me outside the zone of the familiar.  Words are important and are our way of revealing ourselves to others.  They’re how we’re perceived and our choices in what we say define who we are.  They’re important and are one of the few things about us that really stick with others.  What’s said can’t be undone.  You can change your hair or the way you dress.  You can adopt a more pleasant countenance and work on your table manners.  But what you say is the ultimate reflection of who you are and what you stand for.

I vow to try harder to learn this beautiful language.  Everyday I will learn something new, or reinforce something old.  I may never get to the point of shooting the breeze with strangers in the piazza, but maybe I can get through that one hour on Thursday nights without breaking into a cold sweat.  I’ll just have to remind myself that however bad it is, at least I’m not expected to learn the quantitative composition of compounds.  Maybe I’ll learn a few of those in Italian and throw them out to “that guy” and see what he thinks of my language skills then.


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