Italians Don’t Count§

writer: russell j.t. dyer; posted: February 12, 2006; revised: April 23, 2018; readers in past month: 593

Milan Street Car Driver

When speaking Italian to Italians who don’t speak any English at all, I’m free to experiment, to speak my awful Italian. I’m free to make mistakes and probably sound like I’m drunk. I don’t mind sounding foolish all that much. However, if the person with whom I’m speaking knows English, I won’t attempt to speak Italian. It’s not that I’m lazy and looking to get out of testing my Italian. Rather, I think it’s that I’m afraid that they’re going to look at me and say, “That was terrible. You sound like an idiot. Please don’t speak another word of Italian. In fact, just leave the country and don’t ever come back.”

In my mind, it’s like Italians don’t count unless they speak English. If I’m talking to an Italian who doesn’t speak English, and they snear at my Italian, I feel as though I can say in my defense, “Parla inglese, smarty pants?” However, if they speak both languages, then I feel exposed and unable to give the it ain’t as easy defense. Actually, I clam up even if there’s Italian who speaks English nearby, at another table at a restaurant, for instance. I think I’m worried they’re going to come over to declare the conversation offensive and call the langua polizia.

This reluctance to speak to bilinguals, though, is a bit of a problem. I know that my shyness in this way prevents me from taking advantage of opportunities to speak with people who could offer me advice in English while I blunder through the conversation in Italian. But, I don’t seem to mind the loss.

Recently, I’ve engaged an Italian tutor who speaks English just fine. She pushed for me to converse in Italian with her during the first session we had together earlier this week. I resisted her on this point. Her being younger and newer to tutoring, she lost the struggle. However, I could see that she was very frustrated with not being firmer with me. I realized after I left her, that just because I can bully her, doesn’t mean she wasn’t right about how we should proceed. So, when we met again this week, I started off speaking Italian with her as we walked together to a coffee shop and tried to keep the Italian going as much as I could manage and bear. I’d say we spent about sixty-five percent of our time with me eeking out Italian.

Perhaps this is one of the interim steps for me to become fluent that I didn’t see before. I’ve been told that one of the hardest things to do is not to be afraid to try to speak a language you’re learning. I thought I had that beat easily based on all of the talking I’ve been doing. But, apparently there is one aspect of this layer that I need to resolve. Hopefully the tutor will be a means for me overcoming this obstacle. We’re planning on meeting twice a week. If keep following her lead, maybe I’ll become fluent before the meeting in Sorrento in the middle of March. I’d like that. I’d like to be able to show off my language skills to friends and co-workers while they’re here. I certainly won’t get another chance to do it.