Inspiration, People

Episode 5: Catching Flies with Chopsticks

Brendan Kelly Learns 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.

Are y’all familiar with the idea of “avoidance behavior?” Clearly, even if you’re not, it doesn’t take a brain scientist to figure out the gist of what it is, but for those of you who would rather not think, it’s a theory that posits that many, many facets of behaviors that we tend to lump in with the notion of addiction are really just ‘avoidance behavior,’ that is, something you train yourself compulsively to do rather than deal with the less savory parts of being a sentient human and all the messy frustrating crap that goes along with that. 

This theory has, believe it or not, become more and more popular with the rise of the internet, online gaming, social media, etc. What your mom calls an addiction to Fortnite, for example, is more likely just your desire to escape into a world where you’re a seven-foot-tall woman dressed as a tiger, building sheds and killing people, simply because it means you don’t have to deal with your mom, your homework, your job, your spouse, your kids, etc. It’s not that you’re addicted to Fortnite, per se, it’s that everything else sucks, so you play a lot of Fortnite as a way to avoid it. 

Now, as a quick caveat to this before we move on, I’m not suggesting that addiction isn’t real. Certainly, people DO get addicted to all sorts of stuff, from smoking to food to other human beings and more. I’m not trying in any way to minimize the struggles that are part and parcel with addiction, I’m just saying that when your buddy says he’s addicted to binging Game of Thrones, maybe he just hates his job at Arby’s and his girlfriend and her three pet ferrets and that watching Cersei smile from atop the Red Keep as the Sept of Baelor is engulfed in wildfire is so infinitely much more enjoyable than his real life, that he’d rather avoid said real life, and that Game of Thrones is a great way to do just that. 

Whether you buy this whole line of pop psychology or not, I’d bet dollars to donuts that all of you are all to familiar with practicing avoidance behavior on at least a small scale. I mean, sheeeeeit, most of you are reading this at work, either on your phone while you hide out in the bathroom or in between rounds of dumb spreadsheets or whatever. As much as I’d LOVE to believe you’re all addicted to my wonderful writing about my journey towards speaking fluent Italian by way of my trusty Rosetta Stone app, it’s probably just easier to casually read this than it is to deal with yet another goddamned email from the goddamned CFO and his dire predictions about the goddamned Q4 pipeline or whatever. So, here we are. 

I bring this up because I’ve been hyper-aware of practicing avoidance behavior myself all this week. Over the weekend and for the first half of this week, I avoided doing my Rosetta Stone, not because I don’t find it enjoyable, and not because the time commitment is too much, but because I knew that as soon as I did my lesson, I’d have to write this blog, and I was really, really concerned about not lazily just pushing out the same message over and over again. 

See, by now, we’ve discussed WHY it’s cool to learn another language and we’ve contextualized it within a pretty slapdick replica of the global sociopolitical arena, so we’re all up to speed in terms of the basics of A) it’s cool B) it’s really the least you can do for global stewardship and C) Pauly Shore was actually pretty dope, huh? And that means that this week I had to take the obvious next step in bringing this narrative to life, which I was very much dreading (more on this later).

SO, I practiced a little avoidance behavior. I screwed around on Twitter, I went on some bike rides, I bore witness to people here on the internet engaging in myriad interpretations of the physical act of love, I wrote some songs on my guitar, I read a book about Shakespeare (I really did, don’t roll your eyes at me), and I watched a show on YouTube called Gourmet Makes. I binged it, even. What is it? I’m glad you asked:

Gourmet Makes is a show put out by Bon Appetit where a delightful woman named Claire attempts to recreate snack foods using just her wits. So, she bites into a Dorito or an Oreo, and then she has four days to experiment and recreate them. If you’re thinking she makes, like, a fancy, high falutin’ version of Pringles or Twix or whatever, not so fast, Billy Ray. She’s trying to recreate them EXACTLY: shape, color, texture, flavor, etc., and she’s remarkably good at both hosting a TV show and whipping up a batch of homemade Twizzlers that seem to impress everyone around her. 

