DIYing a Second Language

by Romie Stott

Non parlo bene italiano. Ma sto imparando.

A little more than five years ago, my half-Italian husband and I decided that in five years we’d move to Italy. Our reasoning was approximately: Because it’s there. Never mind that I spoke no Italian whatsoever unless it related to restaurants, musical terminology, or the libretto of an opera. I had five years. How hard could it be?

We moved to Italy last month, to a town called Pescara. I hesitate to call it small, but it’s sort of the equivalent of somebody from Japan randomly deciding to take a two-third paycut to move to Dubuque. People are friendly but confused about why I’m here, and I can’t explain very well, because I speak terrible Italian. But I’m learning, and trying my best to balance the potential costs of language instruction with the cost of being incomprehensible.

The reason I decided to take a DIY approach is that I’m a terrible language student. In elementary school, and later in a bilingual Texan neighborhood, I took Spanish, yet I speak none of it. In high school and college, I took four years of French, and I speak none of it. I’m a great student, but that’s kind of the problem. Given the option, I approach languages as a combination codebreaker, sociologist, and conceptual artist. I pick apart the language’s structure. I dig into its medieval forms and semiotics, all of which I want to talk about with my vast English vocabulary and rhetorical structures.

Language learning doesn’t work like that. Fundamentally, it’s not about understanding the rules of grammar as much as hearing something and saying, “that sounds weird.” It’s being able to look at a sign and think “segnale,” or knowing to use the article “lo” instead of “il” in front of “zoo” and not because of how the word zoo entered the language but because lo is the word you use in front of zoo, the word everyone uses in front of zoo, the word you have always heard everyone use in front of zoo.

I figured what I needed was the absence of a teacher. I needed to get frustrated and then stay frustrated. I needed to learn from someone or something that would not respond to my questions, something I couldn’t sidetrack, something I could not annoy or disappoint, something that would confine me to a few rote, appropriate responses. I needed a friendly machine which would mistake me for a baby. In other words, Rosetta Stone.

Materials Costs:

  • Rosetta Stone Italian Level 1–5 Set: List price of around $500, but I think I got it on a student discount for around $275. I bought this in 2010 and have been working through it steadily but not quickly.
  • Italian-language children’s programming on YouTube: free, assuming you have an internet connection.
  • 2 un tuffo nell’azzurro workbooks: €24 each for a cumulative €48 (around $55).
  • Cassell’s Italian-English Dictionary, 1967 edition: $25. I didn’t mean for it to be the 1967 edition.
  • Assorted Children’s Books: Maybe $60? I was lucky enough to live near a library with a small but excellent selection of non-English books, but I liked some of them enough to buy copies for keeps. I particularly like Leo Lionni. He’s good in English too; he spoke both. Did you know his wife’s father helped found the Italian Communist Party?

Total Expenditure: $415

I am not including the costs of moving to Italy, although being in Italy is definitely part of my fluency plan. To be honest, at the moment I can’t find very many people willing to put up with speaking Italian to me, which seems like a reasonable choice on their part. One of my barriers to learning a second language, although not the main one, is how much I enjoy being incomprehensible in even my first language (which I’ve noticed English-speaking Italians are more likely to call “mother tongue,” even using it as a descriptive noun — “she’s a mothertongue.”) I like corny absurdist jokes. I write sci-fi poetry. Sometimes, when I say, “at first, I am an elephant behind ice,” it’s not a mistake: I mean exactly that.

For the moment, most of my conversations are with the staff of the fruit and vegetable stand on the corner by my apartment, partly because I have a fairly ample vocabulary that concerns fruit, and partly because it’s an inexpensive scripted interaction with obvious and repeatable steps.

Daily Produce Purchase: €0–€3

I spend hours each day making labor-intensive foods. I’ve taught myself to gut and descale every fish in the ocean, with help from AP Anatomy and YouTube. In a serious memoir, I’d bake pies about my feelings or apprentice with a butcher as a metaphor for sexuality, but really it’s that these are the ingredients I understand how to buy. “Polenta” is basic vocab. Stovetop instant polenta is more complicated. “Un mezzo chilo di quel pesce” means never having to say “debone this.”

