Thursday, April 23, 2009

Italian Continues

Great Falls National Park

When I'd finished my two years in Bulgaria as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was relatively pleased with my ability to read, speak and understand Bulgarian. I could carry on lengthy conversations, speak to people on the phone, work my way through the daily newspaper with some semblance of understanding and travel the country without a phrasebook. As I was wrapping things up at work, upon completion of my tour, I was having a quiet coffee with one of the women in the office and I mentioned that one of the things of which I was most proud was that I had actually learned a 'foreign' language.

She choked so violently that coffee blew out of her nose. She very carefully put her half empty cup onto her saucer and looked at me earnestly as if to determine whether or not I was serious.

"I'm sorry," I said, "but I thought that my Bulgarian was pretty good."

"Larry," she said very slowly, "my dog understands more Bulgarian than you can speak." Then she reached over and put her hand on my shoulder. I'll never forget the look of sympathy in her eyes as she continued, "And he isn't an especially bright dog."

In Urdu I mastered the language to the extent that I could say, with complete and total confidence, "Hello", "Greetings", "What is your name?", "Is that weapon loaded?" and "Thank You". By the time I left Pakistan I was reduced, through lack of use, to "Hello" and "Is that weapon loaded?". So, I think I've demonstrated pretty convincingly that my language learning ability can be compared, unfavorably, to that of an intellectually challenged canine.

That having been said, I think I'm doing pretty well in Italian. If nothing else, I'm really waving my hands around a lot and speaking in highly excited tones! In class, we are now trying the patience of our fourth teacher and, because one of our original class members was scheduled to take only eight weeks and he finished up a week ago, there are only four of us left. It is FSI's practice, wherever possible, to rotate the teachers so that the students are exposed to different voices, accents, speaking speeds and teaching styles. All the teachers work off of the same curriculum so there is no disruption in progress each time a new teacher picks up the reins.

We started with Silvana who will be fondly remembered as the only teacher who ever spoke English to us. She introduced us to the rudiments of Italian with a 'take no prisoners' attitude that marched us through the first seven chapters of our textbook in just under four weeks. She gave the appearance of being extremely distracted and flustered but prepared us, by the second week, to begin using nothing but Italian in class. Her lesson plans were always clear, concise and well organized. I would have been quite happy to have had Silvana teach me right through to the end, but after four weeks it was Agata's turn.

Agata is from Sicily and is desperately trying to set the Guinness World Record for 'Most Homework Assigned to Braindead Language Students'. She gave the appearance of being stern, severe and determined to teach us Italian by any means necessary, including having 'Uncle' Guido make us an offer we couldn't refuse. She proved to be an excellent teacher with a great sense of humor and an ability to make difficult grammar points clear to us while explaining them completely in Italian.

A fairly typical experience during FSI language training is the 'meltdown'. All of us, and this applies across the board to students of all languages, have good days and days where we just don't get it. There are those days when it seems that you're the only one in the class who just can't seem to understand what's going on and it can be extremely frustrating. Usually, you struggle along and work a bit harder and, eventually, you catch on and catch up. Sometimes, however, the struggle goes on for just an hour, or a session, or a day too long and you just lose it. The teachers know the pattern better than we do and they deal with it with empathy and understanding. In my case, Agata threw me out of the room. Actually, she suggested that I take what has come to be known as 'Larry's walk of shame' and return when I'd cooled off. She dealt with Terri's meltdown by taking her into the office and serving her a nice cup of tea while they chatted. Hey, I like tea! I would have been quite happy to have had Agata teach me right through to the end, but after only three weeks it was Francesca's turn.

Before Francesca started, we were given our first Progress Test. As I've mentioned, we have to score a 3/3 on the FSI language test by the end of the course and we are given a couple of Progress Tests modeled on the final evaluation to give us practice in taking the test as well as to tell us if we're on track or not. After six weeks, I tested at a 1/1+ level and seemed to be on track. The test was administered by Silvana and Fabio and I was quite thankful that Fabio wasn't in the rotation to teach us because he speaks with machine gun rapidity and is extremely difficult to understand.

Francesca only worked with us for two full weeks. She was a substitute brought in from the Language Institute in DC to teach us while one of the regular staff took some scheduled time off. Although she was only with us for a couple of weeks, she was thoroughly professional and kept us working hard every day. Our homework load was lighter than it had been under Agata, but Attila the Hun wouldn't have assigned as much homework as Agata. Of course, just as we were getting used to the cadence, rhythm and style of Francesca's speech our new teacher took over. I would also have been quite happy to have had Francesca teach us right through to the end.

Somehow, the teacher rotation was changed and Fabio is now our teacher, machine gun speech speed and all. He's only worked with us for a very brief time, but I already like his approach and his style. I even find that I can pick out a word or two from time to time, when he's teaching, that I understand! He appears to subscribe to the Agata school of homework assignment but in spite of that, I think this is going to work out and he announced today that he'll be working with us right through to the end.

Some of the aircraft on view at the Udvar-Hazy Center for the National Air & Space Museum

My folks came down for a visit last weekend and we went out the Udvar-Hazy Center for the National Air & Space Museum located near Dulles Airport. They have an amazing collection of old aircraft out there and we spent a very enjoyable four hours looking them over. On Sunday we drove up to the Great Falls National Park to see the falls. The Park was quite crowded but we managed to find a parking spot and decided to walk along the trail by the river. It was sunny and hot so I put my sunglasses on and dropped my glasses onto the seat of the car. Instinctively I knew that this was a bad idea because I'd be certain to sit on them when I came back to the car. So, I put the hard protective case on the seat next to them so that I'd see it and not sit down. After all, that's what hard protective cases are for.

As you've probably guessed, when I returned to the car I promptly sat down on my glasses, but I was only aware that I'd done so because I felt the hard protective case under my butt. So it did serve a purpose. The glasses were bent out of any usable shape but I'd been planning to have my eyes checked and get a new pair of glasses before I go to Rome anyway so this wasn't an enormous tragedy.

Lenscrafters was offering $100 off any pair of glasses which should have been a clue that the glasses were going to cost me significantly more than $100 but I don't pick up on clues all that well. I chose a pair of frames for regular glasses and another pair for sunglasses and with my new prescription they came to just over $1,000, with the discount of course. The regular lenses will take a week to produce so I asked the young woman who was helping me if she could straighten my old bent glasses up a bit. She took them and in three minutes had straightened them, replaced a loose screw and tightened the arms perfectly. They're like new! I still need the new glasses but I'll keep these as a spare pair.

I hope the new glasses come with those hard protective cases. When you sit on them it's really the only way to tell that you've just destroyed your glasses!