What does being ‘advanced’ or ‘fluent’ in Italian feel like?
I taught English to Italians for over twenty years, including kids from the age of three, but mostly adults, at all levels from complete beginner to ‘advanced’, groups and individuals, ‘general’ and ‘business’, conversation and writing.
The beginners were always the happiest, despite the obvious pyschological challenges of being unable to understand much or express themselves.
When you’re just starting out, you can’t help knowing that you know nothing, which is a drag.
But at first everything your learn seems like a huge improvement!
It’s so much fun to watch, though evident that the sensation of making amazing progress wears off quickly enough as the months pass.
As a student rises through the ‘levels’ (a totally artificial concept, and a limited one) they seem to become increasingly dissatisfied.
The more they know, the more they realise how much they don’t yet know, and may never. Back in the day, they could understand ‘nothing’, but with such a fantastic sense of progress they were sure the situation wouldn’t last for long.
But now, when they can get maybe a third or a half of what a native speaker is saying, and have a good guess at the rest, any progress seems minimal. It almost feels like going backwards!
And the ‘advanced’ students are the most miserable of the lot.
They might, for instance, be preparing for an international exam, perhaps so they can go work abroad in some professional role – a medical doctor, say – where high-level language skills are a must.
And objectively they stand a good chance of getting the (really quite hard) qualification they need, given a little time and preparation.
So they should be happy, right?
“When I watch an American film in the original language with no subtitles I can’t understand everything!”
You wouldn’t believe how many times I heard complaints like that.
“But what do you EXPECT?” I’d reply. “Everything” is such a stupid goal.
You surely do not understand ‘everything’ in your mother tongue, after all. Don’t agree, don’t believe me?
When was the last time you listened to the music that teenagers are into? Or read the terms and conditions governing your investments or pension?
You might pretend to understand, but you don’t really. No one understands “everything”, just as no one is “fluent”.
“Fluency”, as a concept, is relative, and anyway depends entirely on the task to hand.
You might be fine buying stuff in a shop, or chatting at the bus stop, but how would you do making a speech at a wedding or addressing a board meeting?
No one feels “fluent” all the time, which is why people get anxious about public speaking.
It’s just that we’re used to our limitations in our mother tongues, while fretting about them unhelpfully in the foreign languages we know.
Back to Italian. People used to remark to me all the time things like “Oh but you’re ENGLISH! You have such a strong accent.”
They’d not really say “So that’s why you make so many mistakes”, though I could see it in their faces.
Because I used to teach English to Italians, I always spoke in English, so as to help my students out.
At home too, so as to promote bilingualism in our three (now adult) kids. It worked out well – the eldest (educated entirely in Italian, in Italy) graduated from a Scottish university and is now finishing a post-graduate law course in London.
“You can thank daddy for that”, I tell her.
My spoken Italian suffered, obviously, at least in the sense that it never really took off, beyond routine things that I did every day (such as selling English courses…)
In recent years though, since hosting Bug and Roomie, I’ve spoken mostly Italian, this for the same reason as I used to speak English to my kids.
For them, because they’ll need ‘fluency’ in comprehension and communication, and to instill the confidence that comes from growing up in a home in which people talk to each other, read books, and so on.
Surprisingly, people have totally stopped commenting on my British accent when I speak Italian. I don’t remember the last time. Weird, huh?
Better, my brain has finally (after twenty-five years!) started – and of its own accord – making a point of trying to conjugate sentences so that the article, noun and adjective agree in terms of gender and singular/plural.
I always understood that stuff technically (albeit imperfectly). It just never played much of a role when I spoke or wrote Italian. And now, suddenly, it does.
I’ve even learnt to pronounce papà, with its horrible, final-syllable stress pattern. Though that took several years of actively trying.
To return to my question as to what being ‘advanced’ or ‘fluent’ in Italian feels like.
It feels normal.
It feels like you don’t have to worry about messing up, or not understanding, because when you don’t get your message across easily, or understand what’s been said, you can manage the situation anyway.
You just rephrase what you want say. Or say it again, more loudly, and in an irritated tone.
You ask for clarification, but in a way as to make it perfectly clear that the problem was the other person not expressing themselves effectively, rather than any inability to understand on your part.
You use the language CONFIDENTLY.
Remember what I said about C2 (proficiency) students being the most miserable?
With my Turkish, Swedish, French, etc. I’m mostly somewhere in the B (Independent) bands, but happy enough.
There’s a lesson there – I’m not ‘advanced’ or ‘fluent’ at Turkish/Swedish/French. but what native speakers of those languages might PERCEIVE about me, is that I can get by.
They will hopefully feel that they can chat with me, and that I’ll be able to follow.
And that, however strangely I may express myself, I seem to be able to get my message across, somehow or other.
In short, feeling ‘fluent’ is about familiarity.
It’s about getting used to what you can do with a language, but also what you can’t do.
And it means not being miserable about those limitations.
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