November 4, 2009 | Italian
I experience some linguistic disorientation.
Although the three Pimsleur language series I have worked on to date have different content, many of the words and phrases I am learning are the same. The effect, I think, is that one language pushes the previous one out the back of my head, at least for the moment. If there were more differences in program content, that would probably happen less.
This is by no means a complaint; I think Pimsleur does a great job. You can’t have radically different content each time—it would be too expensive—and anyway, there’s no need for it. Basic communication skills are basic communication skills. People eat, drink, sleep, and make love in every language. And most people aren’t running from one language to the next as I am.
I do think the rate at which I am forgetting Arabic far exceeds the rate at which I forgot Russian. There is just no pathway, no glue, for me to retain it. I never got a sense of rules to stick the individual sentences onto.
Tonight at a store in my neighborhood, I talked to an Egyptian employee who knew I had been studying Arabic. She asked me if I had learned any more. I said no, that I had moved on to Italian.
Instead of saying, “Oh, what a shame,” she surprised me by saying, with some force, that Arabic is a dead language.
I said, “But hundreds of millions of people speak it.” She complained that no one knows the grammar and that everyone speaks slang. She insisted she would never teach it to her children.
I was stunned to hear her say these things. How common is this attitude?
Another thing that is pushing Arabic out of my head is that Italian is so beautifully, wonderfully logical to my brain. It is weird to feel again as though I am actually good at this stuff. Although I didn’t often feel discouraged while I was studying Arabic, I felt pretty untalented.
Today in one of my grammar books—a big, green, enthusiastically titled one called Italian Now!—I was practicing numbers in an exercise. I had to write out 5,555,555,555 in words. I found the experience rather shocking. Here is the number:
- cinque miliardi cinquecento cinquantacinque milioni cinquecento cinquantacinque mila cinquecento cinquantacinque
I thought to myself, that’s impossibly long. Then it occurred to me to wonder, what does the English look like? Here it is:
- five billion five hundred fifty-five million five hundred fifty-five thousand five hundred fifty-five
Okay, it’s not quite as long, but these numbers are just ridiculous written out in any language. Thank god for actual numbers.
For me so far the biggest challenge in Italian is the vowels. So much of the language is so close to Spanish, but then the vowels are slightly different. Where there’s an e in Spanish, there’s often an i in Italian. Where there’s an o in Spanish, there’s often an e in Italian. And so on.
Compare these two sentences, for example, both of which mean, “How do you say that in English?”
- Italian: Come si dice in inglese?
- Spanish: Cómo se dice en inglés?
The beginning really gets me. Over the years I have said the words cómo se (koe moe say) in Spanish a few gazillion times. Now I have to adjust them in Italian to be come si (koe may see). Right now I am getting them wrong almost every time.
Tonight I called Time Warner Cable to get rid of one Russian cable channel and replace it with an Italian channel, RAI, which is 554 in Manhattan. The girl-woman who helped me was pretty nice and helpful. That thoroughly confused me.