November 23, 2009 | Italian

On Language Dreams and Italian Body Parts

I have a bad dream about teaching a foreign language.

Last night I dreamed I was teaching a foreign language (don’t know which one) to a girl of about 15 or 16. There was for some reason an urgency to this undertaking, so I was trying to teach her as fast as I could. She and I were in a big room, and there were spectators, including her parents, sitting around the edge of the room.

As I instructed her in some language point, it became apparent that she didn’t know what a noun or a verb was. I turned around and glared at her parents. “You didn’t tell me she didn’t know any grammar,” I said. “I can’t do this. It’s not possible.”

They became upset. And that’s all I recall.

Is imperative in Italian really always followed by an exclamation point? As in, “Eat your string beans!” “Don’t forget to drop off your dry cleaning!” “Please come to the fifth-floor conference center!”

That’s what I just read in one of my grammar books. It seems so…bossy. And potentially rude, especially for formal communication. Sometimes the grammar advice you are given in language books is not 100 percent accurate, so I need to cross-check this point.

One thing I did not expect with Italian was how thoroughly it would interfere with my spoken Spanish skills. I really thought the two languages would stay separate in my brain. Even though my Spanish is kind of rusty, I began studying it when I was a kid, and I never lost it to the degree that I lost my German and French. Also, I felt as though studying Arabic and Russian actually seemed to help my existing languages, including Spanish, by kind of causing my brain to snap to attention. So this outcome is surprising to me. I hope it’s temporary.

I went to Café Margot today, again. As I studied my Italian, the woman seated to the left of me was speaking Turkish. (I know this only because I asked her.) She said many people mistake it for Russian. I am pleased to say that, although I have forgotten (I hope not permanently) a healthy percentage of the Russian I learned this summer, it was clear to me that she was not speaking Russian. I just didn’t happen to know what it was.

On my right at the café were two mothers, talking bad mitzvahs, Hebrew classes, transliteration, etc.

I love Café Margot.

A newly discovered pleasure for me is Facebook messaging in multiple languages. A multilingual musician friend of ours just wrote to me in Italian, in response to a previous note I had sent him in Italian, and I answered him in Spanish. Then he wrote to me in Spanish, and then we concluded in German. So much fun.

Today I did Italian grammar exercises involving body parts. There are numerous irregularities in plural formations with body parts, it seems—strange shifts from masculine singulars to feminine plurals. For instance, il labbro (“the lip,” masculine) becomes le labbre (“the lips,” feminine). Why?

In one of the body-part exercises, I was given the inexplicable task of translating the following sentence into Italian: “Our chest hurts.” I have not been able to imagine many scenarios that would justify such a sentence.

Still, I gave it a try. “Chest” is petto, but I mistakenly wrote pesto instead, as in, “Ci fa male il pesto.” So, instead of coming up with an equivalent for “Our chest hurts,” I produced the following even less useful sentence: “Our pesto hurts.”

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