Inspiration, People

Episode 4: Scenes from an Italian Restaurant

Shit's Getting Real Brendan Kelly

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

Hi everyone and welcome back to episode four of this wild and crazy journey. How are you? Good. What’s new with me, you ask? Well, dig this:

In my most recent Italian lesson, the Rosetta Stone in-app police stringently discouraged me from moving on and told me to go back and retake the last lesson, which, well shit, I kinda thought we were past that, so I skipped ahead and oh mercy goodness was I not ready for that. I will say this though: up to now I’ve been sober as a judge when I’ve done these things and this time I kinda let my natural proclivities towards being a wild and crazy individual fly and decided to do this one with two drinks in me. 

Here’s the takeaway: After last week’s debacle, this time, my pronunciation . . . BELIEVE IT OR NOT it was hovering by 100% the whole time. Now, we could use this anecdotal evidence to indicate that if you’re not a little drunk in Italy, you’re not even really there, but I prefer to think of it as me being just loose enough to not feel like a dork trying to be something new. 

Now, in fairness to our friends in the temperance movement, it should be mentioned that everything that wasn’t rote pronunciation, I absolutely sucked at. YES, I went back and got a 95% on my lesson, but that was coming off a Cleveland Browns-esque 65% that I just couldn’t live with. The app, frankly, wasn’t having it either. I’m not sure if it’s my imagination, the Canadian Club, or Skynet slowly becoming a real thing, but I was under the distinct impression that the app was more disappointed in me than usual. It was strangely motivating in an ‘Italian grandma sadly shaking her head because you skipped church’ sort of way. So, I went back and absolutely kicked that level’s ass. Eventually.

. . . I was under the distinct impression that the app was more disappointed in me than usual. It was strangely motivating in an ‘Italian grandma sadly shaking her head because you skipped church’ sort of way.

One of the new features of this level was filling in the proper pronouns. It’s an interactive audio component that . . . well, it seems a little more daunting than it is. They mixed up the vocab so I was learning multiple words at the same time, and that took me a few tries, but after getting the buzzer for thinking “read” meant “run” and vice versa, I’d kinda developed a shorthand that helped me in the pronouns section. I feel like I was kinda thrown in the deep end, vocab-wise, but man . . . it helped me with the actual hard stuff quite a bit. I can always say “how do you say, running?” but asking someone how to say “they” is . . . well, I can’t even figure out that conversation in theory. So, once again, and not just because they’re buying my lunch, the Stone kinda got me to wax on and wax off. . . Now I know personal pronouns. Do I know how to say run? Uh . . . yeeeeaaaaah. Sure do. 

I feel like I was kinda thrown in the deep end, vocab-wise, but man . . . it helped me with the actual hard stuff quite a bit.

So, what else is new? Well for one thing, at this exact point in this narrative, my literally most famous friend (it’s Billy Joel) FaceTime’d me and coincidentally just started speaking pidgin Italian at me and it was really kismet-esque but really bizarre, too, since he doesn’t speak Italian, didn’t know I was taking an Italian lesson, and he’s a sober guy when he’s not FaceTiming me and telling me to shuttuppa my face. He was kinda barking at me in what I am not positive wasn’t just Italian sounding phonemes. I suppose technically it was culturally insensitive, but in the moment it was so bizarre as per what I was doing, that I enjoyed it quite a bit.

SOOOO I’m literally doing my Rosetta Stone when I’m suddenly face-to-face with a world- renowned celeb pretending to be Italian at me. It’s funny, the whole being Italian in America thing kinda came up whether I wanted it to or not. And here we are. I’m not totally qualified to talk about it but it seems like something I’m gonna do anyway, so here it goes:

Italians have a reputation as gangsters and it’s a WEIRD thing, because, okay, first and foremost, no blanket reputation is allowed to be thrown on a culture. You are not beholden to any shitty stereotypes that exist regarding your ancestral lineage, ever. Anyone who reduces you to that . . . nope, they’re bad. HOWEVER, there’s something about the money and power and criminality and great suits and the wonderful sauces and the little nonnas and cool movies and all the accoutrements that go along with Italian Americanism that leads to a funny duality where, while there’s an actual professionally funded association that ABSOLUTELY and rightfully tries to discard this stereotype as hurtful and stupid, there’s also a generation of Italians born every day who think it’s dope as shit.

You are not beholden to any shitty stereotypes that exist regarding your ancestral lineage, ever.

NOW, I’m not trying to get into racial politics at all. However, I feel like we maybe have a bit of leeway to discuss that a person suddenly busting out some Italian to the old wizened Italian man at the deli seems pretty cool, whereas something like a Mexican guy speaking Spanish literally anywhere becomes a lightning rod of controversy. Why is that? Short answer, because America is still racist as hell. That’s actually the long answer, too. Okay. Moving on.

The other day I was coming out of the grocery store and two guys were talking . . . er, yelling a conversation back and forth across the parking lot. It was clear that they didn’t have a history of being old friends or anything. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them homeless but they were both the types of dudes that find other random dudes and get into long conversations outside the grocery store. I’m 100% sure you can picture these guys.

Well, I was watching them and I thought about this Rosetta Stone project I’m doing and it made me think of THIS video, in which the fact that someone is speaking in a different language makes all the difference in the world. Have you watched that video yet? That guy is, by all accounts, a creepy weirdo, but he’s also a genius of language, so it’s cool. If me and Gary wanna yell a conversation at each other about pancakes or whatever outside the Safeway, we’re gross. But this dude is just kinda butting into everyone’s life in the food court or wherever he is, and he RULES. Why? Because knowledge is power and having that command of communication is, in no uncertain terms, cool as shit. 