So, I watched a lot of that show before reality set in. As I watched Claire put the finishing touches on her homemade Cheetos, a voice in my head bellowed: “You’ve watched enough pornography and cooking shows for a lifetime, and you’ve dicked around long enough on the Rosetta Stone app in a vacuum. It’s time to engage with people in a way that’s pertinent to your learning Italian in the actual world SOMEHOW! And for Chrissakes! At the very least, do your lesson!”

Welp, the voices in my head were right, as they usually are, so I got down to business with my next lessons. I was feeling pretty motivated and ended up doing quite a few lessons in a row (one thing the Stone app is great at is keeping all the lessons quick and digestible. You only have 10 minutes? There’s a 10-minute lesson you can take. If all the lessons were 45 minutes, the old avoidance behavior would probably kick in pretty quick and hard, ya know?). 

Some of the new features of these next levels include the app just saying things to me without having the text written down on the screen, which more closely approximates what it’s like to talk to pretty much anyone besides some kind of Italian Stephen Hawking, and that was cool.

I know I busted out a quick version of the Karate Kid metaphor last week, but I think that as I get more and more into this and the lessons get broader in scope while still reiterating the stuff from the earlier lessons, Ralph Macchio’s star-making turn becomes an increasingly apt way to discuss learning Italian via Rosetta Stone. 

As you no doubt recall, young Daniel Larusso wanted to learn karate and after an unfortunate run-in with some skeletons. Mr. Miyagi, his kindly building super, decides to teach him. Miyagi has Daniel wax his insane (!!!!!) collection of classic cars in a very specific way. Then he has Daniel sand his insanely impressive deck, again, EXACTLY like Myagi instructs. Next, Daniel is given detailed instructions on how to paint Myagi’s huuuuge (insane) fence (both sides), and finally he has to paint his big-ass house, once again using a very specific technique (as a quick aside here, Myagi was in the army and then was the superintendent of a kinda crappy apartment complex but he’s clearly worth millions. How?).

When Daniel has become completely fed up, and demands to stop being treated like some kind of slave and actually learn some karate, well, that’s when the movie gets good. Myagi takes him out into some darkened field and tells him to show him ‘wax on, wax off,’ and show him ‘sand the floor’ and ‘paint the house,’ etc. As Daniel does these motions, which are by now ingrained in his muscle memory, Myagi starts throwing punches and kicks and so forth at him, and Daniel suddenly is blocking them using these sanding and painting and waxing moves. At that point, Daniel realizes that all this home improvement crap was actually teaching him the techniques he needed to learn in order to block attacks. On their own, they were small, useless little chores, but suddenly, he was equipped to react to whatever Myagi could throw at him.

This is what it was like going into these lessons where the Rosetta Stone app just talked to me. I’d been learning personal pronouns and grammar and pronunciation (more on this in a second) but it all seemed, as I said last week, like I was learning how to game the app more than I was learning Italian. Yet suddenly, here’s the app speaking Italian sentences to me and I could understand them. To be clear, I could not SAY these sentences unprompted (and still cannot) but I could react to them, which, well, the Karate Kid metaphor really holds up well, huh? At this point Daniel still can’t punch or kick, but he can understand what’s coming at him. Suddenly realizing that I could pretty easily understand Italian sentences was a cool and unexpected development for me as a young grasshopper.

. . . but it all seemed, as I said last week, like I was learning how to game the app more than I was learning Italian. Yet suddenly, here’s the app speaking Italian sentences to me and I could understand them.

As for me being able to punch and kick in Italian, well, my vocab is improving, but I’m still limited to talking about swimming, reading, eating, writing, and running, more or less, and that’s not taking into account that, according to the app, my pronunciation is garbage. HOWEVER, it’s weird. I can say things like una bicicletta and il journale perfectly (according to the app) but I can’t say del pane? Gimme a goddamn break. I can even do correre with its rolling r’s but I can’t say BREAD? No way.

