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Learn Italian? Mamma mia – it's impossible!

Blog | By Margot Lawrence | Sep 21, 2023

Margot Lawrence moved to Italy in 2015 and tried to learn Italian – she really did – but still finds it very difficile

‘Can you speak Italian?’ asked my friend doubtfully when I told her me and my husband were moving to Italy. I assured her we were doing online language programmes and studying from a book with a CD called Italian in Three Months. When I put Disc One into the CD player, I saw myself three months later, sitting in a cafe in Italy, having in-depth discussions with the locals about climate change.

In August 2015, we packed up our London house and said goodbye to our adult children. Accompanied by a basset hound, two cats and my grandmother’s Royal Doulton china, we drove over the Alps and down to Lago Maggiore for our new life in an ancient village with a view of the snow-capped Alps. We had bought a hundred-year-old apricot villa with green shutters, overlooking a terraced garden of silver-green olive trees.

I couldn’t wait to try out my fledgling Italian on real Italians. We went to the local town and I stopped a woman in the street to ask for directions: ‘Scusi, dove si trova il mercato settimanale (excuse me, where is the weekly market)?’ She smiled broadly and fired off a rapid volley of words, which sounded like: ‘Iaburrrburraco spollysignal capi strada burra bing.’ I have no idea what she said to me, but I smiled and nodded. ‘Capito?’ she asked. ‘Si,si.’ I lied.

It happened every time. I would construct a grammatically correct sentence with excellent pronunciation, and then understand only one or two words of the Italian response fired back at me. Sometimes I would attempt a reply, but the person would look blank and say ‘non ho capito’. The Italian in Three Months course had basically equipped me to correctly ask for a cappuccino and have a few one-sided conversations.

There have been well-documented studies about age making it harder to learn new languages. At 65, I’m happily using that as my excuse. I’m at the stage of life where I forget why I’m doing something while I’m doing it, so there’s not much hope of successfully absorbing reflexive verbs.

But the truth is I’ve never been brilliant at learning languages. I don’t have a good ear for it. An Italian will say ‘occhiali’ and I’ll hear ‘occhioli’. And we’ve encountered linguistic challenges that even young people would find hard, like local dialects. The people in our village have a special dialect that Italians in the next village can’t understand. Imagine a non-native English speaker in Britain mastering Received Pronunciation and going to live in Glasgow.

The speed with which Italians speak makes it harder for my aging brain to pick it up. I was sitting outside a café enjoying a coffee, when a woman I’d never met sat down at my table. Short and tubby, wearing black slacks and a green cardigan, she puffed contentedly on her cigarette, oblivious to smoke blowing in my face. She started talking very quickly, so I put up my hand. ‘Sono Inglese. Parla lentimente per favore (I’m English, speak slowly please).’ She stopped mid-flow and thought for a moment: ‘Inglese?’ Then continued her torrent of chatter at the same speed. At one point she put her finger to her throat and made several cut-throat gestures. She either didn’t like her coffee or she wanted to kill someone. Maybe me for being English. After delivering a fifteen minute monologue without drawing breath, she abruptly stopped talking and got up. ‘Ciao’ she said and wandered off.

No one has been less impressed with my Italian than the people in our village. ‘Il tuo Italiano è pessimo (your Italian is very bad)’, they helpfully point out. ‘Ma tuo marito parla Italiano benissimo (but your husband speaks Italian very well).’ I don’t want to split hairs, but these are people who don’t even know what the English for hello is.

I was out walking one day when an elderly Italian man with a golden retriever on a lead stopped to chat to me. We talked for a couple of minutes, then he asked how long I had lived in Italy. I told him.

‘Foura yearsa,’ he said. ‘You hava been in Italia foura yearsa.’ He was both puzzled and astonished. ‘But your Italiano, it isa so bad.’

When we first arrived in Italy, our Italian was even worse than it is now. We were out of our depth shopping for anything more technical than food and clothes. We went to a media chain store to buy a new mobile phone. Paola, the shop assistant, showed us a collection of smart phones in a display cabinet. Speaking in Italian interspersed with random words of English, she explained how the various phones worked and the different contracts. We simply couldn’t understand what she was saying. Eventually she sighed and put all the phones back. She instructed us to follow her to the back of the shop. There in an abandoned corner was a phone on a shelf. ‘Isa gooda for you. We calla questo…eh.. ‘Old Man’ telefono,’ she said, pointing to the obsolete, no frills cell phone that nobody under forty would be seen dead with. Paola was relieved when we agreed to buy it, especially as it was nearly lunchtime, and it is never advisable to get between an Italian and the sacrosanct midday meal. She practically pushed us out the shop with our new Old Man phone.