I was recently at a Polish street festival, where I bought a shirt that says “this is what a kickass polish grandma looks like” and after I purchased said AMAZING item, I was given a Polish penny. A few days later, my friend Angie and I were walking our kids to school and I pulled out the penny. My son asked me how to say penny in Polish. Angie went for Googling. I went for Google Translate. Well, Angie’s Google search resulted in nothing but local carpenters willing to work for cheap and I couldn’t get GT to hear “penny.” It would only hear “honey.”

This is all good when you’re walking your kids home from school but when you’re at a weird backroom card game in Montenegro and the dude who calls your hand is a surly Pole, and you’re stuck with NO CARDS(!), and you have to say “penny” in Polish for some reason . . . well, you probably won’t live to see the morning regardless. BUT if you have more than a Google Translate app under your belt, you maaay be the last to die. Just saying.

It’s weird, and this is about to be myopically American, but speaking multiple languages is only really seen as an amazing skill set in America if you’re a somewhat successful, educated American-born citizen. Much like those two guys aren’t blowing anyone’s mind just speaking English about sweatpants or whatever outside the grocery store, NOBODY is impressed with Lupe who lived in a shipping container for 3 months to get here from Guatemala and is now the best barback in the whole goddamn city who speaks Spanish, English and Portugese, but wow! Dakota from Accounts Receivable speaks a few words of French?! How impressive is THAT?!?

We are coming to a head in this nation where some Americans seem to be more and more into loudly and gleefully maligning people who have an international identity in order to insulate ourselves (as classic ugly Americans) against the reality that we grew up an ocean away from the Old World(s) and as a result, we don’t HAVE to speak another language, know other cultures, or engage the rest of the world in a meaningful and symbiotic way. Most people from other places on the globe don’t have that luxury, and almost nobody takes pride in isolationary ignorance the way a certain subset of gross, willfully ignorant, rootin’-tootin’ Americans do. 

The truth is, yeah . . . you don’t have to speak another language if you live in America and speak American English. In fact, one of the most American things in the world is Google Translate, and the MOST American thing about it is that it doesn’t work right. Take THAT, uh, whatever horrific and embarrassing maleficent power structure is currently in charge. It would be nice if we all just knew a few words of another language, just as members of the global village or whatever, don’t cha think? It would make us look so much less terrible. 

It would be nice if we all just knew a few words of another language, just as members of the global village or whatever, don’t cha think?

But here’s the thing . . . and this is also a tricky thing to write about because I really don’t want to come off as a Proud Boy or something, but American English is, by certain metrics, the best language in the world. It’s not the sexiest sounding, or the most sophisticated sounding, but it’s the best, simply because it just has way more words than any other language. If you think of the purpose of language as a tool of communication, and you strip away all the romance and collateral notions of culture or exotic locations and sexy people and wonderful cultures and so forth, the language with the most speakers and the most words is the best communication tool. Is it not? Of course it is. This is just an empirical take. I, once again, would like to reiterate that I’m not affiliated with any “Western Chauvinist” ideals, and that ‘West is best’ bullshit is NOT what I’m saying here. In fact, quite the opposite. 

In fact, when you natively speak the language most everyone on Earth speaks and you’re all alone between two oceans and you have the language that, probably in no small part because it just DOES have the most words, has been the defining pop cultural default language for years, in rock and roll, in film, television, you name it, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that learning another language is a waste of time. It’s easy to look at Lupe (Remember him? He’s from Guatemala and he’s the best goddamn barback in the city!) and see someone with less of a command of the English language than you (despite that he speaks several languages pretty fluently), natively using a language that seems less relevant than yours, and conclude that there’s no point to YOU learning another language . . . “hell,” you may think. “People come here from everywhere and learn MY language, and that’s just so they can bust their asses bar-backing for me!”

But just because something’s the best in a sense of strict numbers and data doesn’t mean anything. You’re never going to impress anyone with the fact that you speak English anywhere around here, and you’re definitely only gonna impress anyone anywhere else if you speak their language as well. Consider this: what’s the best food in the world? By these standards, it’s rice. There’s a lot of rice and it’s super versatile and it nourishes more people than any other single foodstuff on the planet. BUT, it’s just rice, Michael. No one is particularly impressed with rice all by itself. Just like no one on Earth is impressed with anyone who can only speak one language. 

If we’re being really honest, most people aren’t even that impressed with people who speak two languages. You’ve kinda gotta get to many very different languages in order to really blow anyone’s hair back in most other countries. Hell, everyone in CANADA speaks two languages, and really, truly, no one on Earth cares. But here, in America, the monobrow of the world, you can wow your neighbors, impress your friends, bang that sexy guy in your office, strike a blow against xenophobia and willful ignorance, get special treatment from Lupe the barback, go to a German bar and be treated with less disrespect than usual, flirt with the dance instructor right in front of your spouse, get a job translating Mandarin and more, simply by getting a grasp on the fundamentals of one measly language. 

If we’re being really honest, most people aren’t even that impressed with people who speak two languages.

Only in America is the bar so low, and the reward for expanding your worldview and gaining a little culture so high. And if there’s anything more American than being rewarded for something you wanted to do anyway, I’ve never seen it. Just look at Billy Joel if you don’t believe me. Anyway, good luck, godspeed and God bless the USA!

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