Saturday, August 20, 2011

THE FOREIGN LANGUAGE-LEARNING GENE?



"How many languages does he speak?", she gushes, admiringly, as if this were a matter of the Foreign Language Fairy Godmother waving her magic wand and intoning, in her own inscrutable language, "bibbity, bobbity, boo!"

The true answer: "he speaks a number of them, none very correctly, but nobody seems to mind, especially not here in Italy."

I am going to stick my neck out and say something outrageous like, "some people have the foreign language-learning gene, while others do not." Now that could be high sacrilege, coming as it does from a French prof. who has been reinventing herself as an Italian. But I am not suggesting that to be missing that gene condemns anyone to befuddlement. That is entirely up to the would-be speaker.

The foreign-language gene can only get you so far. To speak a new language takes a willingness to risk making mistakes and the energy and discipline to observe and mimic native speakers, to read and watch even the dumbest of programs in the target language, and to talk to yourself in the new language, as you go about your daily activities. 

It is also important to "get over yourself" and not think about what a particular successful (or failed) interaction in the new language says about YOU. Trust me, nobody really cares. Here in the Italian countryside, where people just want to communicate, the priority is to make an effort to get your message across, however inelegantly. 

It is fun to observe my linguistically confident son get repeatedly complimented on his fluent-but-imperfect Italian. With his musical ear, he has a great accent, but little interest in the fine points of grammar. Now this, rather than being an Achilles heel, is part of his success. He does not worry about that stuff, and any mistakes he makes pale in the face of his charm and confidence.

I have the foreign-language gene plus a passion for grammar (my favorite toilet-side reading?:“The BIG Green Book of Italian Verbs), but I am missing the techno-gene;however, I do not really gaze, with envy, at those who have it. I just bumble along getting into terrible techno-doodoo the origin of which no one can fathom, and hope that a technically adept person will get me out of the jam. Life is short, and I am going to leave this arena to them. 

Does that mean that after all, I have more in common with those who ask, "wow, how many languages do you speak?" than I would like to admit?

I don't think so, but I am willing to think about it. 

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