Inspiration, People

Episode 6: All I Know Is That I Don’t Know Nothin’

Brendan Kelly Italian learning 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 6 of Sh*t’s Getting Real. Binge from the very
beginning.

They say that you shouldn’t ever start out any sort of conversation or extended monologue with negative vibes, and I agree, which is why I’m bringing this up at the top of this entry. See, I’m about to talk about something I hate, and I didn’t want to offend the rules of order by starting this whole thing off negatively. I think the above is a smart maxim, and also, just to start off on an unrelated positive note, I think Townes Van Zandt’s song, “Nothin’” is a hauntingly beautiful masterpiece. Okay, on to the negative stuff.

The word ‘adulting’ makes me insane. It’s not just that it’s lazy (it is), it’s not just that it’s clunky sounding (it is) and it’s not just that it’s just twee enough that it seems to have irony built right into its usage (I don’t like being a grown up, and so I’m using a noun as some sort of gerund, in a decidedly NON GROWN UP way! Take that, language! [although that IS really, really annoying]), I hate the word ‘adulting’ because, fundamentally, it’s not even cool at all under any circumstances. It’s like when somebody quotes “Happy Gilmore” or wears some dumb ass shirt that says “Stay out of Malibu, Lebowski” or pretends to be Michael Scott at a party. That’s what saying “adulting” is like.

In fact, Lebowski (who is actually cool, but who has some flaws), Michael Scott (ditto!) and Happy Gilmore (three for three here!) are all people I can see saying ‘adulting.’ HOWEVER, in all three cases, they’d have been the first person I’d ever heard using said term, which, while mitigating its lack of coolness slightly, would just lead to the same jagoffs still saying adulting who are saying it now, but this time it would be through the even more annoying matrix of ‘adulting’ being not only a stupid, uncool word but also a wack pop cultural touchstone.

If you’re the kind of dork that thinks that just saying someone else’s vaguely clever thing somehow elevates YOU to the level of vaguely clever, you’re probably hanging out with people who can’t even take the time to figure out which line from “The Waterboy” would be the funniest one to say in a given conversation, which is to say, you’re clunky and uncool and hanging out with people even clunkier and more uncool than you, which . . . buddy, you gotta get some new friends.

In fact, my wife’s grandmother (RIP) had a quote on her fridge that was by everyone’s favorite born-and-raised west Philadelphian, Will Smith. Will said (and I’m wildly paraphrasing here): “if you look around your circle of friends and you’re the smartest and the most talented one, you need to get new friends because it’s impossible to grow in that kind of environment.” He’s very, very right. You think of Will Smith as saying “welcome to Earth!” and “You’re so crazy, Uncle Phil!” but in this particular instance, he’s adulting like a mofo.

You should always be surrounded by people better than you, smarter than you, funnier than you. If not, you run the risk of your lame-ass friends letting you get away with doing an extended Chandler Bing impersonation in front of someone who thinks, rightfully, that it’s really dorky. You run the risk of getting so used to using words like “adulting” and lazy refrains like “that’s what she said . . .”

(Author’s note: this particular trope can be funny, but only if used through a THICK layer of intentional misunderstanding, i.e., “Sounds like Aunt Jenneane only has three weeks to live, tops.” You: “That’s what she said!”)

. . . that you completely just become the personality equivalent of a NASCAR vehicle, covered in branded humor head to toe, to the point where your actual personality is nothing more than a pastiche of lame-ass “Death Star Maintenance Man” work shirts and quotes from the three idiots from “Princess Bride” (a great, but regrettably over-quoted film).

You need to always surround yourself with people who are better than you, people who lift you to their level. You think B.J. Novak (a guy who presumably was at least in the room when one of his peers came up with Michael Scott’s ongoing “that’s what she said” bit) would think it was funny if you said that around him? No. My friends, he would not. You would have to up your game significantly to make B.J. laugh, and up your game you would, because by being around someone smarter or generally better-at-whatever than you will force you to rise to their level. That’s just how we humans are wired.

Now, this isn’t where I was going with this, but I’m sure you’re thinking I was, so let me quickly get this out of the way: this, of course, is true when it comes to language. I would like to subvert all your eye-rollings now by stating overtly that if you thought this was an extended metaphor for “getting out there and practicing amongst those who speak the language you’re trying to learn natively, thereby raising yourself to their level,” um, duh. That’s the best way to learn a language. Any scruffy old Nerf herder out there worth a damn can tell you that.