Visiting the DIY superstore proved equally challenging. We stared blankly at the shelves of paint tins, unable to recognise any brand names. We bought a large pot of white emulsion, and the next day, set about painting the kitchen. The thin, watery paint dripped down our arms as we lifted the brush up to the wall. After three coats, the wall was a greyish/white colour with streaks and patches. The paint we had bought was clearly whitewash.

We went back to the shop and asked at the front desk if anyone spoke English. They told us that Piero spoke very good English and they called him on the tannoy. Piero’s English was about as proficient as our Italian. He only knew three English phrases which he recited proudly: ‘Today isa Mondaya’, ‘What isa the tima’ and ‘Are you ‘appee?’ With the help of Google Translate on his phone, he worked out what paint we needed. We left with two tins of emulsion and a new word to add to our Italian lexicon – antimuffa. Not a political organisation but the Italian word for anti-mould paint.

Lack of language literacy is most difficult in the context of medical diagnosis and treatment. I find it unsettling going to the doctor, struggling to explain my symptoms, before being handed a piece of paper for medication I’ve never heard of, with confusing dosage instructions. Before we lived in Italy, we spent one Easter in a damp mill house near Pisa. Our son, John, was ten at the time. He had a cold which turned into a nasty, persistent cough. One morning he woke up with a high temperature, so we went to the nearest Croco Rosso (Red Cross) centre. They told us to go home and wait for them. Shortly afterwards, an old Fiat Panda came bounding up to our house. The driver was called Fabbio. With a jagged scar across his Adam’s Apple, hoarse voice and pock-marked skin, he could have walked a film role about the mafioso.

Fabbio squeezed us into his car and took off at about ninety miles an hour, racing down the winding road to Pisa. He deposited us at the entrance of the casualty department at Pisa Hospital. Inside it looked like a social gathering with people standing around, talking and laughing - hard to tell who the patients were. Everybody was in their Sunday best, including the ones on trolleys, their leather designer shoes poking out the end of the ribbed hospital blanket. There was an elderly Italian woman stretched out on a trolley. Her family were crowded round her bed, shouting at top volume to each other and the A&E doctor. No one noticed when she feebly raised her trembling hand and repeatedly opened her mouth to speak.

A woman doctor (dottoressa) in a white coat called us into a side room and listened to John’s chest. She said it was ‘clean’ and we could go. As we were leaving, I patted my abdomen to indicate he had a stomach ache as well. The dottoressa jumped up from her desk, ‘Stomacha paina,’ she repeated several times. She called one of the nurses, who collected John and left the room with him. We waited anxiously until the nurse brought John back, accompanied by a radiographer who could speak English. He explained that they had done scans and x-rays of both his chest and stomach and were waiting for the consultant to look at them.

I went out to get a takeaway coffee and as I was returning, I saw the whole family climbing into an ambulance outside the entrance to the A&E. I dropped my coffee on the pavement and raced to reach the ambulance just as they were closing the doors. John was being transferred to the paediatric department on the other side of the hospital grounds. We were led up to the second floor into the Dipartmento Paediatrico (you see how easy Italian is – just add ‘o’ to the end of the English word!) A startlingly attractive young paediatrician with glowing olive skin and dusky eyes listened to John’s chest, looked at his x-rays and said he had pneumonia. He was weighed and given a prescription for anti-biotics. Although the care was excellent, John was given more tests than he needed like the stomach x-rays, because we couldn’t explain the symptoms properly, and the Italian hospital staff wanted to make sure they had covered every possibility.

There is a hospital in a town on the other side of the lake from our village. Directly on the waterside, inpatients would have a view of the lake and mountains from their hospital bed. We walked past it one day and Ian said. ‘When I’m old and about to die, I want to be in this hospital in Omegna looking out at the lake with a nice Italian nurse holding my hand.’

‘I’d rather be in an underfunded, overstretched NHS hospital, lying on a trolley in the corridor waiting hours for a bed.’ I really meant it. I simply could not imagine having a stroke or fall, and in my frailty, unable to understand what was being said to me. Hearing ‘signora, signora, iaburrrburraco spollysignal capi strada burra bing’ as I croaked my last few breaths.

@Margot Lawrence