Lucy Hodges author of Loops and Flicks writes about her language learning experience
I can talk the hind leg off a donkey. I mean, not that I’ve tried, but I’m pretty sure if talking was an Olympic sport, I’d definitely medal. And loving to chat, I’ve always enjoyed learning languages. Communicating successfully is so vital to any interaction, and it is my firm belief (one encouraged by my parents) that it is respectful to (attempt to!) communicate in the local tongue when holidaying.
As a result, I speak patchy French, moderate German, inconsistent Spanish, and embarrassingly few words in Italian.
The French is the result of a number of holidays with friends in the south of the country, the German from school and the Spanish from a random year of Spanish classes that I was offered at age 14. The Italian, however, now there’s a story.
Two years ago, I went to Florence on a short holiday. Prior to booking said holiday, I had never given a thought to learning Italian, despite having lived with an Italian girl for an entire year whilst at university! Upon arriving in Italy, I realised what an opportunity I had squandered. The only thing more embarrassing than staring blankly at a customs officer whilst they repeated the same question over and again was having to fish out my phrase book and search for the correct answer – by which point they had repeated the question in perfect English and demanded my answer in the same language.
I was thoroughly ashamed by this inauspicious start, and determined to do better. I failed completely, however, when I walked into a sandwich shop a short while later and ordered in a mixture of French and German! (I stand by my excuse, which was that I was extremely tired having woken at 3am to catch my flight). Needless to say, the man in the sandwich shop was very unimpressed.
Throughout the holiday, I pulled out my phrase book time and time again to stumble through my questions, pronouncing things poorly and choosing the wrong words – I’ve never been able to find out what I actually asked for in the bar when I mispronounced the word for “glass”, but judging from the barmaid’s reaction it was extremely rude!
What was so wonderful, though, was the patience of the Italian people with whom I attempted to speak. Although they corrected me in English, they did so with a smile, seeming to appreciate my efforts to speak their language. By the end of my holiday, I knew how to order a sandwich, how to ask for directions, how to order a glass of red wine, how to order a taxi and most vitally of all, how to thank people for their help.
There was nothing like immersion in the language to pick up those few vital phrases to help you survive, aside from the kindness of native speakers who will educate you in the correct pronunciation and the vocabulary you’ll need. And they do appreciate the effort you make, which can lead to some wonderful friendships, some quick learning and one day, maybe even fluency.