December 27, 2011 | Hebrew

Gift Idea for Next Holiday Season

Learn your significant other's native language so you can dazzle your in-laws!

I am still in Genoa on a family vacation. When studying, I have been relieved to discover that it has not been a problem to flip back and forth between Hebrew and Italian lessons.

Genoa Is Beautiful. Imagine Doing Your Banking in This Building!

Genoa Is Beautiful. Imagine Doing Your Banking in This Building!

Well, with one exception. I keep mixing up ma (“but” in Italian) and aval (“but” in Hebrew). Since they don’t sound alike, I have no idea why that one concept is causing me so much trouble, but it is.

One thing I have not yet pointed out is that, although I have been to Italy previously, this is the first time I have ever been here since studying Italian two years ago! The difference is amazing. Every little thing becomes so much easier when you have some clue about the language.

Going through airports. Asking for a bathroom. Finding your way around town. 

Much more important: talking to family members. My sister-in-law’s husband is Italian, and his family lives here in Genoa. Previously we had major communication problems. They didn’t really speak English, and I spoke no Italian whatsoever. So communication at family events was difficult, despite some energetic and physical attempts to convey ideas through extraverbal means.

As I Study Italian, English Spreads in Genoa (and Globally)

As I Study Italian, English Spreads in Genoa (and Globally)

Yesterday all the in-laws came over to my sister-in-law’s home for a post-Christmas gathering. The event marked a dramatic and significant change in my communication fortune. I was suddenly able to talk to people! My efforts were far from perfect—I am not at the level I achieved two years ago—but I was still able to convey and understand a lot.

A sister of my sister-in-law’s husband made me feel great by repeatedly extolling grammatical achievements of mine in real time, like a sports commentator at a football game.

For example, once when I started out a sentence, “Siamo stati…” (meaning “we were”), she burst in with detailed commentary about how impressive it was that I knew how to construct that idea grammatically in Italian.

It is not exactly advanced Italian, but you do have to know a number of things to get it right: (1) that the situation calls for passato prossimo (present perfect), (2) that for the first verb you must use a form of essere (to be) rather than avere (to have), and (3) that you then have to match the participle to subject in both number and gender. I appreciated being appreciated, and I found myself admiring her significant personal charm and perspicacity.

During the course of the evening, I participated in Italian discussions of language learning, English grammar, Italian grammar, theater, breast enhancement, fertility treatments, plastic surgery, pickpocketing, aging, Christmas caroling, and various other topics.

Nikon Ad in Genoa, with Pigeons

Nikon Ad in Genoa, with Pigeons

Having some ability in Italian completely changed my relationship to my sister-in-law’s family. Our relationship has always been friendly, but being able to do more than smile and nod did a great deal to promote warmth and intimacy and camaraderie. At least that is my perception. 

So that got me thinking, not for the first time, about how I know quite a few people who are married to native speakers of other languages, but who don’t really speak those languages.

And it occurred to me, also not for the first time, that one of the greatest gifts someone could give his or her significant other would be to learn that person’s native language. It would be pretty amazing if it were a total surprise. 

You could show up at a family gathering next holiday season after years of monolingualism, suddenly able to express ideas in Arabic, or Spanish, or Chinese, or whatever, and dazzle in-laws who have looked at you suspiciously since your wedding date.

A Store in Genoa! Seriously!

A Store in Genoa! Seriously!

That would be a very cool scene in a movie, I think, especially if the person were really, really good at the language. And especially if the person’s wife or husband didn’t know it was about to happen. (But only if she or he hadn’t been left wondering for months, when the person kept disappearing for German or Russian or Greek classes, who they were having an affair with.)

Learning a language for someone: how much better would that be than jewelry or a power drill?

A truly transcendent gift.

During my time in Italy, I confess I was pained by my grammatical mistakes. One thing I keep doing, for instance, is saying molto bene (very well) in situations where what I really need is molto buono (very good). I am sure I am not the first American to do this, but it really bugs me when it happens.

Despite my personal grievances with myself, I was on the whole basically ecstatic about being able to say things to people in Italian, and have them answer me in Italian, and understand them in Italian, and then say something back to them in Italian, etc. I love this language to pieces.

Comments (2)

mimi • Posted on Wed, January 11, 2012 - 10:51 am EST

I must say I am surprised at the subject of this blog post. The major reason I learned Italian was so that I could speak with Italians! I truly understand (now) that your language learning is really just about learning and not communication. communication for you is just a lucky side effect! Fascinating! I am glad you are getting to know your Italian family.


Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, January 11, 2012 - 4:23 pm EST

Oh-oh. If that’s what I conveyed in this entry, then that’s too bad. I always want to communicate. Well, except when I am in a curmudgeonly mood, I suppose.

I have talked in Italian to quite a few Italians in New York City. That’s largely the idea of this project: that I study and get as far as I can on my own, but that I also try to apply my skills around the city and develop them that way as well.

New York as a multilingual language lab, in other words. And language as a way to explore a multilingual city!

I had, until December, just never been back to Italy since I first studied Italian, so that was a new and very exciting development for me. No matter how many Italians you may encounter in New York, the fact remains that there are many more in Italy!

I do love to talk, so communication is important to me. But I can sometimes get very bound up in and excited about doing grammar lessons, which is an inherently antisocial activity. So I sometimes have to make myself close the books and get out in the world again. It is true that even without being able to practice live, I would still love studying languages, just because something about that tickles my brain and my fancy.

I will check out your blog!

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