We’ve been in Italy for just over two months now. I’ve been studying Italian for about eight weeks, for about three hours each weekday. And I’m still utterly, utterly rubbish. In fact, I feel like I’m going backwards. Every encounter with an Italian speaker follows the same pattern – I manage to ask a question, just about, then they reply at a natural pace and I’m lost. Frustration and embarrassment ensue, to greater or lesser degrees depending on how low my generally meagre confidence is that day.
I’ve changed classes a few times already as teachers have left or been shuffled around. My first teacher was great, and made me feel very comfortable blundering through my first attempts at Italian. My second teacher was a blustering arse, who was uninterested in males and seemed to prefer a mode that involved a weird blend of bullying and brutish flirtation with the females. I changed classes. My third teacher was also good. But things were getting harder, and increasingly I’ve struggled to follow the flow. I always imagined language learning would be a gradual process of improvement, but currently I very much feel like I’m going backwards.
This week I’ve been with a fourth teacher – apparently an academic who’s written theses in Latin – who is also nice, but the class has been an enormous struggle. This is partly because it’s full of cocky, confident twenty-ish continental blokes, who all seem to already speak two or more languages (one guy rattled off a list of about five). In such circumstances, I’m utterly ashamed. Ashamed to be an inept monolinguist, grandson to a guy who spoke seven languages. And ashamed to be British. We really are crap with languages, especially now. The British empire of the 19th century, then the US empire of the 20th century may have made English a key international language, but while our empire is gone, the US empire is also on the decline, notably with the rise of China as the pre-eminent global power and trading nexus.
It’s a period when we really should be emphasising languages more at school, but instead they seem to be in decline. According to this article, the past decade and a half has seen GCSE and A-level French and German almost halving in the UK. Which may not really be a problem in an era when Mandarin and Spanish are surely becoming the most important global languages. But it also says uptake of “Chinese” has dropped, by, what, about 6%. It’s a real shame.
What’s also a shame is the very structure of language education in Britain, or at least my experience of it. I learned French at secondary school, for five years, between the ages of 11 and 16 ish (hey, it was a long time ago). You’d think after five years I’d be pretty fluent, but no, the teaching techniques were old-fashioned and of dubious efficacy, and we didn’t even have an exchange. Although my Italian is rubbish, oddly I am starting to feel it’s not a million miles away from my French, which does really highlight the failings of those five years.
The age range for those lessons was also utter nonsense. The human brain absorbs language readily pre-puberty, so if you’re going to teach languages, start at primary school, if not before, otherwise it’s verging on pointless. Unless after your GCSE or whatever you move to another country and get a local boy/girlfriend, for example – the other failsafe method of learning a language.
I fantasise about reaching that point where, after I’ve said something, I’ll actually be able to understand the reply. That point where you just understand conversation and ambient chat. That point where you even dream in another language. All things I have no concept of, and am starting to wonder if I ever will.
Being not of an outgoing disposition, middle-aged and married to a Brit (albeit one who bucks the shame by speaking very good French and pretty good Italian; the former consolidated by the aforementioned BF technique), I’m in a disappointing situation where I’m not really making Italian friends, whose companionship would be invaluable for learning the lingua. It’s said that the Italian social life revolves around family, so that excludes us sad childless types; and being an old fart, I’m not really out boozing with the ragazzi as that’d just be creepy. Perhaps worst of all though, I don’t like caffè and I’m not interested in calcio. The twin columns of Italian culture. Oh dear.