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Why I Studied a Second Language

The benefits of bilingualism are proven. Studies show that knowing two or more languages makes us smarter, protects us from Alzheimer’s disease and allows the brain to look at things in a fresh way.

Of course none of those are what pushed me to study Italian.

I began my Italian language journey with a spark of curiosity. Though I can only guess its many origins, it was bright enough to spur me on. I studied Italian to finally understand. I wanted to know what was being said, but also what had already been said. I wanted to know how my Friulani grandfather was raised, what words were used to explain to him the facts of life. I wanted to know my roots. I wanted to know Italy.

My journey into the Italian language was my first love affair. I fell head over heels and had to deal with the passionate squabbles and immense euphoria that came with it. The journey may have started with a spark of curiosity, but it was fueled by passion.

I spent four high school years learning next to nothing. The language constructs couldn’t fit in my head. Their meaning felt obtuse. Only after relearning it all again in college was I able to start parsing together the words, remembering them, realizing that they were connected to real meanings. My love of Italian and my desire to feel Italy grew hand in hand. The only logical next step was to go.

So, in autumn of 2010 I packed my things and sat middle seat on a flight with my mother and grandmother to Rome. We would explore together before they headed home and I stayed to continued my adventure.

There, I practiced asking for directions in my head twenty times before hailing a cab. My stuttering attempts were met with large grins. The taxi drivers, bellboys and vendors became my unsuspecting, yet willing, teachers. The novelty wore off when I went to live for two weeks with my distant Italian family and realized that I lacked the words for, well, everything.

Each conversation was a mountain to climb. Each interaction was a potential social disaster. And yet, something changed in my brain after those two weeks. The near constant exhaustion I had from furiously trying to understand dimmed. When people spoke to me, gears began to turn. I wasn’t fluent, but something had clicked. I knew I could do it.

I’ve always been a communicator, yet only in studying a second language did I realize that it’s not just about a fondness for talking. You can’t just love to talk; you need to be good and able. Whether in my own language or another, I’m constantly testing out just how to communicate.

As a writer I want to know: What is the best word to use? How shall I put it? What would you call it? Just what is the best way to hear and be heard? How do I reach their heart?

Studying a language is difficult. It doesn’t come easily. It doesn’t come naturally. Lifelong mentalities need to be broken with each new rule that doesn’t fit within your current linguistic knowledge. Like bending the bars of a cage, each new rule helps us to slowly slowly begin to sneak out into the world. A new world.

Learning the language made me literate in the culture. The language allows you to step inside that culture like no other form of intelligence can. I can study a culture for years, read every book and Internet article, even interview the citizens, but it’s impossible to truly know it without knowing the language.

Without the inherently poetic language, I would never be able to fully understand the romance of Italy, the mentality of it’s people, the feelings toward friend and foe, the sources of pride and wars. I can learn the history, but without the language it would always remain muted, unsure. Like hearing a concert through cotton balls, only with the language could the music really reach me.

Just the act of ruminating on new words forces your mind to open. What you once knew to be true is shattered, replaced by a less linear worldview. Language transforms my travel. I study Italian and Spanish and next up, Arabic, to connect with those cultures much closer to home. I want to see how we are different, but more importantly, I want to know how we are the same.

Studying Italian has opened up my mind to Italy, yes, but it’s also changed how I view the world. It’s not just geography or politics or environment that influences us, but beautiful language as well.

I wanted to learn Italian not only to hear the musical words spoken around me, but to feel them, not only to taste them, but to fully digest the meaning.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s most recent novel, titled In Other Words, is about the author’s own love affair with the Italian language. For no obvious reason, Lahiri developed an overwhelming desire to learn the language, and spent years doing just that. As she studied, she marveled at her own transformation. It was as if she found a different self in the language.

In an excerpt of the book Lahiri writes, “I can’t move as I did before, the way I was used to moving in English.” Something about this, both the difficulty and the thrill, appealed to Lahiri. In response to her feelings, writer Domenico Starnone said, “A new language is almost a new life, grammar and syntax recast you, you slip into another logic and another sensibility.”

In other words, it’s a metamorphosis.

When I don’t know a word, I’m forced to explain myself in a way I never have before. I’m forced to be creative. Brazen. Communication takes on a whole new importance. The smallest of conversations has a whole new seriousness.

Learning the language pushes me past my fear, past the closed door that so often accompanies a new culture – It crashes the door wide open.

Gina Mussio is a Midwesterner living in Monza, Italy where she teaches and writes about Italian culture, travel and food. Read more of her writing on her blog From Italy, With Love at www.ginamussio.com

Published May 23rd, 2017 by Gina
Posted to Expat Blog

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