Teach Yourself Italian


For a writer, a foreign language is a new kind of adventure.

For those of us who have struggled to learn a second language, one writer confesses her unwavering dedication on the arduous road to mastering Italian, a wish that has ruled her heart for years…

Exile

My relationship with Italian takes place in exile, in a state of separation.

Every language belongs to a specific place. It can migrate, it can spread. But usually it’s tied to a geographical territory, a country. Italian belongs mainly to Italy, and I live on another continent, where one does not readily encounter it.

I think of Ovid, exiled from Rome to a remote place. To a linguistic outpost, surrounded by alien sounds.

I think of my mother, who writes poems in Bengali, in America. Almost fifty years after moving there, she can’t find a book written in her language.

In a sense I’m used to a kind of linguistic exile. My mother tongue, Bengali, is foreign in America. When you live in a country where your own language is considered foreign, you can feel a continuous sense of estrangement. You speak a secret, unknown language, lacking any correspondence to the environment. An absence that creates a distance within you.

In my case there is another distance, another schism. I don’t know Bengali perfectly. I don’t know how to write it, or even read it. I have an accent, I speak without authority, and so I’ve always perceived a disjunction between it and me. As a result I consider my mother tongue, paradoxically, a foreign language.

As for Italian, the exile has a different aspect. Almost as soon as we met, Italian and I were separated. My yearning seems foolish. And yet I feel it.

How is it possible to feel exiled from a language that isn’t mine? That I don’t know? Maybe because I’m a writer who doesn’t belong completely to any language.

I buy a book. It’s called “Teach Yourself Italian.” An exhortatory title, full of hope and possibility. As if it were possible to learn on your own.

Having studied Latin for many years, I find the first chapters of this textbook fairly easy. I manage to memorize some conjugations, do some exercises. But I don’t like the silence, the isolation of the self-teaching process. It seems detached, wrong. As if I were studying a musical instrument without ever playing it.

In graduate school, I decide to write my doctoral thesis on how Italian architecture influenced English playwrights of the seventeenth century. I wonder why certain playwrights decided to set their tragedies, written in English, in Italian palaces. The thesis will discuss another schism between language and environment. The subject gives me a second reason to study Italian.

I attend elementary courses. My first teacher is a Milanese woman who lives in Boston. I do the homework, I pass the tests. But when, after two years of studying, I try to read Alberto Moravia’s novel “La Ciociara” (“Two Women”) I barely understand it. I underline almost every word on every page. I am constantly looking in the dictionary.

In the spring of 2000, six years after my first trip to Italy, I go to Venice. In addition to the dictionary, I take a notebook, and on the last page I write down phrases that might be useful: Saprebbe dirmiDove si trovaCome si fa per andare? Could you tell me? Where is? How does one get to? I recall the difference between buono and bello. I feel prepared. In reality, in Venice I’m barely able to ask for directions on the street, a wakeup call at the hotel. I manage to order in a restaurant and exchange a few words with a saleswoman. Nothing else. Even though I’ve returned to Italy, I still feel exiled from the language.

A few months later, I receive an invitation to the Mantua literary festival. There I meet my first Italian publishers. One of them is also my translator. Their publishing house has a Spanish name, Marcos y Marcos. They are Italian. Their names are Marco and Claudia.

I have to do all my interviews and presentations in English. There is always an interpreter next to me. I can more or less follow the Italian, but I can’t express myself, explain myself, without English. I feel limited. What I learned in America, in the classroom, isn’t sufficient. My comprehension is so meagre that, here in Italy, it doesn’t help me. The language still seems like a locked gate. I’m on the threshold, I can see inside, but the gate won’t open.

Marco and Claudia give me the key.

When I mention that I’ve studied some Italian, and that I would like to improve it, they stop speaking to me in English. They switch to their language, although I’m able to respond only in a very simple way. In spite of all my mistakes, in spite of my not completely understanding what they say. In spite of the fact that they speak English much better than I speak Italian.

They tolerate my mistakes. They correct me, they encourage me, they provide the words I lack. They speak clearly, patiently. Just like parents with their children. The way one learns one’s native language. I realize that I didn’t learn English in this fashion.

Marco and Claudia give me this turning point. In Mantua, thanks to them, I finally find myself inside the language. Read more at The New Yorker.

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