Of course that’s the best way to learn a language. We all know this already. My point isn’t about that at all, but it DOES kinda bring me to my lesson this week:

I usually turn in this here weekly blog entry on Tuesday or Wednesday, but this week my roof sprung a leak and so did my basement. In fact, you could even say that I was so busy ADULTING (see how bad that shit sucks?) that I procrastinated longer than I (and the layout people over at Rosetta Stone dot com) are comfortable with.

When I finally got into my lessons I was feeling kinda rushed. Luckily, at first, everything was pretty stock, to borrow a phrase from the wonderful character study film, “Some Kind Of Monster.” I was saying “the boys run” or “the women read” and, frankly, I was getting a little big for my britches. I was the smartest guy in the room. I was adulting. I was the master of my domain. The force was strong with me. I sold propane and propane accessories. The price was wrong, bitch, etc.

In short, I longed for more.

To briefly digress, back in the late 16th century, Shakespeare longed for more out of English. Shakespeare was the first person we know of to ever use over 2000 previously unrecorded words (many ShakespeareHeads credit him with inventing all those words, but all we know for sure is that he’s got the first recorded instance of using them) and some of these neologisms were the kinds of words that it seems craaaaaazy to be able to trace back to one lone guy: words like excellent, lonely, and critical are all his. That tweaks my melon just to think about, buuuudddy.

But, perhaps more impressive, he insisted on altering word forms and changing them into new parts of speech (to unmask [v.], from mask, which was, up to then, just a noun), or taking constructions and messing with them until they were just cooler. Shakespeare was the guy who refused to use the more classic ‘goeth,’ insisting instead on the much punchier ‘goes.’ It’s a wildly interesting thing to think about. Particularly when you consider that all these linguistic acrobatics (along with his flamboyant persona) essentially made boring-ass Shakespeare the Lil’ Wayne of the 16th century, in that he was taking language in bold and highly transgressive directions from a decidedly left-leaning, populist platform. Pretty cool.

. . . consider that all these linguistic acrobatics (along with his flamboyant persona) essentially made boring-ass Shakespeare the Lil’ Wayne of the 16th century, in that he was taking language in bold and highly transgressive directions . . .

Now, there’s no real rule-of-thumb for coolness. If there were, we’d all be cool and then the  enterprising among us would be on to the next thing: post-cool or whatever, and that would be the standard for seeming interesting and sexy. Why, for example, is quoting classic “Simpsons” or some old forgotten bit by the patently uncool David Spade fine, but saying, “well, isn’t that special” is relentlessly lame? Why is Shakespeare’s making up of the word ‘unlock’ (thereby replacing the much clumsier ‘she finally was able to ‘loose the hammer and spring, opening the locking mechanism,’ or whatever), cool, while ‘adulting’ is so relentlessly wack that it hurts my teeth?

Hard to say.

What I do know is this: when it comes to Italian, I’m no Shakespeare, and I’m not, in any meaningful sense, adulting my way through the lessons. One moment I’m king in the castle, king in the castle, being way too good at saying ‘the men run’ and ‘the woman sleeps’ and so forth . . . getting cocky even, and the next, the lesson has changed and slowly but surely melted my waxen wings.

One moment I’m king in the castle, king in the castle, being way too good at saying ‘the men run’ and ‘the woman sleeps’ and so forth . . . getting cocky even, and the next, the lesson has changed and slowly but surely melted my waxen wings. 

After the basic vocab recap, the next lesson was simple enough in theory. It was just applying the negative to general rules and vocab I already had practiced. So, for example, they’d show me a picture of, say, a girl with a dog and another of a girl rollerskating. Then the app would say something like “the girl doesn’t have a dog,” which is wildly unrelated to literally everything going on in the roller-skating picture, but still technically true. So, with trepidation, I clicked on the roller-skating girl picture and, well, that was right, I guess. It went on and on down this vaguely surreal path. The whole lesson was kinda like dealing with a cartoon character who just got dropped off a cliff onto his head while he’s trying to make sense of the hazy world around him.

