Inspiration, People

Episode 12: Sh*t’s Getting Real, The Final Chapter

Brendan Kelly learning Italian

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 12 of Sh*t’s Getting Real. Binge from the very
beginning.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 12 weeks already and my tenure here as Rosetta Stone’s most compulsively foul-mouthed blogger is coming to an end. This has truly been one of the best experiences of my professional life (not counting the time when I got drunk with David Cross at South by Southwest, or the time we were on this huge traveling festival in Australia with Metallica and my tour manager and I tracked down Ghost without their disguises, or those three days where my band was stuck in Kitaning, PA because our van dropped its transmission and all we had was three beers, a loaf of Wonder Bread, and some sleeping bags to our names, and we had to sleep in a field that wild dogs liked to party in . . . ah . . . good times, indeed). But I’m getting off topic here already. Forgive me.

Before I was hired to write this column/blog/whatever, I was working at the Onion. For those of you who don’t know what the Onion is, it’s a satire of the news that exists in the comedic rare air of American institutions like Saturday Night Live and MAD Magazine. It was something of a dream job, and when the private equity firm purchased the Onion and drained its blood (of which I was apparently a small and disposable platelet), I felt defeated, not because I’d been let go (they also let many vastly more extraordinarily talented people than me go), but because I thought I’d never again get paid to do anything I believed in so strongly.

But then this Rosetta Stone thing came up. And I’m not bullshitting you when I say that this has been an even better experience than the Onion. I was given the opportunity to learn the language that my family has spoken for generations, and I was given a more or less uncensored platform in which I got to not only discuss the ups and downs and fears and triumphs of my experience, but also to extol the virtues of learning language, broadening horizons, becoming a global citizen, exercising compassion and empathy, and I got to do it while talking extensively about murderous tropical island cultures, Pauly Shore, the Karate Kid, the Matrix, and all sorts of pop culture ephemera from back in the olden days when I still was cool.

The Rosetta Stone experience has helped me to jumpstart the thinking part of my brain each day in a way that seems like a challenge rather than a chore. To use an example, I recently started doing weight training again after about three years of just doing cardio (and more recently, probably six months of doing nothing at all) and, like any regimen, it’s hard as shit to get started on, and at first it hurts, but it immediately changes your whole soul. Just by exercising a little, I crave different foods, have a different handle on my mental health, and feel less like I’m just kind of drifting towards the inevitable iceberg of sloth-like doom that happens to be in my path, and more like someone who can navigate these seas. And, to be clear, the first day I started this training, I was sore and winded and completely useless after about 12 minutes. To quote our president: SAD!

The Rosetta Stone experience has helped me to jumpstart the thinking part of my brain each day in a way that seems like a challenge rather than a chore.

Likewise, since I started doing the Rosetta Stone lessons, I’ve found myself dreaming in Italian (the dreams are great — for example, picture me at a fruit stand being able to call an apple la mela with something approaching confidence, if you want a highlight of how dizzyingly immersed in the vernacular I’ve become), I’ve used Italian casually with some of my multilingual friends (again, only when the English equivalent word is harder to understand) and I’ve even begun to somehow recall the vocab and rules I learned 20 years ago, which was the last time I studied the language. It’s been a remarkable transformation, even though I’ve probably only been through the equivalent of 12 weeks worth of 12-minute workouts.

Am I gonna sit down with Martin Scorsese’s grandmother and rap with her about the best gnocchi consistencies?* No. Reader, I am not. I have no confidence in my ability to actually carry on a non-asinine, worthwhile Italian conversation from scratch after 12 weeks, and also, I’m guessing that Martin Scorcese’s grandmother is dead. But even if she isn’t, I can’t see that conversation going well for a litany of reasons, even when you take mortality out of the equation.

The truth is, it feels good to exercise. It feels good to accomplish things and it feels really, really good to do that on terms that you’re comfortable with when there are measurable results. My vocab is better than it’s ever been, and while I can only talk about bicycles, babies, pens, milk, apples, cars, horses, running, drinking, eating, sandwiches, and a few other fairly boilerplate actions and things, I feel a lot better about the notion of being in a room with Italian speakers and knowing if they’re talking shit about me or not.

