The Legend of Isabella the Italian

I hereby devote this post to a personage who I very much need to thank for making this blog possible, one who enabled me to stop being so self-conscious about my efforts to learn languages (or anything else), and without her help and her example, I wouldn’t consider myself worthy of any polyglot title.
She herself may never end up reading this. I remember one time when Isabella the Italian was asking me about my experience learning Russian at Yale University. I mentioned the “ы” sound and smiled at her various attempts to pronounce it.
I mentioned that only a few days ago from that point, I had written a post on how to mangle with difficult sounds.
“Why would I read your blog?” she said with a mischievous smile, “I don’t read blogs. Blogs are stupid! Why would I read your blog when I could just talk to you?”
For what was not the first and what will definitely not be the last time, I almost bent over laughing. Isabella the Italian is very much unmatched with her honest opinions, the way she expresses them, and her ability to make small talk with just about any human being on the planet.
Having arrived in late 2013 to Heidelberg with no previous knowledge of German, her method of applying the language in her early stages was often to just unhesitatingly use an English word when she didn’t know any German one. “Bitte nicht touch-en”, was one of my personal favorite examples of such.
Isabella the Italian moved into my suite after having lived in the city for a while. At that time I was still struggling with how to express many ideas in the German Language, and in no small part could this be due to the fact that I found myself easily intimidated.
When I was in Stockholm, I was picking up the Swedish language after nearly two months of using mostly English. Not only was my best Swedish friend a teacher of the language for foreigners, but I was also surrounded by many supportive Swedes who would cheer on my efforts, however silly or simple. By the time I left, I was told by a guest that I spoke the language better than most immigrants to Sweden do in three years. I speak the language even better now.
On one hand, because of Isabella’s legendary superpower of small talk and friendship making, she enabled me to meet countless acquaintances, German and otherwise, with which to practice my skills non-judgmentally. She also enabled me to rehearse the language in a non-judgmental environment either, and as it turns out that I was the scrutiny that I thought that I had perceived was mostly imagined.
Sometimes she had to gently nudge me away from speaking any words of English, and it worked. But her contribution to my own linguistic journey doesn’t lie in that.
I remember one conversation I had with her about accent reduction.

As an American, a native speaker of probably the most common dialect of the most coveted language in today’s world, I have to do a good job at pretending that I am something else.

Most of the time, especially when I am feeling well, it works—sometimes I get mistaken for British (a constant for about six years now), but sometimes I’ve been mistaken as German, Dutch, several types of Scandinavian, and even Czech at one point.
But sometimes, people just know I am a foreigner, possibly due to the clothes or the walk or hearing me talk on the phone with my family.
One time I asked Isabella the Italian what she did for accent reduction.
“I don’t do anything”, she said, “people like my accent”.
She is a lot more comfortable with her national identity than I was with mine at any point in my life. But there was an important breakthrough: for one, accent reduction wasn’t particularly that important. Some of my family members and some friends had tried to tell me that I was so obviously American to everyone (and sometimes with an implicit discouragement to give up polyglottery forever), but Isabella did away with that self-consciousness for good. So what if they think I have an accent? Maybe people like it, after all…
Isabella the Italian enabled me to complete a transformation from mostly-English-speaking student with some knowledge of many languages to confident speaker of many languages—a transformation that began in November 2012 and was completed by about March/April 2014.
She taught me by example how not to let errors or other silly things act as such as ego-crushers in any learning process. Furthermore, she believed that there was a balance between discipline and relaxation that had to be reached in order for a true learning experience to happen—very different from the “work a lot and get good grades!” culture that exists in the United States.
One time I was in a grassy field and we were having a conversation about lifestyles. She told me that an ideal life would be that of a bumblebee, one that goes from flowers to flower while “enjoying life”. For most of my adult life, I saw something different when looking at bumblebees: competition for resources.
I realized that, especially as concerns an educational journey, especially with foreign tongues, that excess competition and steel-fisted work usually isn’t the best answer. Going from flower to flower, taking opportunities, savoring them with little thought to ego—this enabled me to improve many of my languages in the past year, and I look forward to using the same bumblebee method with even more in the next year.
The legend of Isabella is soon headed to Paris, probably the one place on earth where “linguistic chauvinism” is said to reign supreme (although thankfully I have no experiences to speak to this at all). I can imagine that some Parisians may scoff at those who may attempt to speak French as foreigners, but I am very certain that Isabella the Italian will not be one of them.
If there is a crisis of education, I am certain that more Isabellas (Isabellae?) would be the solution we would need. I think that the American educational system could learn very well from people like Isabella, who sees life and schooling as something about fulfillment rather than about prizes, jobs and grades.
Maybe one day we will learn from the bumblebees and apply that method to schooling. I am still waiting.

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