Friday, March 06, 2009

Io Sto Studiando La Lingua d'Italiano

I Am Studying The Language of Italy

This is my 1995 Mustang convertible in what I like to think of as 'mint' condition.

On February 23rd, the new tranche of language classes began. Approximately 70 languages are being taught at FSI at any given time and all the classes begin together at regularly scheduled intervals. So, on February 23rd the largest new language group in the history of FSI trooped into the auditorium to begin orientation. In fact, the group was so large that the Spanish language students were seated in another room and attended orientation via teleconferencing because they couldn't all fit into the auditorium. The first several rows of the auditorium were reserved for the relatively large numbers of students learning Arabic, Russian and French. The rest of the languages filled the remaining rows and there wasn't an empty seat in the house. Gujarati, Hungarian, Serbian, Urdu, Tamil and Hindi language students all crowded in, cheek by jowl, with folks set to learn German, Dutch, Norwegian, Italian and a couple of dozen other languages.

After an hour or so of administration (attendance policies, payroll, instructor introductions, etc.), pep rally ("you really can learn a foreign language, no kidding, you really can!") and reminders ("This is your job for the next several months, take it seriously"), we were sorted into specific language groups and sent off to meet our instructors. However, all groups are not created equal and we had to sit and wait in the auditorium until the Spanish horde cleared the hallway. Then we were turned over to our instructors one language at a time and the last language called down from the seats was Italian. I felt like the slow fat kid who gets chosen last in the pick-up baseball game; it's a scar that will take a long time to heal. Living in Italy will, of course, go a long way towards easing the healing process.

This building is the language school at FSI.

Classroom space is at a premium at FSI and it's in everyone's interest to keep class sizes small, so any language with more than five or six students splits the group into shifts. There were enough of us beginning Italian to form two groups. We were arbitrarily assigned to the first shift (0800 to 1400) or the second shift (1000 to 1600). Then we were allowed to swap shifts with anyone who wanted to change. I was assigned to the second shift and agreed to swap with someone who didn't want the early shift. I actually preferred the early start so it worked out well for both of us. Then we were taken to the language lab and shown all those resources. In addition to our scheduled class instruction hours, we are given lab assignments and homework. We are also expected to spend several hours each week in the lab in 'self study'.

The Department of State makes Rosetta Stone available to us if we want to begin learning a language on our own. I decided, based on my previous experiences with Bulgarian and Urdu, to take advantage of this resource as soon as I received my onward assignment to Rome. So, for several months I patiently worked my way through the nineteen Rosetta Stone chapters with varying degrees of understanding and success. As of today, we've had nine days of class and we're already beyond the Rosetta Stone course. The pace is 'challenging' in a "faster than a speeding bullet" way and it's our responsibility to keep up. For the first couple of weeks now I've had to put in three to four hours each day after class in order to do so, but I doubt very much that I'll be able to continue to slack off that way in the weeks to come.

There is no magic formula for learning a foreign language (so the money I paid that fellow in the yellow plaid pants for a bottle of Dr. Silvertongue's Remarkable Language Elixir is most probably ill spent). FSI does a great job of providing the resources we need, instructors, materials and time, but we each still have to put our own dedicated efforts into the task. Our Italian teacher, for example, has marched us through the first three chapters of our textbook in just under two weeks. She also warned us on day one that by the end of the second week she wouldn't be speaking any English in class. That's most unfortunate for me because I actually understand English. Some undefined period of grace also seems to have passed because now when we make a small grammatical error, Silvana yells, "NO!", rather than gently correcting us as she did in the beginning. She shouts this out as though we're breaking her heart by not learning our lessons perfectly. Silvana is an Italian grandmother and has the whole guilt thing down to perfection. She brings a very high level of energy and enthusiasm to the class and challenges us to keep up.

This is one of the lounges at FSI.

My job in Rome is a 'language designated' position, which means that I must test at a predetermined level before I can go to Post. The predetermined level for Italian is 3/3 or "having a functional fluency" in both speaking and reading the language. In the more difficult languages the required level might only be a 2/2, or even a 2/1 in super hard languages like Chinese. The test itself is quite an interesting experience in much the same way that a root canal is an interesting experience; I tested in Bulgarian just after joining the Foreign Service. I had just returned from two years in Bulgaria as a Peace Corps volunteer and was fairly confident in my ability to get a 2/2, which would have satisfied my language requirement for tenure. I tested out at a 1/1 but gained valuable experience in the 'testing process' and an insight into my own shortcomings in the 'language acquisition process'. My primary shortcoming, of course, is that all foreign languages sound very different, to me, from English and I have trouble understanding them.

So, my task is pretty clear for the next six months, I will learn to understand, speak and read Italian. I will take full advantage of the resources that are made available to me and I will put in whatever time is required after class to ensure that I don't fall behind. We have access to Italian newspapers, tv broadcasts, movies and magazines and individual tutoring is available if we begin to struggle. Italian has a multitude of cognates, a grammatical structure very similar to English and, unlike Urdu or Bulgarian, a familiar alphabet. By August I'm quite certain that I'll be ready.

Is it hard to find a place to park on the Via Veneto?

In 1995 I bought a bright red Mustang convertible with wide tires and a beefed up sound system. On the first of November every year I put it under a cover in the garage and didn't take it out again until after the first of April. It has windshield wipers, but I can say with pride that I don't know if they even work because it's never been driven in the rain. It has the last of the big old five liter engines that Ford discontinued in 1996 in favor of the much more efficient 4.6 liter high performance engine. Sitting at a stoplight the engine in my Mustang sounds like it wants to eat up the road, high performance engines sound very similar to weedwackers. The State Department will ship one car to Post for me free of charge and I debated long and hard about shipping the Mustang to Islamabad. I finally accepted that a bright red convertible would not exactly be low profile from a security point of view and left it in the garage in Maine. Next month I intend to drive up to Maine and bring it back to Washington. I'll drive it around here from April until August and then ship it to Rome. It'll be fifteen years old next year and it's time for me to get some use out of it. I just hope it doesn't rain while I'm in Rome because I'm not sure if the wipers work.

But that's later on and right now I'm enjoying my time back in school. FSI is a truly unique environment in which you wander up and down the halls hearing conversations taking place in every imaginable language. Turn a corner and you interrupt two people speaking Russian, around the next corner a small group of Nepali speakers nods a "Good Morning" as you pass, down the hall you hear Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese and Laotian coming from separate doorways. Although you don't understand the words, the meaning of each and every conversation is quite clear, "Hey, I just bought a bottle of this 'Remarkable Language Elixir' stuff from a guy in yellow plaid pants, and it's guaranteed to get me a 3/3. You better hurry up and get some, he said it's going fast!".