Adventures in Language Acquisition

I don’t study Italian a whole lot lately. In college most semesters I spent a good twenty hours a week studying various languages. Even on my mission, we had an hour set aside each day for language study. But that was all before I became the homeschooling mother of two preschoolers (with no dishwasher, dryer, or Trader Joe’s). Excuses, excuses. I know.
So last week I decided to turn over a new leaf, the leaf called Livemocha, which I mentioned a few days ago. I can communicate with people pretty well, and understand just about everything, but I conservatively started myself out in Italian 201, which describes itself as “For students who are comfortable enough to ask a few questions and follow simple conversations.” I breezed through the lesson, which was about buying fruits and vegetables. I’ve bought fruits and vegetables in Italy approximately a hundred times, so I figured I already knew most of the vocabulary.
When it came time do to the writing exercise, which was making a list of the items in my shopping cart, I thought nothing could be easier. I dashed off a list of groceries likely to be found in my cart and submitted my exercise. When it was graded a few hours later, I was shocked to find that my “easy” exercise was riddled with errors. There were errors of spelling, improperly formed plurals, and messed up articles. I even spelt the word “kilo” wrong!
My shock quickly turned to embarrassment. So much for the language skills I thought I had. How had this happened? I had never, ever gotten back a paper with anywhere near this many red marks in any of my Latin, Russian, Arabic or Spanish classes. When my ears stopped burning, I started thinking it over, and eventually I did come to a conclusion.
I’ve always been more of a grammar-translation sort of person when it comes to language learning. In my very traditional Latin classes, I thrived on memorizing verb conjugations, and translating and diagramming sentences. My Arabic teacher made us do a lot of immersion, but I still spent hours studying so I could replicate the proper placement of each little short vowel mark and understand its grammatical implications. I tried to never say anything until I knew just how to say it. Even when I arrived on my mission in Chile, I’d been exposed to Spanish growing up, and then spent an intensive two months studying it in the Missionary Training Center before I had to really say anything.
Then we moved to Italy. And we didn’t speak a word of Italian. Well, actually, we did speak a word. That word was dov’e, which means “where is . . . .?” Yes, we used it a lot. But we rarely understood the response, resulting in a lot of wandering around lost. We still shake our heads over the time we asked, “dov’e Megashopping” because it was the only sign we had seen near our hotel that we could pronounce, and we at least wanted to be able to make it back there. Only after I’d said it did I realize that I sounded like the classic Ugly American who can’t live without megashopping even on a relaxing vacation to Italy.
In Italy, I had to just jump in with both feet, making mistakes right and left. My classic strategy was popping in a Spanish word whenever I didn’t know the Italian one. Every once in a while, it was the right word. More often, it was at least close enough that the patient Italian at the other end of my conversation eventually figured out what I was trying to say. Slowly, but surely, I improved. My sentences contained more Italian and less Spanish. I actually understood what people were saying. And since it happened so often, I lost all fear of making mistakes, freeing myself to practice and learn.
I’d never learned a language just by speaking it. I didn’t know I could. And that’s why when I got over my shock and embarrassment about that error-riddled Italian exercise, it turned to elation. I’m no longer chained to my grammar book until I’ve memorized every tense from remote past to passive conditional. Even though I mistook the gender of uovo and mis-spelt it, when I ask at the grocery store for eggs in Italian, I get eggs. It’s like when I put away my piano books and discovered I could play by ear. Or when I ended up in Italy with no cookbooks and started making up recipes myself.
Of course, I still want to know how to spell “eggs” correctly. So I’ve gone back to Italian 101. But in the meantime, at least I can talk. And just for the record, I know “K” doesn’t exist in Italian. But I’ve seen chilo spelt “kilo” lots of times at the market. So there.