Speaking of native Italians, I finally linked up with my Rosetta Stone issued tutor today. Davide was very nice. He wore a shirt that was rossa (we discussed it) and he was kind, patient, he somehow made jokes that would have been dumb if they weren’t so helpful and sweet and well intentioned (example: He showed me a picture of a cup of coffee, which I finally identified correctly after getting nervous and calling it latte first [which means milk]. He then showed me a picture of a fish, asked me what he was, and what he was doing, and what he was doing it in [a fish, swimming, and water, respectively]). Davide then asked me if the fish could swim in coffee. Doesn’t sound funny here written down, but it was super humanizing in the moment, and somehow, understanding even a dumb joke in another language is pretty dynamic in terms of feeling like you’re in on something. As I mentioned back in my first blog post, the biggest high of learning a language has to be that you suddenly get what other people aren’t hip enough to comprehend. Davide, the tutor, effortlessly conveyed this feeling unto me.

. . . the biggest high of learning a language has to be that you suddenly get what other people aren’t hip enough to comprehend.

Now, that being said, he definitely said some shit that I didn’t understand and there were points here and there where I got the distinct feeling that he felt sorry for me. But, he rolled with my skill level and by the time we said arrivederci, I felt like I’d done a good job, or at least I felt like I’d done what it took to convince Davide that I had a sincere interest in bettering myself.

And that’s kinda the thing at the end of the day. We’ve talked here about how most people take these courses for specific reasons: to finally say “what’s up grandma, I’m a Juggalo, and that’s just always gonna be how I roll, ninja’’ in her native Gaelic before she passes away, or to know what kind of lotion to ask for during your massage on your solo vacation in Thailand, but the one thing that the Rosetta Stone app’s core lesson regimen can’t do is hit that part of your soul that makes you want to please or impress, or at the very least not disappoint other people. However, the tutoring sessions, at least in my limited experience, kinda nail it.

The tutor session is via a portal on a laptop, so I can see Davide in his maglione rosso, and it adds a human component that’s crucial to the communicative part of learning language. If you’re at ALL a reasonable person, your human instinct dictates: I don’t wanna look like a dick here, and this is a very nice guy who is helping me and I want him to feel like I’m doing well and like he’s doing a good job at helping me achieve my goals at doing the best I can, so I’m gonna really try to please him and myself and welp . . . that’s the humanity I’m talking about, folks. It’s hard to get that feeling from a book or an app, but it’s inherent when you’re face-to-face with a tutor, even if only through a laptop screen.

I’ve been conscious to try to never make this blog sound like a paid advertisement for Rosetta Stone. I have tried to be as straightforward and honest as possible about features that are great and the ones that just aren’t for me. I even wrote a long thing about how sometimes when you’re on the app, it just won’t recognize your microphone and you need to restart it a few times, and they made me cut that part out (but ONLY because it was completely tangential and it literally derailed the entire larger salient point I was trying to make).

Today, however, I’m not trying to make a controversial point. The tutor session is quite literally the most helpful thing I’ve done in this 12-week process. There truly is no substitute for interacting with a patient human who is being paid to pretend you’re okay at what you’re doing while actively helping you become somewhat proficient at said skill. In a twisted way, I think of getting a tutor a lot like one might employ some sort of sex worker, but probably less intimidating and almost definitely less fun . . . unless you’re waaay into that kind of tutor scene thing, I guess.

The tutor session is quite literally the most helpful thing I’ve done in this 12-week process. There truly is no substitute for interacting with a patient human who is being paid to pretend you’re okay . . .

The tutor experience is where the Rosetta Stone experience shines. I don’t know much about Davide except for that, according to my boss, he’s apparently “almost supernaturally kind” (I noticed that), he’s a native Italian but he lives in the US and he’s not a sex worker (I actually didn’t verify this last part at all, but he didn’t seem to be giving off any indications, so I didn’t push it). And he was a guy who I spoke Italian with. And while I didn’t do very well, Davide corrected me without being didactic and he was generally just a good hang. And that’s huge.

Like everything else Rosetta Stone, he was fully in Italian the whole time. There’s no English. It’s as immersive as you can get and that makes some things hard but I DO see how if every day I was at a job site in Naples and someone was telling me “now you ask ME the questions” constantly, eventually I’d get what that meant. In short, the tutor session humanized the app experience and that is an upgrade that can’t be overstated. It’s a real “face your fears” kinda thing, and Davide (who is the only one I can really vouch for, TBH) was amazing at mitigating and assuaging my fears. By the end, I was positively relaxed.

