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The Scholar, The Doughnut, and The Pear Tree

By Allegra Forbes, IV Form

What do bedroom slippers and doughnuts have in common? Very, very little, unless you are in Italy, where they have a distinct, and often troubling, phonetic resemblance. Indeed, the difference between ciabatta (slipper) and ciambella (doughnut) can be hard to catch when uttered in the typically rapid discourse of Italians. How embarrassing would it be to accidentally ask for a doughnut in a shoe shop and be confused by the salesperson’s amused look? These are not the situations that years of language classes can, or even would think to, prepare you for. In fact, a few years after my family moved to Florence, my mother, an Italian minor in college, encountered this very dilemma. I, at the time a student at an Italian elementary school, found the situation to be highly entertaining and purposely tried to confuse my mother for years, hoping that she would make the mistake again.

I too, however, in my early years in school, discovered the humbling and sometimes humiliating feeling of struggling with a second language. Although Italian was not foreign to me when I began primary school, I had to fight against the assumption that, as an American, I would never be able to pronounce things properly and that I should accept this fate as it was. Even though my pronunciation is and was equal to my classmates’, any little mistake was atrociously mocked. For example, when interpreting a knight in my second grade class’ production of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, I incorrectly pronounced the “e” in the word impero. Apparently I turned an empire into a pear tree without even realizing what I had done, and became the class fool in the process.

Why, then, if it appears impossible, pursue the herculean task of really learning a language? Isn’t knowing how to order food and get to the train station enough? Yes, for many, that is enough, and even a little knowledge should be respected. There is no harm in gazing wondrously at the unknown. However, we can all recall the feeling of being excluded, even by close friends, from an inside joke. We demand an immediate explanation, perhaps in the fear that we are being made fun of. But sometimes there is no explanation, and you “just had to be there”. And how frustrating it is, to not be able to join in on the laughter!

Such is the way with language. Maybe you think you know what the word impero means, but when you say it out loud and the room begins to laugh, you can’t help but doubt whether you really know what you are saying or not.

Until very recently, I was sure that I could consider myself a knowledgeable expert of the Italian language. I have lived in Italy for almost fourteen years and have received a very traditional and strict education in the language and its complex grammar. However, this proved to be only the surface of an ocean that I thought I knew so well. As I am teaching a course in elementary Italian this year, I am discovering many subtle aspects of the language that any native, or almost native, speaker would overlook. For example, I did not realize just how irregular Italian nouns and their plural forms are until I had to explain these irregularities to people who have not grown up hearing them over and over again.

The inside jokes of a language, foreign or native, never end, as there is so much behind each word. Ciabatta, for example, comes from Shabbat, the weekly Jewish day of rest, a time when one could wear house shoes or slippers. In Milan, the local dialect changed the word to sciavatt, which eventually, molded by other Italic dialects, became ciabatta. Does the common Italian know this? Probably not, nor should he/she be required to when seeking to buy a new pair of bedroom slippers. So, can we really learn a language, to the point that we know every twist and turn of its labyrinth? Perhaps, with patience, humility and a sense of humor. So, when confronted with a perplexingly difficult assignment in a foreign language class, choose tolerance for the inside jokes of others, whether it be the extraordinary patience of the phrase-book speaker or the restlessness of the well-studied scholar, who can’t stand still being left out.

Allegra Forbes is a IV former who was born in Cambridge, MA and has lived in Florence, Italy her whole life. During the school year, she studies French, Latin, Ancient and Modern Greek, and teaches a class in elementary Italian.

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