“Simple,” we thought. “We’ll learn Italian. ‘Pizza’, ‘vino’ … can’t be difficult.”
The truth – classes in England didn’t really help and neither did audio. Both fed Italian in one ear and didn’t ask too many questions before it fell out the other.
“Well,” we thought. “Much simpler to pick it up in Italy … and everyone uses their hands anyway.”
“Good luck,” said an Italian friend. “It’s my first language and I still can’t understand the Neapolitans.”
That, we decided, was a bleak view. Of course we would understand the people of Naples.
It took about a day to realise that our friend was correct. We didn’t understand what anyone said, and as for the hand gestures … an Italian’s hands are part of his eyes, his chin, his shoulders, his arms, his whole body. An Englishman’s hands are attached to his wrists.
It was clear we were in trouble. Something had to be done otherwise we’d be doing Italy without its people. The answer – three weeks of intensive Italian at the “Centro Italiano – Scuola d’italiani per Stranieri” in Naples.
The Centro doesn’t make itself easy to find. It’s in a network of tight, graffitied streets between the Via Toledo and the University of Naples. There is a plaque high on a wall beside a huge, firmly closed wooden door. We never saw the plaque as we hurried back and forth trying to look neither ‘stranieri’ nor lost … then suddenly we found it through a small door inside a big door that opened to let us into the courtyard and up to the classrooms.
There the Italian immersion is instant. The Centro is unmerciful about that but it eases the pain with skilled and charming teachers, trained to be endlessly interested in stumbling answers. They learned about us students as we found out about their city, its art, its food, and its customs.
I remember a lot of time laughing as we were encouraged to talk about almost anything and nobody minded what anybody said as long as it was said it in good, clean Italian.
Class sizes changed from week to week but the average was around ten students from a complete mosaic of backgrounds: Germany, Uruguay, Holland, Canada, Spain, Mocambique, the Phillipines, Denmark, Lithuania, Russia, America, Brazil, Bulgaria … we worked together in lessons and kept talking through mid-morning coffee break, and the occasional lunch.
I sat at the lower end of one range – ability – and the higher end of another – age – but, even so, gradually, gradually, ‘piano, piano’, my vocabulary grew and by the end there was even the occasional miracle of a complete sentence in the correct tense.
Sadly fluency is still out of reach but thanks to the Centro the words are no longer failing like they used to – and, more important, there is hope!
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2014