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The Italian Language Conundrum

After six months of living here, you’d think I’d be rolling my Rs and gesturing with my hands like an Italian nonna.  Sadly, I am not.  There are several impediments to my fluency with Italian, the least of which is that at 62, my brain is pretty full of other stuff.  My own learning disabilities aside, I’ve compiled a list of why I’m only marginally better at speaking Italian than I was six months ago.


Sometimes I just know that I’ve nailed the perfect sentence.  I’ve got the articles right, the verb tense correct, and everything in the right order.  I carefully say it and the other person (the Italian) looks at me like I’m from Mars.

We were at the vet recently to get our dog her annual checkup (see details of that experience here) and I asked about her rabies shot.  Rabies is rabbia in Italian.  I know this because there are posters all over the office talking about the horrors of rabbia and how important this vaccino (vaccine) is.  I usually try to simplify things and just say the pertinent words.  So I said rabbia in a questioning tone, meaning are you going to give her the rabbia vaccino?  The vet looked at me with total incomprehension.  Now, mind you, we were in the vet’s office with the rabbia posters everywhere.  This was not a stretch.  Steve, who rolls his Rs to perfection, said it the Italian way – rrrabbia – and the light bulb clicked on and the vet said, ahhh!  I can’t roll my Rs but I can roll my eyes, which I did because I can’t understand why she couldn’t understand me.

Italians know we’re not Italian, but they’re not quite sure what we are.  They don’t know an American accent from a British accent or an Australian accent or a German accent speaking English.  And then there’s the whole Southern accent thrown into the mix.  Some people in the US can’t even understand us, so these poor people don’t stand a chance.  But accents work both ways and we’re starting to pick up on the different accents here.  Some we understand very well, while others are impossible to decipher.

Fast Talking

One of my most used words is piano, which means several things, but in this context it means slow.  Italians tend to talk very fast and my old brain is processing a word from three sentences ago while the person I’m listening to continues with a long string of verbs, adjectives, and articles.  When they start doing this, I try to listen for words I know and piece together what the gist of the message is.  Sometimes this works and sometimes not.  I may pick up a word I know, like ragazza, which means girl, and I think we’re talking about children’s clothes when we’re actually talking about school lunches.  Piano, per favore – slowly, please – has become my mantra.

In addition to fast talking, Italians also use ten words when four would do.  There’s no economy in this language.  I can understand that because it is such a melodic, poetic language.  It begs to be spoken in the most prolific way.  Americans use language to communicate an idea.  Italians use language to convey an emotion.  Everything has a passion that we just don’t use in English.  And while it’s absolutely beautiful to listen to, it’s almost impossible to follow.  I keep telling myself that someday it will all click.

Ignoring our Ignorance

This is closely related to fast talking.  Sometimes we’ll say something correctly and they understand it.  Those are the eureka moments when we feel like we’ve conquered a great obstacle.  Then they answer us and it’s off to the races.  They speak to us in rapid fire Italian using many more words than necessary and we’re left with that deer in the headlights look on our faces.  That’s when I have to say “parlo un po Italiano”, which is probably not even correct, but they understand it.  I speak a little Italian.  How many times have I sheepishly said that while cursing myself for not being able to keep up with the conversation?

Sometimes, however, this doesn’t stop them.  They’ll continue to ask us questions or tell us something because we said we don’t speak much Italian in Italian.  So we must know something.  They’ll keep talking regardless of our response, or lack thereof, thinking that if they say it enough times, surely we’ll understand it.  We walk away wondering if they really thought we understood them.  If that’s the case, they must think we’re the most socially inept people on the planet for nodding and walking away from a conversation about nuclear arms.  Sometimes we just smile and say si, si, over and over.  This is really dangerous because they could be asking us if we’re drug dealers.

Hand Gestures

This is my favorite part of the language and one that I could become fluent in.  You can say so much with your hands that sometimes words aren’t necessary.  That doesn’t mean you eliminate the words – you would never do that – but you can catch the gist of a conversation by just watching the hand gestures.

One of my favorite things to do is watch the old retired men in the piazza.  They huddle together and have great discussions about all manner of important topics and they’re all gesturing.  This gesturing is very controlled.  It’s not wild gesturing or flailing your arms around.  It’s very studied and exact.  And each gesture means something different.  Maybe I should abandon my efforts to actually speak this language and concentrate on gesturing.

Practicing English

Anyone here who knows the smallest bit of English likes to use it on us whenever they can.  When we start out in our pitiful Italian, struggling to ask a simple question, they will ask if we speak English.  Yes, we say and then they’ll tell us that they only speak a little English, but they would like to practice with us.  Well, that’s all fine and good, but the whole point of us struggling to ask our simple question is for us to practice Italian.  We’ve gotten to where we turn that back on them and say OK, you speak English and we’ll speak Italian.  Although, I must say, it is very tempting to just go with it and speak English.  Sometimes I do that.  Depends on how tired I am or how overloaded my brain is.


I can’t tell you how this has complicated our language skills.  It’s just harder to understand someone who is wearing a mask.  We don’t need any additional layers between us and the words coming out of people’s mouths, but here we are with everyone wearing a mask.  Sometimes the masks work to my benefit, however.  They can’t see me silently mouthing the words that they’re saying in a desperate attempt to make some sense of it.  They also can’t see me mouthing “You’ve got to be kidding me” when they say something completely incomprehensible.  It doesn’t help the situation, but it makes me feel better.

Masculine, Feminine, Regular, Irregular, Singular, Plural

This is the heart of my problem with Italian.  I know lots of words, but I can’t string a sentence together if my life depended on it.  I’m always forgetting to make something plural or change the tense or remember the proper article.  What happened to slapping an S on the end of a word to make it plural?  I try not to compare English and Italian but I will say that plurals are one thing we’ve got hands down over them.  In Italian, to make something plural you have to change the article as well as the word.  And it depends on what it starts and ends with how it’s made plural.  Come on, people, let’s add an S and be done with it.

I’m not sure why words have to have a gender associated with them, but they do.  I much prefer the English method of words for the people, but that’s not the Italian way.  These are the little parts of speech that I tend to gloss over, thinking that it couldn’t be that important.  That’s the American in me, thinking that if we don’t use it can’t be meaningful.  But it is and when you don’t use them you sound like a three-year-old.  Frankly, I would love to sound like a three-year-old, but I’m light years away from that.

Verbs are a nightmare so I just live in present tense.  If I have to talk to someone about something that’s already happened or that’s coming up, it’s not pretty.  That’s when I pull out some of my own hand gestures.  Waving my hand backward over my shoulder means it’s already happened and rolling my hand in a small circle in front of me means it’s coming up.  The Italians haven’t caught on to my system yet, but they’re a clever bunch and will be up to speed in no time.

What I’ve Mastered

My favorite phrase in Italian is Buongiorno – good morning.  I say it to people I meet on our morning walks and it makes me feel full of promise.  There’s no expectation of a conversation, so I’m safe from having to conjure up any other words.  And it implies that I know enough to wish someone a good morning.  I’ve said it so many times, that I feel very comfortable with it.  Buongiorno.  I still can’t roll the r but I think I have the inflection right by emphasizing the “gior” part.  I can pretend that I have a whole arsenal of words in my brain just waiting to be spoken.  I am filled with hope every morning as I start a new day wishing these fine people a good morning in their language.  And thinking that this might the day it all comes together for me.


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