Gli Italiani Sono Molto Simpatici

By: Heather Hamblin

If you are reading this, you likely have experienced, or are experiencing, the learning of a new language. Give yourself a pat on the back; that is no small accomplishment! One of the largest stumbling blocks for an adult learning a second language is simply speaking. When in a classroom setting, the fear of making mistakes or sounding stupid is understandable, but can be hindering. In his Affective Filter Hypothesis, Stephen Krashen, a notable linguist and educator at the University of Southern California, said,

“Learners with high motivation, self-confidence, a good self-image, and a low level of anxiety are better equipped for success in second language acquisition. Low motivation, low self-esteem, and debilitating anxiety can combine to ‘raise’ the affective filter and form a ‘mental block’ that prevents comprehensible input from being used for acquisition. In other words, when the filter is ‘up’ it impedes language acquisition.” [Read more on that here]

As much as we’d like to think that we have moved past our adolescent insecurities, it can be frightening to test the skills we are learning in a new language on someone whose language skills are above our own. But, research shows that it is the breaking down of those insecurities that really progresses second language acquisition. Talking to people in Italian when we don’t have a firm grasp on the language is scary. There is nothing wrong with admitting that. But, it will ultimately make or break our experience, and the level at which we may attain proficiency in our new language. Lucky for those of us who chose to learn Italian, the native-speakers of our second language are some of the kindest in the world.

I have been studying Italian for two years now. Though I am still far from where I hope to be some day with my proficiency, I am leaps and bounds ahead of even my best expectations when I started my journey. I believe that the biggest influence on my ability to speak has been simply trying. I have had excellent listeners, both in formal teachers and in friends I’ve made along the way. They have been patient with me while I stumbled through sentences, and learned how to put my thoughts together. In my experience, Italians are thrilled when they hear that I am learning their language, and are not judgemental at all when I don’t say everything correctly.

A few weeks ago I was sitting at a table at the Salt Lake Airport, working on my computer while I waited for a flight. As the odds would have it, a man standing just a few feet away from me answered a phone call, speaking fluent Italian. He was talking too fast for me to really eavesdrop, but I listened intently, with my best nosey-old-lady skills. I wanted to talk to him, but as soon as the thought entered my mind I got intensely nervous. Suddenly, I couldn’t remember a word of Italian. As soon as he finished his phone call, I mustered up the courage to say, “Parla Italiano?” Am I an idiot? Of course he spoke Italian: I had just been listening to him for ten minutes. Anyway, I quickly learned that his name was Marco, and that he was waiting for a flight to Paris, just passing through Utah on business. We ended up talking for nearly an hour. He was enthusiastic about me learning his madra lingua, and kindly helped me when I said the wrong thing, or couldn’t think of a word. When he walked away, I felt charged and proud of myself for taking the opportunity to practice my language. It reminded me of why I fell in love with the Italian people. They are warm and friendly, and have a way of embracing people that is infectious.

So when you feel that panic constrict your throat and cause your palms to sweat at the thought of saying something in Italian, relax! You have an audience that is excited about your desire to learn their language, and is eager to help you through it. It is a forgiving culture to be welcomed into, and it is the best way to improve your skills. The linguist Dr. Krashen, also said, “In the real world, conversations with sympathetic native speakers who are willing to help the acquirer understand are very helpful.” I’ll meet him there and raise him this: conversation isn’t just helpful, it is essential to learning the language and falling in love with the Italian culture and its people.

What do you think?