Inspiration, People

Episode 11: The Point of No Return

Brendan Kelly learns Italian Rosetta Stone

WARNING: These articles are intended to be an unfiltered look at the emotional rollercoaster that is my personal journey of learning a language, which by the very nature of me writing them means it’s highly likely that some people will be offended—especially if you have an aversion to the occasional swear, poor grammar, and general surliness. All the views expressed are mine, so any hate mail should be sent to me, not the corporate overlords at Rosetta Stone who are paying me to write them.

This is Episode 11 of Sh*t’s Getting Real. Binge from the very
beginning.

Here we are in week eleven of this journey and I’m supposed to be getting a tutor to help further my pursuit of learning Italian. As my wonderful tenure as one of the only bloggers here at Rosetta Stone to use phrases like “slapdick” and “asseyes” nears its end, I’m trying to crank it up a notch or two, and a tutor seems like a good way to crank said notch. But here’s the funny part: I harbor a little bit of fear when it comes to getting a tutor. It’s probably the same fear I harbor regarding going to the doctor, which is to say: totally irrational and actively self-sabotaging.

Presumably, a doctor is just there to fix you, right? Or keep you running smoothly. But since I don’t KNOW any doctors and since my last physical was a pretty terrifyingly embarrassing 3 years ago, I don’t know who to go to, and more to the point, I don’t know what I can or can’t say. I mean, what if I walk in and I just say “hey doc, help me out: I smoke 200 cigarettes a day, eat nothing but dumpstered McDonald’s and batteries, and even then I only do that when I’m not super high on meth,” in theory, that would give my doctor the info she needs to best navigate my health situation, were these things true, right? (For the record, none of these things are true, except for the battery eating.)

But, the way healthcare works in this country, it seems just as likely that I’d be flagged, put on a list, narc’d on to my insurance company and then systematically screwed into desperation whenever something serious inevitably came up. I would like to think that the Hippocratic oath in tandem with the notion of confidentiality would shield me from such shenanigans but alas, I just don’t. I harbor a fear mixed with a lack of knowing any good doctors that is preventing me from, among other things, getting a proper prostate exam (which, by the way, whole other group of fears there) and, lemme tell you, the idea of dying of prostate cancer is vastly more frightening than the idea of my insurance company knowing I drink horse placenta every day to keep my hair shiny, but I can’t quantify these fears, and as long as I just sit here nothing bad seems to be happening which seems just fine to me.

Similarly, with a tutor, I’m out there. I’m speaking Italian to a stranger. I’m exposing my knowledge or lack thereof and in a very real way, quantifying how much progress I’ve made on this Rosetta Stone journey. What if my tutor narcs on me to my bosses . . . what if I’ve been fooling myself and I’m not actually learning all that much or I’m doing it at a comically slow pace? Will that render all my columns to be nothing but laughably ineffectual, long-winded hot air bloviating (more than they already are)? Will it make me a charlatan in the eyes of my colleagues at Rosetta Stone and my literally dozens of readers? If I just sit here, nothing bad seems to be happening, which seems just fine to me.

What if my tutor narcs on me to my bosses . . . what if I’ve been fooling myself and I’m not actually learning all that much or I’m doing it at a comically slow pace?

But today I contacted the tutor anyway. My overlords are correct in this: the tutor will highlight another big portion of the Rosetta Stone experience, and up until now I’ve been focused way too much on the core lessons. I feel pretty strongly that I owe it to all of us to break this language out of the one-sided lesson phase and let it come to life a little bit because even as I study and improve my pronunciation, vocab and construction understanding, it’s kinda just a theoretical dead language if I’m not using it aloud with actual human beings, ya know? And as it stands, I’m kinda running out of time.

As I said in my first post, language is a tool of communication, first and foremost, and if I’m just regurgitating and not actually communicating with another sentient soul, I’m not REALLY even learning a language. I’m just going through a fairly athletic mental exercise. And, since I don’t have many sentient souls out there who want to talk to me in ANY language, much less one that I just barely grasp the fundamentals of, I need the tutor.

In a lot of cases, people presumably use Rosetta Stone for things like being able to communicate with their new Chinese in-laws or getting ready to go on that trip to Seville, but I’m kinda learning in a vacuum. Sure, I have Italian cousins who presumably would speak with me, but the stark reality is that I still don’t have that much to say in Italian. I don’t know that the idea of calling Silvano in Torino to talk about the myriad colors of various apples and sweaters really is worth the cost of the call (also, Silvano is likely too busy with his homemade grappa to really be interested in a call like this, but I digress). I’ve become very adept at speaking into my phone and unwinding by playing the admittedly engaging and rewarding touchscreen games that the app provides, but the next step is a big one, which is why I hope this tutor gets back to me.

The thing with the fully immersive language experience is that you can actually use the tiny bit of language you have effectively and gain confidence and then grow from there. “Holy shit!” you may say, “I just ordered this glass of wine for my wife and this charcuterie board for myself and then asked where the bathroom was, apologized to that guy for bumping into him and doing that thing where I step on the back of his shoe and pull it off unwittingly, and then I came back and asked for the check! I’m getting the hang of this! My wife even looked at me with something approaching respect and then told her mom about my little victory via text!” That’s a low-stakes game that works well with a limited vocabulary and features an outsized reward and sense of accomplishment while bolstering a need to keep on keeping on.

