So our air conditioning broke. Not such a big deal. I was able to call to request a repair person. But I had a classic non-native language moment when the repair person called my cell phone to say that he would be arriving that afternoon at 2pm.

The problem was that I had a class that day and couldn’t make it home by 2pm. I needed to ask if he could come at 2:30, but suddenly realized that I don’t know how to say anything in the future in Italian– I’m pretty exclusively present tense. (And, after all, it is good to live in the present when on sabbatical). He said “I’ll be at your house at 2.” I felt like my brain was frozen and couldn’t think of what to say. Finally I squeaked a mangled “You-my-house-2:30.” But he thought I misunderstood him and replied, “No. 2.” So I tried in in the present and said “I-am-home-at-2:30.” And he replied, “Yes, well sometime between 2 and 3.”

I kept thinking that there had to be something that I knew how to say. Then I remembered that I did know how to say something future-oriented, but I just hadn’t been thinking of it that way. I knew how to order food and say things like “May I have a coffee, please” or “I’d like the pasta-of-the-day” all the time.  Maybe that would work? I should have just said something, anything. But I got nervous that saying “I want you at 2:30” could either seem a bit demanding or leave him wondering if I expected something more than a working air conditioner.

Then I realized that I knew the verb “to return” and maybe I could say something like “I-return-home-at-2:30.” But here is the problem with us adult language learners: I got flummoxed because “I am returning” seemed reflexive, and I felt like there was something special I was supposed to do when using reflexive verbs, and then I started thinking about how Elissa Newport was right because kids don’t think about things like “reflexive verbs” and they just say things, which was what I should do but instead I was thinking about how what I was saying was reflexive while some poor repair guy is holding his cell phone to his ear and wondering why I’m not saying anything, and maybe if no one had ever mentioned the reflexive verb thing to me in the first place I’d actually be able to communicate..

So in a paroxysm of truly hideously mangled Italian, I managed to say “me-no-house-for-at-2-me-in-house-after-2:30-you-to-arrive-after-2:30-okay.” After which he told me that 2:30 was fine, and I felt like I needed a glass of wine.

Once our call ended and the pressure was off, I realized I did indeed know how to say a bunch of things that would have worked (and there was nothing reflexive in what I was going to say). If only I could have sketched out the sentence in a notebook instead of having to speak unexpectedly on the spot!

As I was walking home at 2:05, he called to ask where I was; he was waiting at our front door. Figures it was my first experience here with an Italian not being late. . . .

My language skills continued to shine the next day. For some reason, I felt that people were not being quite as friendly to me as they usually are. I greet the baristas, vendors, security guards, and receptionists on my walk to Italian class every morning and always get warm greetings in return. But today people just sort of looked at me. It wasn’t until later in the afternoon that I realized that I had somehow switched two words.

I usually say “salve,” which means “hi.” But for some strange (neurological) reason, I had started greeting people with “salute,” which technically means “your health” and is what Italians say when someone sneezes. Two people in my class have colds and we’ve been saying “salute” to them all day when people sneeze. . . . I can only imagine what the people I passed must have been thinking as I breezed past them smiling and waving and essentially saying “gazuntight” though they had never sneezed. I guess I can kiss that second career as a UN translator goodbye. . . .

And let me end by saying that trying to learn another language has made me realize that I hate irregular verbs. The toddlers of the world are right! Let’s follow their lead and regularize– over-regularize– everything. Seems like it would make life simpler for everyone and free up a lot of extra RAM (“I went to school”- “I go-ed to school” . . .both work fine for me).

– Seth

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