Since Rosetta Stone doesn’t listen to me, except to check whether the waveform of my voice matches the waveform of the word I’m supposed to use, it has to make assumptions about who I am and what I need to know. Sensibly, it has guessed without quite saying so on the packaging that its students are businesspeople who vacation in Italy, perhaps at the tail of short international business trips. Hence I can talk in some detail about winter sports and most forms of recreational boating. But I don’t know how to say “curtains,” or for that matter “furniture.” When I cook, I can’t talk about my cooking. I can talk about the ingredients and all the parts of the kitchen, but not cooking implements or processes. Dishwasher, yes. Pots, pans, boiling, a spatula? Forget it.

(Incidentally, the kitchen is called la cucina. Italian cuisine is called la cucina. “She cooks” is cucina. The range top of the stove is la cucina. The kitchen counter is il piano cucina. If you need to write a “Who’s on First” routine in Italian, I suggest cucina.)

To be fair, I am also responsible for my vocabulary. This is DIY, after all, and I am equipped with a dictionary. So far, the words I have prioritized:

  • periodontista — periodontist
  • coccinella — ladybug
  • affilato — sharp
  • tossico — poisonous
  • papismo — Papism (a.k.a. Popery), which I found by accident while looking up periodontist and now overuse as a punchline.

When people ask me my level, I have no clue what to say. What I know is: I can understand most of Peppa Pig and almost none of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. (Except “principessa.” Principessa, I’ve got. That’s half the dialog right there.) I think European language teachers refer to this as “A2” — which is convenient, since that’s the requirement for residency. I’ve started looking for a local conversation partner with whom I can trade occasionally one-sided conversations in English for occasional one-sided conversations in Italian. In the meantime, I send my husband Italian text messages that sometimes confuse “you are” with “six” (in both cases, sei) because my phone has Italian but not English voice transcription software.

Sending an Italian SMS: 15 cents (but I get 100 free per month)

Alternatively, I can use WhatsApp for effectively free, but its text prediction is in English since I mostly use it to talk to people in the States. To send Italian-language texts, I have to battle English autocorrect. Which is maybe a metaphor. Occasionally, I see an article about how somebody became a fluent speaker in six weeks, or 17 days, or three months — in some amount of time that is much less than I’ve taken — and I question everything I’ve ever done. I try to remind myself those people weren’t simultaneously working 50-hour weeks at English-language-intensive jobs. Non é importante che io lavoro lentamente. Sto qui per un lungo tempo. Saró una bella farfalla della lingua.

Self-directed pep talks in the style of Yoda crossed with Mariah Carey: free

Since I am an adult, and am not currently cocooned in a full-immersion language course with helpful chaperones, there is potential for misunderstandings that could get me in trouble that goes beyond embarrassment, particularly since I speak some Italian. My Judo-sensei uncle used to call this “the danger of the yellow belt.”

In the last few weeks, while my husband has been busy teaching, I have confidently misunderstood the difference between “our school accepts children up to around 11 years old” (aperto da circa 11 anni, I thought) and “our school has been in business for 11 years” (aperto da circa 11 anni, in fact) and have authoritatively dismissed a long-awaited washing machine repairman because the Internet was working. I am half comprehensible, half goofball Cousin Balki. Fortunately, these mistakes have cost me time rather than money. My washing machine did get fixed. I did meet with the school to see whether I wanted to enroll in some classes, although it wasn’t the right fit.

One of the weirdest things for me is that I haven’t figured out what I sound like when I speak Italian. After five years of consistent practice, I still sound like I’m imitating someone else’s intonations. Which I am. I sound like a breathy announcer from a commercial for detergent, or a prompt on a phone tree in Milan. If I try to deviate, I get mumbly.

Part of the problem is I’m not fluent enough to have developed an Italian personality. That thing where high school language teachers tell everyone to pick a Spanish name, or Latin name, or Klingon name? That’s real. To be fluent in a language, you have to be able to think in that language, which means skipping the step where your fully-formed adult self reflexively supplies the English equivalent. You have to be able to switch back and forth between your English-language version and your newly-constructed other self, whose instinctive reactions are in different words, born from another context. Other me may be more extroverted, or more didactic. She will almost certainly be less emotionally reactive, but also will have a different moral orientation.

Intangible Future Expenditure: consistent ethical framework?

Will the ultimate cost of learning a second language be my very soul? Time will tell. And the words it will use will be Italian.

This story is part of The Billfold’s DIY Month.

Romie Stott’s genre-bending fiction and poetry have appeared in Arc, Farrago’s Wainscot, Strange Horizons, Punchnel’s, Dark Mountain, and LIT. As a filmmaker, she’s been a guest artist at the National Gallery (London), ICA Boston, and Dallas Museum of Art. Her online portfolio is at

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