I hit up an Italian friend of mine to vent my frustration who told me that bicicletta (for example) is easy for American English speaking mouths but del pane is much more subtle in its pronunciation simply BECAUSE it’s so simple. She gave me some rules of thumb about how to pronounce nouns in Italian, and with a little practice a REAL LIVE ITALIAN told me I was saying del pane right. Boom! Suck it, bread.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: I’m supposed to be learning via Rosetta Stone and by bringing in a ringer, I’m submarining the entire paradigm of the exercise, man. I disagree. As per my understanding, the Stone is here to jump-start my curiosity about learning the language to the point where I seek out all sorts of ways to bolster my learning in the interest of making my understanding as robust as possible, and that’s definitely the case here. If the entire goal of the Rosetta Stone system’s endgame was to teach me to shout “l’uomini mangiano” into a phone in the park like a maniac, I’m already there. But I believe it’s designed to be more of a catalyst, and welp . . . it worked.

. . . the Stone is here to jump-start my curiosity about learning the language to the point where I seek out all sorts of ways to bolster my learning in the interest of making my understanding as robust as possible, and that’s definitely the case here.

I mean, I have certainly never before hit anyone up out of the blue to talk about pronunciation before, because, well, who cares? But here I am. And much like Claire in the Bon Appetit test kitchen, I’m not here to do my take on Italian. I’m here to get it EXACTLY right. I want these pronunciations in my muscle memory like ‘paint the fence’ is in Larusso’s. I don’t wanna end up a proverbial body bag when I head out into the world and finally try to speak Italian, which, if you’ve been paying attention, was gonna be my next step.


I’m not here to do my take on Italian. I’m here to get it EXACTLY right.

My friends, the Nardini brothers, are the third-generation owners of an awesome Italian restaurant/bar in Chicago called Club Lago, which you should all go to, but I digress. Fresh off my newfound mastery of the most basic fundamentals of tourist Italian, I took my bike down to the Lago to enjoy an iced tea and some shrimp cocktail and talk to GianCarlo, who was working behind the bar. 

Now, GianCarlo is a restaurateur, and as such, I thought he’d be interested in this little program I’d been watching on YouTube called Gourmet Makes, featuring Claire and the rest of the Bon Appetit test kitchen. I was telling him about it, but as it was loud at the bar, he couldn’t really understand what I was saying.

“Gourmet what?”

“Makes.”

“Mates?” 

“Makes… uh… faccio.”

At this point, GianCarlo’s eyes lit up and he said, in Italian, “hey, this young man has finally started using his Italian” which I understood plain as day. Could I have said that myself? Reader, I could not have. And, well, that was actually about as much Italian as I got to practice with a real live Italian person. Wimpy and anticlimactic? Yes. But, baby steps. It was scary just doing that, but here’s the thing: GianCarlo was STOKED that I even tried. In fact, he poured me some grappa (which, now that I reflect may not have been an act of kindness at all) and suggested that we get together for the express purpose of speaking Italian (as opposed to just so our wives and kids can hang out). I told him that I can’t speak really. I can only understand, and even that is kinda hit or miss, and he said, “that’s the thing. You just listen and take it in. Eventually you’ll know what to say and you’ll say it,’ and just like that, I’m kinda on to the next steps of learning this language.


. . . he said “that’s the thing. You just listen and take it in. Eventually you’ll know what to say and you’ll say it,’ and just like that, I’m kinda on to the next steps of learning this language.

In these past five entries, I’ve mentioned ad nauseam the power of language to bring people together, and it turns out, once I got over my avoidance behavior (due in no small part to the fact that I have deadlines and so forth) and mumbled out ONE measly word to an actual Italian after gaining confidence by asking questions to another Italian, I feel more connected to the language and these friends who want me to succeed and be a part of it.

I promise next week I’ll be pessimistic and acerbic, but uh . . . turns out all that bullshit about togetherness and global community that I was talking about is actually somehow rooted in truth. Who knew? Hell, maybe it’s your turn to dust off the old iPhone and give learning a language a try, eh? Daje!

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