In short, the tutor session humanized the app experience and that is an upgrade that can’t be overstated. It’s a real “face your fears” kinda thing . . .

And now here I am. I’m positively relaxed, but that’s got a lot to do with the patience and general professionalism of Davide. I WANT to do more face-to-face Italian interactions with people, but the rub is (I think) threefold:

  1. If I just find some kind of online forum where I can speak Italian to other people learning Italian, who also want to improve, it’s my distinct impression that I’ll end up with someone who’s at my approximate skill level, which . . .that would be a dynamic conversation, right? “The bicycle is white,” I may say. To which they may reply “the women swim.” As much as I’ve just big-upped the real and tangible benefits of boots-on-the-ground speaking Italian to other real live humans, this methodology seems, in no uncertain terms like an embarrassing waste of time.
  2. I could enter this hypothetical online forum and be paired with some dipshit from Sausalito or someone who is WAY more skilled in the language, and who just wants to enhance their conversational abilities. I can already feel myself withering in the presence of their inescapable understanding that I’m wasting their time. Davide is adorable and patient because he’s being paid to help me further my lessons. I’m not conversational enough to do anything but burgle another second-language learner’s precious moments on this earth, and frankly, I have enough self-esteem issues without having to consider being rejected by some numbnuts dork on the Internet. That happens to me enough already.
  3. I could hit up, say, my cousins, or my friends I referenced earlier in this series who are Italian American restaurateurs and conversational in Italian, but again, I’d feel like I was REALLY wasting their time, regardless of how many beers I brought over in order to lubricate this endeavor. OR . . .
  4. (Oh! This is four. I don’t know the word for what’s cardinally next beyond threefold. Is it fourfold? Anyway, here we are in the metaphorical fourth book of the trilogy, as it were). I could travel to Italy, where I’d have a little leeway as a dumb foriegner and I’d be able to slowly worm my way into Italian conversations and hopefully ingratiate myself into the social fabric of a local cafe by noticing that the cups are red and the cat is by the window. But this seems like a cost ineffective longshot, to put it mildly. 

I don’t want to end this by sounding bleak, because really, it’s not. I’ve enjoyed the lessons, I love how the program has pushed my brain into places it would not have gone on its own and I love that I’ve been forced to grapple with not only my lack of propensity for learning a second language but also my fears of having just enough of a grasp on Italian to potentially blow it in a public setting. Not everyone out there is as encouraging as Davide, sure, but as I type this, which, again, is my last entry in this series, I’m forced to reckon with the fact that at a certain point, you kinda have to get out there and be afraid. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m in a band, and we sucked ass for a very long time. Now we’re good at it, but it took going out there and looking like morons, night after night, year after year, to get to this point. Similarly, stand up comedians, every single one of them, stress the importance of having bombed over and over again before they ever were able to develop their voice and gain an audience. 

. . . I’m forced to reckon with the fact that at a certain point, you kinda have to get out there and be afraid.

So that’s where I’m at: I’ve taken 12 weeks of Rosetta Stone, and as such, I’m the Italian speaker equivalent of a bad band or an unseasoned comedian. And the next part just kinda has to be scary. This experience was nurturing and fun and low-stakes, from the first core lesson to the tutoring, but at some point, you’ve just gotta get out there and bomb a little, so it’s time to get out of the foxhole, as they say. I expect it to be exhilaratingly terrifying.

But, here’s the thing. I like you guys. Every single one of you that reads this, I’m calling you out by name: my mom, my brother, my best friend, and my various bosses at Rosetta Stone. I imagine that there’s even arguably a few scraggly internetters that I haven’t personally touched that have read a few of these, and I thank you so sincerely. I’ve had such a blast. I beseech you, mercilessly email my RS overlord Andy at BringBackBrendan@rosettastone.com and tell him to bring me back. I promise that I will keep learning, keep loving the experience I’ve had here, and I can’t wait to hopefully have the opportunity to expound on it indefinitely with you all. This has been a truly wonderful experience and I can’t thank you enough for being along for the ride with me. Ciao bella. 

xoxoxo

*A little bit more than just slightly al dente. I don’t know how they do gnocchi by you, but at least in Chicago, the gnocchi scene seems based hardcore in squishy-ass little boogery morsels that I want nothing to do with . . . shameful.

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