I was introduced to an interesting albeit somewhat depressing analogy for life recently. I was told that life is like a pendulum, swinging between boredom and despair, passing briefly through moments of joy in the middle. While I don’t quite agree with this assessment of life, the swing of the pendulum was quite apparent this past week and it’s given me much to think about, both within myself as well as how I’m operating within the world.
During the past week, I went through the gamut of emotions of joy at learning new things in Italian class to despair at not being able to grasp what seemed like simple concepts relating to prepositions and conjunctions to settle finally with a sense of calm anticipation of better times to come. As mentioned before, patience is important and I realise that for some time, I lost patience with myself and my ability to learn properly. I want to improve, to communicate effectively and to understand the lessons that are to come but that cannot and will not happen overnight. The problems arose when I expected that to happen.
Being unable to communicate effectively can be hugely demoralising. Try sitting with others, during meals or otherwise, having ideas and means to join in the conversations but are unable to because one has the vocabulary of a 6-year-old. Or worse, sitting with others and losing the thread of the conversation because we just don’t understand the words. Or sitting in class correcting one’s grammar exercise and realising that one got less than half of them correct. Language acquisition isn’t easy at the best of times but when the added pressure to do ‘better’ comes from within, the pendulum can quickly swing towards despair and stay there.
To make things worse, I’m an educator and spent some time in language education. If I can’t motivate myself to learn well, then what right do I have to even step into a classroom again? A little overdramatic I must admit but then again, I do have a particular penchant for melodrama. Jokes aside, I realise that the struggles in learning that I go through now can have a positive effect on how I approach education in the future. I just have to learn something in the process. What I did learn (or at least remember) while desperately trying to swing myself out of was that learning includes both knowing and understanding. How one approaches both of them in one’s efforts can have a great impact on how one truly learns in the end.
Italian has three words related with knowledge and understanding. Conoscere means ‘to know’ – a simple indication of one recognising a particular person, thing or idea. Capire (from which comes the famous word from the Godfather movies, ‘Capisce’) means ‘to understand’ – an indication that the knowledge has been internalised and can be used in a similar context. Sapire means ‘to know so that it can be used’ – a higher form of knowledge that includes the willingness and ability to use one’s knowledge. Learning and studying helps one to know things but it’s only with constant contact with the language and the willingness to use it and to make all manner of silly mistakes with it can we progress to the point where we know the language well enough for it to be used.
Being able to speak and communicate requires one to ‘sapire’ the language so that it can be used. I’d say that’s the main thrust of what we’re trying to do here. The minor setbacks are part and parcel of learning and the struggle to speak and to use the grammar does make one stronger. I remember telling my students that ‘suffering builds character’ and I think my character’s being built pretty well these days. The struggle to try to use what little I know to communicate continues and perhaps it is the lines from St Paul that can help:
“Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutionns, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10)
Or in Italian:
“Perciò mi compiaccio nelle mie infermità, negli oltraggi, nelle necessità, nelle persecuzioni, nelle angosce sofferte per Cristo: quando sono debole, è allora che sono forte.” (2 Corinzi 12:10)