Just as generations past were asked, "Where were you when Kennedy and/or Lennon was shot?" years from now, people will be asked, "What did you do to pass time during the pandemic quarantine?" Some might say they had no free time since working from home was harder than going into the office. Others might say they binged on Netflix series or baked sourdough bread. Me? I learned Italian.
Fifteen years ago, I traveled to Italy with my husband. A few family members joined us. I learned a few words and phrases beforehand. Basics, like asking directions to a bathroom or the cost of something, didn't have to pass through my lips too often since most of the country gladly spoke English to us. It didn't hurt that my husband's aunt was with us and took on the heavy lifting of the language when needed. But I liked the language and wished I had chosen it instead of German in high school or French in my senior year of college. I never became proficient at either one.
So why take on learning another language? The easy answer is I retired in December 2019 and planned to travel until COVID-19 hit — and I couldn't. The hope of being able to move freely about the planet in the future inspired me to use my free time exercising my brain even if I couldn't go to the gym to exercise my body. (A return to Italy is on our bucket list, and we can't count on Aunt Anna to be there for us.)
I got started with an online language app. The one I picked has a little green owl to provide encouragement along the way. For example, if you are getting the answers right, he'll pop on-screen saying, "I'm so proud of you!" and "Your hard work is paying off!" I was able to understand what was being said and felt pretty good about myself. But the constant little pings that signaled each correct answer were driving my husband crazy; he couldn't take it anymore. I had to put on headphones or move to another room to keep up with my daily lessons.
The part that gave me the most trouble was the pronunciation. If I was correct, the little ping let me move on. If not, I got "Hmm … that doesn't sound right. Give it another try." Without getting too frustrated, even though you think you were fine the first time, you try again. If unsuccessful you get "That still doesn't sound right. Give it one more try." You say it again, now through gritted teeth, praying for that ping. When you fail again, the app, like a tired teacher says, "Let's move on from this one for now." You wonder how an app can make you feel so defeated.
Lessons got harder, but my little green friend was encouraging: "Don't worry! Mistakes help you learn." When I got on a roll again he was back: "Great work! Let's make this a bit harder." I got through Basics 1 and 2, Phrases, Food and Idioms — not bad, I thought, though Plurals were a bit of a challenge. It became more like school, but I had a streak going so I kept at it.
I may never be in a situation to use sentences like "Il ragazzo mangia una mela" ("The boy eats an apple") or "L'uomo beve l'acqua" ("The man drinks water"), but I'm hopeful that when I return to Italy, the server won't have to say, "Hmm … that doesn't sound right. Give it another try."
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