“Are there no giant fish dressed up in tuxedos around us right now?”

 “That is correct, Dynamite Dog, there aren’t any giant fish dressed up in tuxedos around us right now.”

It was kinda like that. I’ll say this much, though: weird as it is, it keeps ya on your toes. This is yet another example of a lesson where Rosetta Stone mixes the vegetables in with the mac and cheese, so to speak. You’re learning a lot more than you think you are in this particular iteration of the lessons. I found myself locking in on the pronouns and verb forms without even really noticing that they were showing me the way a lot of the time. It was pleasant, if a little odd.

This is yet another example of a lesson where Rosetta Stone mixes the vegetables in with the mac and cheese, so to speak. You’re learning a lot more than you think you are in this particular iteration of the lessons.

Then things went sideways.

The next lesson started doing this thing where it showed me a picture and asked me “what is this?” in Italian and I spent a lot of time trying to verbally answer what said item was (it’s an egg! . . . Zero percent?!? WHAT???? That’s clearly an egg!!!), as opposed to just repeating “what is this” like they wanted me to. It was a lot like farting in an Uber . . . it was a pretty understandable thing to do, but it’s gonna bring down your overall score anyway.

But that wasn’t even the real screwjob. THEN they started asking me questions and expecting me to just answer the question instead of repeating the question WITH NO WARNING!!!! So (to continue this increasingly uncomfortable metaphor), it was like somehow the Uber driver secretly LIKED my farts and asked me to release another one, only I didn’t believe that was what he wanted so I didn’t produce, thereby further negatively affecting my score.

I didn’t know which way was up. I felt like Apollo on the ropes against Ivan Drago. I felt like the Kennedy Space Center beneath the Challenger. I was JUST getting the hang of how this mission was seeming like it was gonna go, and then blammo! Everything changed and I didn’t know which way was up.

Of course, unlike Apollo/Kennedy Space Center, I was able to recover and go back and do it all again, knowing what I didn’t know the first time, and it went a lot better.

The whole lesson program is actually going a lot better overall. I find myself sitting down for longer and longer lessons each time. I get through them with a lot more confidence. And, best of all, I’m starting to think about Italian when I’m just walking down the street minding my own business. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’ve got a little pizza chef in my head, but when I see people running, I think, “oh, that’s loro corrano!” It’s hardly disappearing into the language, but it’s something, and as they say, nothing motivates like success. That’s maybe a tired ‘adult’ cliche that’s therefore not ‘cool,’ but whatever. Things are turning in a positive direction, and if that’s not cool, then you can go ahead and call me Dane Cook.

 I get through them with a lot more confidence. And, best of all, I’m starting to think about Italian when I’m just walking down the street minding my own business.

I’m starting to feel like I can really understand basic things remarkably well . . . even to the point where I can figure stuff out that isn’t overtly part of my Rosetta Stone lessons, and that includes vocab. The pronouns, which have been a real focus of these lessons, are really the secret to understanding what’s going on in Italian, at least they’re my guideposts. I can figure a lot out just by identifying the pronoun and the verb form (they match, which helps things a lot). I also have found that my few bits of pronunciation advice, as dispensed to me by a real live Italian, have been extraordinarily helpful in improving my pronunciation across the board. I’m still way too bad at Italian to try to really get out there and cut it up with the old guys playing bocce ball in the park down the road, but I’m getting there slowly-slash-surely.

The pronouns . . . are really the secret to understanding what’s going on in Italian, at least they’re my guideposts. I can figure a lot out just by identifying the pronoun and the verb form (they match, which helps things a lot).

It also doesn’t help my already slow progress that I had to spend this whole week adulting like some kinda stupid covfefe, but what are you gonna do, right? Adulting, both the word and the act of adulting (sigh) are relentlessly uncool, as is trying to flex on a language you barely know. And when it comes to Italian, despite my short lived bravado, I’m still pretty dumb, but at least I know it. I’m at least in no danger of having to get a new group of friends.

One final thing: weirdly, something like 70% of Americans think they’re of above average intelligence, which, well, the math on that seems to check out to me, and I’m of above average intelligence myself, so it’s gotta be right. Pretty cool, no?

Anyway, ‘til next time, ciao! xoxoxo

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