Fourteen years ago, when I was pregnant with my now teenage daughter, my husband and I visited Italy and Hungary. Since both of us are musicians and he is an architect, I knew it would be an amazing experience of culture and beauty. One of the things we did to make the experience even more memorable was to take an Italian class together with the idea that we could connect more with the locals and understand more about the culture if we spoke a little of the language.
You know how some people are good at math and art? Well, those people are not me. I am game to try, but that's not where my strengths lie. And for my husband, so goes language. Maybe it's because he's a percussionist and embouchure & enunciation were never things he had to concern himself with, but it's just not his jam. But for me, languages are like a network of words that interconnect. Maybe it's because I've sung in no less than eight languages, maybe it's because I like playing with words in poetry, or that word origins are interesting, but in any case learning language feels natural and is fascinating.
There were many times that speaking Italian (even rudimentally) made our travels easier and more fun. In the golden light of the Cinque Terra, we ate the best gelato of my life in the town of Corniglia. I ordered "pesca" and he ordered "pesci". The young girl behind the counter and I smiled at each other; "pesca" is peach, "pesci" is fishes. On our overnight train from Venice to Budapest, our train attendant, who spoke no English taught me how to properly lock our sleeper berth. Even in European countries where English is widely spoken, knowing a little of the language shows your hosts that you care about their culture, and that builds bonds.
Last spring, my daughter chose French as one of her electives. Around the same time, I got an opportunity to experience a supplier's product first hand, so I chose a Mediterranean cruise sailing in June from Nice, down the Italian coast, to Crete, Santorini and Athens. Since I was allowed a plus one, I decided to let it be a 13th birthday present that she'd never forget.
My previous experience with learning Italian was such an enhancement to that trip, I decided that learning French would be a great idea, too. I started on my own using a free app called Duolingo. I found that the app was great for learning vocabulary, but it was not so great for verb conjugation or grammar. It was time to seek out professional guidance. For Christmas, I asked for a French textbook and I enrolled in my first college class since 1990 at Austin Community College.
In truth, I will say I'm glad I started with Duolingo. It got the language in my ear a little bit (always the hardest part) and taught me a fair amount of vocabulary. But when I got into class, my professor, Dr. Veronique Mazet, gave me the structure and discipline to really help me speed up my learning curve. It's amazing how having classmates, a professor and a grade motivates you to get to work! I got to meet some great people like Rachel, who no doubt will be in the 2020 Olympic high jump, and Olga who was acquiring her fourth language. Some, like me, were planning a trip to France, others had returned inspired from one. In any case, making those connections has so much value whether or not I ever speak a word of French outside of class. The fact that I'm planning to use it - a lot- and take French 2 in the fall is very exciting on so many levels.
Once I had finished my French final exam last week, I started cramming the Italian that I had studied over a decade ago back into my head. The surprising part was how much of it I remembered! And while grammar is pretty sketchy, the vocab is still there & I'm burning up the Italian portion of Duolingo for the next couple of weeks. I don't know if I'll ever truly become a polyglot - an ambition I've had since I learned that Madeleine Albright speaks four languages - I must confess to loving learning in general, and languages in particular.
Two weeks from tonight, I'll be flying over the Atlantic en route to France to stay in an apartment that I reserved via an email written entirely in French. My host responded in French, complimenting me on my progress, and I only had to look up one word to fully understand. I can't wait to practice with the people we meet, to soften those walls that we all have between strangers, to navigate with greater ease assured that I am going in the right direction.
Michelangelo is credited with responding to compliments on his work by saying "Ancora imparo" - "I am still learning". We grow when we learn, so keep learning, keep growing, wherever you go, friends.