Finally, it was here. Our long-awaited holiday, a whole two weeks touring our favourite country – Italy! I was excited not just because of the amazing landscapes, food and culture, but because it was also home to my target language!
On top of this, touring Italy had been a high priority on my partner’s bucket list. For years, she romanticised strolling the quaint streets of Verona with a gelato in hand, taking in the historic treasures of Rome at every turn, of being the first person to have their picture taken while propping up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
For months I’d been hard at work studying Italian to prepare myself for this trip. I was looking forward to it, and I expected to impress the locals with my Italian.
It wasn’t until we found ourselves locked out of our accommodation in Rome and hitchhiking on a busy dual carriageway in Pompeii that I realised it was time to leave my ego behind…
I Reassured My Girlfriend: “I’m Fluent in Italian… Kind of”
The host of our Airbnb in Florence had specifically said ‘‘we only speak Chinese and Italian.’’
‘’Don’t worry,” I said to my girlfriend. ‘’It’ll be fine, I’m basically fluent in Italian anyway… kind of.’’
Now, being the ever-supportive lady she is, she would never say it. But, I could tell from the look in her eyes she felt sceptical.
So, with a few months to go before the trip, and for every moment that I wasn’t working, eating or sleeping, I was studying Italian. Actually, sometimes I even studied whilst eating, working and sleeping. I hammered my grammar book for knowledge more than a blacksmith hammers an anvil. But still, I felt my progress was slow. I was plateauing. I was drowning in verbs, articles and tenses.
The more I struggled, the more hours I put in. ‘’I must be fluent in time for the trip!’’ I would repeatedly tell myself as I clicked replay on the audio of Luigi checking into a hotel in Milan. After listening to the clip for what felt like the 100th time, Luigi was really starting to annoy me. He was obsessed with complimenting the hotel on their choice of curtains, repeatedly insisting that the check-in assistant sends this important information back to the hotel manager. Somehow, I reflected, I don’t think this is a helpful exercise. I went to bed frustrated. Hours invested = improvement, right?
And so it continued right up until my trip. I dutifully “put in the hours.”
Why I Felt Like a Failure After Saying “It’s Cold in England”
The trip soon came around, and before long, I found myself in the back of a taxi talking to the taxi driver in Italian about the weather in England. This was my first conversation, the main event I spent hours prepping for was finally here. This is it! I can do it… ‘’How was the weather in England?’’ asked the taxi driver in Italian. Fumbling and nervous in a mild panic, I managed to blurt out in an over the top sing-song like Italian accent Fa freddo!
“WHAT?” said the voice in my head. “You said ‘It’s cold!?’ It’s not cold in England! It’s been the hottest summer in years…”
As small as it might seem, this conversation really knocked my confidence. In hindsight it really didn’t matter, it was a tiny mistake and as we all know making mistakes is all part of the process and essential to improving in any language. But at the time I felt like a failure before I was even off the starting blocks.
“Are You Sure You Got All of That?”
Anyway, off we went on our trip. We were immersed in all things Italian, so I wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass me by. I continued getting in as much practice as possible, and although I was always improving, I still wasn’t achieving that very high bar I had told myself all those months earlier that I would achieve by this trip. After most conversations, my partner would chime: “Are you sure you got all of that?”
With feigned confidence, I would reply “Of course!”
It wasn’t until we found ourselves locked out of our accommodation in Rome, and hitchhiking on a busy dual carriageway in Pompeii, that I realised it was time to leave my ego behind and be honest about my language learning progress.
Blind Stubbornness: How My Ego Led Me Astray
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I say I will do something, I like to do it. It’s a good way to be, right? Well yes, it is, but in the right circumstances. My little trip to Italy made me realise that this blind stubbornness can be extremely destructive with language learning. Because I said I would be fluent by the trip, all that mattered to me was honouring my word so that my girlfriend didn’t think I was some kind of loser. All talk, no action. I didn’t want her to end up running off with the milkman… or maybe more appropriately for nowadays, the Amazon Prime delivery driver.
Because my motivation to learn Italian was shallow, I was doomed to mess it up. It’s not always just ourselves who are responsible for the weight of pressure that comes down when we take on a new language. My family members aren’t known for being linguists, so when I told them I was learning Italian I automatically donned the title of “resident Italian translator”. Even though I could barely say Come stai (“How are you?”), I was suddenly the go-to guy for all things Italy. Even down to advice about food, art and politics! This wasn’t fair! The most Italian thing I’d done that year was that I’d gone for a meal at the Italian chain, Prezzo. And even then, I had garlic bread! That’s French, right?
Confession Time: How I Learned to Have Confidence in My Incompetence
When we finally made it out of Pompeii safely, I confessed to my partner that although I generally did get the gist of what the locals were saying, I missed a few words. This might have been the reason why we ended up on so many wild goose chases. After this admission, I came to some realisations.
My change in attitude and direction really helped me to make big improvements in the last few days of our holiday. I reassessed why I wanted to learn Italian and realised that my motivation was superficial. That I needed to get back to the bare bones of why I chose to learn Italian. Because of my love of the culture, the food and the beautiful landscapes. Because it’s something that I am hugely passionate about and a long-term investment for my life. Not so I can impress my partner or my family!
Here’s How to Enjoy Language Learning
Pushing yourself too hard can be a recipe for disaster with language learning. It’s important that we regularly give ourselves a pat on the back. To turn around and take a look at how far we have come. We are all so focused on the end goal. Yet the more we fixate on the finish line, the less likely we are to get there.
Now, I don’t write claiming to be an expert in languages. I’m about as far away from being a polyglot as I am from Australia and I live in the UK. That’s pretty far! But I do think that it’s helpful sometimes to humanise the learning process and realise that there are many people in the same boat as you.
Especially in the early days, language learning really is about understanding that you don’t know much. Acknowledge this, let it settle and then just get out there and fail anyway. It’s not until you start doing this that you can really improve. In my experience, the locals are always more than happy to help. We will always have days that we feel more on it than others and that’s absolutely fine. The important thing is that we keep failing, and thus, improving. Leave your ego at the grammar book and have confidence in your incompetence!
Now when I’m at home with my family and ‘Nessun Dorma’ blurts out behind a perfume advert I have absolutely no shame in admitting ‘I haven’t the faintest clue what the hell Puccini is singing about’ when they ask me to translate every word. I also learnt that learning a language is a steady marathon and not a sprint. I love learning Italian and I love being incompetent.