Saturday, May 17, 2014

My first Italian class: Painful, but with heart

Strangely, in spite of working earnestly on my own bilingualism, reflecting on it, and writing about it frequently since I arrived in Italy, I waited until just a couple of days ago to put myself in a formalized, language-learning environment. You might wonder why I didn't start taking classes immediately upon my arrival here (I wonder the same thing). Well, people kept telling me that my Italian was "good enough", that I would learn more by just being immersed (this has worked to a certain extent). At the same time, I was so busy getting the research project underway, learning my way around, meeting people, and generally adjusting to life here -basically lots of energy expended and not enough left to go to class. Excuses aside… I finally decided that it was time to take this Italian-language-learning thing more seriously. I decided that I need to approfondire (deepen) my knowledge of Italian. So, I went to class.

Time to get serious about learning Italian in Italy!

There are many organizations in Padua that offer free Italian class for stranieri (foreigners, like me). I decided to try one of them based on the recommendation of a friend from England. The classes are run by a religious organization whose mission is accoglienza, a lovely word whose translation is something like, "making someone feel at home". The classes are basically small-group tutoring sessions in which students are placed, based on ability, with volunteer tutors who teach specialized lessons based on the needs of each group. The night I showed up, so did a young woman from Albania whose Italian, I thought, was quite good. She and I ended up together as a group, sitting at a little table with a somewhat eccentric, but charming, older Italian woman whom I'll call "Donatella".  

As it would turn out, Donatella is quite a character. She seems to be hard of hearing, making for an interesting language learning experience. She is also strict and very old-fashioned in terms of teaching methods. She was not happy with my amorphous note-taking (full of circles and connecting arrows) and instead instructed me to write out verb conjugations in neat columns including the pronouns. In spite of this, it is clear that she has a good heart and a grandmotherly sense of accoglienza.

As she got to know us a bit, she thought it was funny that my Albanian companion was blond and blue-eyed and I was brunette… in her view, we looked like I should have been from Albania and she from the U.S. Maybe due to my physical features, she surmised that I had family in Italy. I told her that I probably do, as my mom's side immigrated to the U.S. from Palermo, Sicily, a few generations ago.

Although mentioning Sicily put a smile on Donatella's face, it pretty much sealed our fate regarding the somewhat excruciating language lesson of the night: il passato remoto (enter foreboding music). Il passato remoto is pretty much the most difficult and least useful verb tense for second language speakers of Italian. Donatella's rationale was that we should learn it in case I ever visit Sicily, as it is commonly used in the south (whereas here, in the north, everyone uses the much more regular passato prossimo to express events occurring in the past).

I had acquired some sense of passato remoto in Italian classes in the U.S., but its instruction was always preceded by the caveat that it is rarely used in spoken Italian, but reserved for written narrative, e.g., historical accounts. Interestingly, I have been reading a translation of John Green's YA novel, Looking for Alaska, that relies on passato remoto. At any rate, for my first ever Italian class in Italy, we spent the entire evening conjugating the endless irregular verbs of passato remoto (in neat, orderly columns, I should add), and applying them to good old fashioned fill-in-the-blank drills. I must admit, as a grammar nerd, I was secretly pleased to be forced to finally spend some quality time with this obscure verb tense. My classmate, on the other hand, was very dissatisfied at the end of the night. Hopefully next time we can do something more obviously useful.

The punchline was that, at the end of the class, I asked Donatella where she was from in Italy. She smiled and said, "Guess". Of course! PALERMO. Well, that explains it. Now I know that Donatella was not only teaching us something that might possibly one day be useful if I visit Sicily, but something that was important to her, reminiscent of her childhood, and ingrained in her own language identity. This just made me appreciate her, and the exhausting lesson, even more.

So, will I ever get Italian out of my brain and into my heart? Maybe if I visit Palermo. In the meantime, I will try to continue to advance in the bilingual game, taking full advantage of my resources and supports while I am here. Get ready, Donatella: I am going back to class!               



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