We’re nearing the end of our second week of Italian language classes and I think it’s a good opportunity for me to pause and reflect on what it feels like to become a student once again. Yes, it’s a little odd to have been so thoroughly immersed in school and to be teaching for two years only to be dropped straight into the role of a student of a subject that one knows almost nothing about. Learning a new language is like starting from kindergarten – we really did spend part of the first class learning the Italian alphabet (which has only 21 letters as J, K, W, X, Y are not used) and most of the first week learning the most basic of words and short phrases. Furthermore, imagine teaching this to a bunch of adults who, while motivated, might not be as agile as kids to pick languages up from scratch any longer. With that, I believe our Italian teacher is well on the path to sainthood, especially with her extreme patience with our silly questions and bad pronunciation.
I realised the first step to learning a new language well is to approach it with humility and patience. The humility comes with realising that no matter how good one might be in anything else, in the new language, we are complete newcomers and have the language ability of a 5 year-old (or less). Thinking that we’re any better would lead us to struggle not just with the teacher and the well-thought out lessons but with ourselves. Without a sense of humility and knowing where we are in the grand scheme of things, we might think that our skills in some other language or subject can translate into us having the same ability to pick up the language. This can easily lead to frustration as we’re constantly unable to match our own perception of our abilities. Humility on the other hand will allow us to be patient with ourselves and to realise that we’re far from expert in most things and that we should and must take things as they come and learn as a child would.
Learning as a child would means being prepared to make mistakes, and lots of them. To be unafraid to talk and sound funny, to be willing to ask silly questions so that sillier mistakes are not made in the future and to be prepared to laugh at oneself. Children learn well because they try and their often unafraid to make mistakes. They pick themselves up quickly when they stumble while learning and in the process learn more and learn better. Just as Jesus constantly asks us to adopt a childlike attitude to faith, we would do better if we adopted this same childlike attitude to learning. Humility and being childlike come hand-in-hand and both allow us to enter into the learning ‘zone’ that much better.
Just as a child doesn’t mature overnight, our own ability to speak, write and listen can only came with prolonged exposure to the language. Humility and the childlike approach to learning must also come with a certain amount of patience. Rome wasn’t built overnight (and the buildings that surround me remind me of that – our house here is over 400 years old) and languages are not picked up immediately either. I struggle to speak even simple sentences these days but I know that in the struggle, I get to remember and use the new words better. I used to tell my students that ‘suffering builds character’ and I do have to live up to that and suffer through my kindergarten-level Italian and continue to try to speak more so that I can get better eventually.
Another point that was brought home over the past days is that one needs a certain amount of openness in one’s approach to a new language. We all have our favoured language – mine’s English of course and it is through this favoured language that we approach the new one. We need to use our own language as a gateway to the new one but we should not use our favoured language as the sole means of understanding the new one. That would be a great mistake. We’ve learned that there are many words and phrases in Italian that have no English equivalent and to try to search for the equivalents would be an exercise in frustration. Instead, we should open ourselves to new concepts and especially structures of language to truly embrace the new language and in a small way, the culture as well. Just doing a short grammar exercise today showed me at least the differences in opinion between the Italians and workaholic Singaporeans like me. I know that begs explanation but shall leave that as it is for the moment. Suffice to say I’m learning more than just words as I try to immerse myself in the language and culture of Rome and Italy.
The last bit here is how this experience is revelatory for me as an educator. I’m experiencing first-hand what I believe many of my students might have faced while I was teaching. Sometimes I don’t quite understand why students don’t understand or why they make silly mistakes or ask silly questions. I don’t mind and often welcome the latter but being in the situation that I’m in allows me to appreciate how difficult a foreign language (and its associated concepts) can be and how easy it is to mix things up (in grammar especially) when one is unfamiliar with the syntax and context. I’m also much more cognisant of what might go on in the heads of students they approach difficult topics as I’ve been experiencing exactly that these past days. This gives me a little more empathy and understanding, which I hope I can carry with me the next time I’m with students in class.
Learning’s always fun though the degree of fun can vary greatly. I’m just happy I’m here for this ride and hope that it continues to be an interesting one. And, yes, prayer helps too. You’ll have to trust me on that one.