For me, learning a language bears a striking resemblance to learning mathematics. That frustrating delay between learning the theory, completing the set exercises, and mastering the content – when the numbers or foreign words make themselves at home in my brain and I can call upon them at will, wielding and manipulating them to achieve the desired result.
Trying to master Italian while living in Italy has brought me back to some of the frustration that was Year 11 Maths Methods. I remember reading the examples, dutifully copying exercise after exercise until I was able to produce the correct answers, feeling like I had conquered each chapter – graphs, trigonometry, probability and exponential functions.
Then would come the exam which invariably included those questions with little clue as to which of my arsenal of memorised formulas I needed to find the solution. Or a question which required a combination of these formulas from different chapters. Those questions, carefully worded little paragraphs which would create in me an abject hatred of the objects in motion, or the shops with sales problems, or the group of hapless individuals that required my skills to calculate, quantify or graph the answers.
Have I lost you yet on how this could possibly relate to learning the musical cadences of the Italian language?
See, I have acquired knowledge in vocabulary and grammar. I have learned the tenses – present, past, imperfect, gerund, conditional, conjunctive (which is rarely used in English). I have completed exercises, I can communicate well in simple exchanges using two, sometimes three tenses at a time. Then will come a conversation where I want to recount something more complex, perhaps the impact of a previous occurrence, or the discussion of a current event, or to have a conversation in the hypothetical.
And BOOM! That feeling of walking straight into a giant wall of incomprehension. I may be able to find a hand hold here and there of words and phrases I know, but to scale the wall? I just don’t have the skills for that. So I take the door marked “English” or grab hold of the rope of Google Translate and hope for an easy traverse through to the other side.
It can sometimes feel disheartening to know that all the work I have put into studying this language still does not come anywhere near fluency. However, I recall the moment in Year 12 Maths Methods when I realised the skills I had learned the previous year had truly sunk in. I had somehow gained mastery of Year 11 Maths Methods and could step confidently upon them when tackling the greater beast of Year 12 random variables, logarithms and statistics.
I know that someday soon I will be able to wield this second language. Perhaps not with the skill and agility of a native speaker, but at least nimbly enough to skip around those pesky walls of incomprehension.