The thing with the fully immersive language experience is that you can actually use the tiny bit of language you have effectively and gain confidence and then grow from there.

Or maybe you’ve found yourself in Germany working in a convenience store or something. Presumably you get pretty familiar with the idea of the numbers and making change and saying “hi” and “thank you” really quickly. Next, you learn the sentence, “Where’s the cheapest beer with the highest alcohol by volume in this corner shop?” and how to respond to it effectively. Then, suddenly you’re equipped for something approaching a conversation, even if it is just on the most basic level.

But whipping up an organic conversation based on nothing at all besides lessons is daunting without the apparatus of real life in the mix. To be extremely clear, this is not any different with Rosetta Stone than it is with any other language lesson, but there is a sort of safety net that exists when the only person listening to you is a gamified app. To use a very obvious and somewhat extreme corollary, it’s a lot easier to die in Super Mario Brothers than it is to die in real life. 

So, the other night I went to see Immortal Technique, who is a “Peruvian-American hip-hop recording artist and activist” according to his Wikipedia page. His shit is, to put it mildly, wild as hell. On the first song of his breakout album, Revolutionary Volume 2, he touches on such topics as Mary Magdalene giving birth to Jesus’ offspring, human beings eradicating monkeys in a quest for global dominance, various Holocaust themes, the Knights Templar and Solomon’s Temple, Europe’s plunder of the New World, the best ways to slit one’s wrists, the extinction of the dinosaurs, CIA assassinations, Nat Turner, the Matrix, Elijah Mohammed, the dark side of the moon, alien contact, planet X, the Seventh Seal, acid rain, human cloning, a global catastrophe that leads to domed cities, the criminal background of Australians, and more.

The song, which is called “The Point of No Return”, is four minutes long, but two and a half of those minutes are instrumental or a chanted chorus. What I’m getting at is that this is a dude who has a LOT to say. He’s definitely a champion of oppressed peoples, a radical leftist, and a pretty militant one at that, and the ONE message he had . . . the ONE thing he said to the audience that night, was “Learn to speak another language. It’s the most important thing you can do. You have to be able to communicate with people from other cultures.” Considering that he could have quite literally said “It’s time to rise up against the lizard people and the Bilderberg Group at the Greenbriar” and it would have been in keeping with his entire public persona, this is quite a statement, and one that made me starkly realize that just using the app is not enough.

“Learn to speak another language. It’s the most important thing you can do. You have to be able to communicate with people from other cultures.”

Immortal Technique

I know I’ve crowed endlessly about the power of learning language and the satisfaction that comes with it and the global stewardship endemic in such an endeavor, but I REALLY didn’t think that my man Tech was gonna take up the exact same mantle just because it’s that important to him. Keep in mind, this is a dude that carries machetes around and thinks that there’s something fishy about the comet that killed the dinosaurs and also believes in a secret planet in our solar system, and his main thing is “yo, you should really learn to speak Italian or something.” Of all the things that he could be warning us about, this is where he’s at.

So, of course, this led me to not only contact the tutor, but also to absolutely dive into my lesson this week, for the good of the people enslaved on the dark side of the moon and so forth, and here’s where I’m at: the progress is steady even as the lessons become harder. I’m having to concoct sentences now, which is hard, but they kinda give a template that I can work from. I don’t know if I’m actually kicking ass when they say “these bicycles are green” and then I have to say “THESE bicycles are white” when the first sentence is right there in text, but it FEELS cool to bust out a whole sentence and get 100% on it in terms of construction and pronunciation.

. . . it FEELS cool to bust out a whole sentence and get 100% on it in terms of construction and pronunciation. 

I don’t really have too much to say regarding anything else in the actual lesson. At this point, I’m familiar with the whole interface and it’s really just a matter of it ramping up in difficulty and me somehow not falling behind terribly. The one thing I did notice, as I scrolled through the future lessons in Rosetta Stone, and this is just kinda a catty aside, is that the “emergency situations” unit is Unit 19. That seems perversely deep in the mix, no? Can you imagine being on the streets of Milan and having to say, “She’s bleeding to death. Call the hospital or at least bring me a tourniquet!” and realizing that you’re only on Unit 15: At Home and Around Town, and so all you’ve got is “that’s a lovely beige couch and matching ottoman”? Ultimately this makes a ton of sense, since who wants to learn a language for fun and be inundated with “Please! I need insulin!” when all you wanna do is be able to order the corner hotel room with the nicest view, but I found it to be pretty amusing, nonetheless.

Anyway, this is my second to last one of these. My next one will certainly be a weepy and sentimental retrospective mess. Hopefully, I’ll have met with a tutor by then, because, as we’ve already spent too much time covering, that’s the next step. Until then, remember, whether you’re ordering wine for your wife or hipping people to the truth about Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ relationship, learning a second language is incredibly important, rewarding and potentially life changing.

Oh! Last thing, and this is fairly unrelated, but I liked it: My friend showed me a Tweet the other day and I wish I could give it proper attribution, but apparently everyone on earth has Tweeted this thought: “If you think learning English as a second language is easy, consider that ‘fat chance’ and ‘slim chance’ mean the same thing.”

How hard could any other language possibly be to learn, keeping that in mind?

What a world. 

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