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 7.2 of Sh*t’s Getting Real. Binge from the very beginning.
Hola Amigos, I know it’s been a while since I rapped at ya, but things have been nuttier than a Payday truck exploding in the middle of a cashew convention over here. I apologize for the delay.
Anyway, I’m back now and after a long period of reflection I can safely say that a lot of the reason that this here column has been delayed has been due in no small part to classic misunderstanding, which sounds at first like a bad thing, but I’m here to definitively prove that it’s NOT always the case, and that sometimes, in fact, misunderstandings are not only inevitable, but also crucial in terms of making situations really, truly awesome.
Right away, I’m gonna point to everyone’s favorite situation comedy (in fact, I’d go so far as to say the work of art that most perfectly encapsulates the genre’s name), Three’s Company. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Three’s Company was the whimsical story of three roommates: a hot one (variously played by Susanne Somers and some other young women who looked and acted a lot like Susanne Somers), a no nonsense woman with short hair named Janet, and a budding young chef named Jack (played by John Ritter). Being the seventies, as it was, there was no way any god-fearing landlord would allow such an obviously sexual trio of roommates to cohabitate, so, as per the conceit of the show, Jack had to pretend he was gay. The landlords (Mr. Roper and then later Mr. Furley [a wildly amazing Don Knotts in a late-in-life career defining role]) were fine with this but were always trying to prove that Jack was not really gay and actually indulging in a never ending carnival-esque buffet of carnal delights right there in the apartment complex.
Three’s Company was at its best when an episode featured someone saying something behind a closed door (“Oh Jack! It’s so big!”) while Mr. Furley just happened to be there to hear it, leading to a long series of overwhelmingly delightful and painfully stupid shenanigans. This was, as per my memory, the ENTIRE playbook for every single episode of Three’s Company, and it was great. Misunderstanding was the bread and butter that made that show absolutely the showcase of top tier comedic situations.
It’s not a stretch to see how this kind of thing ties into language. There’s an ad for AT&T that features a guy at what seems like a big-ass business merger translating between his American bosses and the Dutch company they’re hoping to form said merger with. Leaving aside for the moment that there’s not a single person in all of Holland who doesn’t speak flawless English (which, frankly, makes the contents of this commercial so dumb that it’s almost offensive), the upshot of the spot is that the guy makes a few key translation mistakes that lead to extremely Three’s Company-esque shenanigans. He says something in Dutch that makes his American associates seem stupid and then says something else that seems like a tasteless gay joke that got focus-grouped down into being a safer joke about how they just need a hug. The commercial is pretty amusing, all things considered, and it’s also at the very crux of what makes busting out a language to native speakers so entirely pants-shittingly terrifying. Sounding stupid is one thing, but willfully miscommunicating and ending up looking like some sort of asshole is vastly more frightening.
Sounding stupid is one thing, but willfully miscommunicating and ending up looking like some sort of asshole is vastly more frightening.
That said, the miscommunication aspect of the spot makes it work. It also makes learning a language a little more exciting than a lot of other lower stakes intellectual self-improvement exercises. To use a wildly hyperbolic metaphor, if learning about the civil war to impress your father-in-law is the intellectual equivalent of going on a very rough, long hike, learning a language is like skydiving. It’s got an element of danger that I don’t think is discussed enough. I feel like this is due to a fundamental misunderstanding (which is clearly the theme of the day here), in which folks like my overlords here at RS feel might put people off, but is maybe the EXACT thing some people need to hear in order to motivate. Learning a language isn’t only cool, it’s DANGEROUSLY cool, and there’s nothing cooler than dangerous cool. Just ask John McClane and 50 Cent if you don’t believe me.
Learning a language isn’t only cool, it’s DANGEROUSLY cool, and there’s nothing cooler than dangerous cool. Just ask John McClane and 50 Cent if you don’t believe me.
Sometimes, linguistic misunderstandings are so awesome that they defy the traditional norms of comedy, because they’re so completely WTF that there’s no way anyone could have ever invented such humor on purpose. I’m currently wearing a shirt that has a picture of everyone’s favorite kids’ book duo, Frog and Toad, on a tandem bicycle. This shirt was for sale on a Chinese website alongside thousands upon thousands of designs that the people at the T shirt screening place presumably just pull from the internet and silkscreen without thinking about it too much, or indeed, at all.
This shirt came to prominence when a Midwestern woman ordered this very shirt for her three-year-old daughter and when it arrived, the slogan “fuck the police” was emblazoned beneath the bicycling pair of amphibians. Clearly, it was just ripped off an image search by people who don’t read the Roman alphabet, and so therefore didn’t have any idea how amazingly weird the juxtaposition of the image and the text were. Once the image of the three-year-old wearing the shirt got around the internet, my friend at the amazing clothing company @methsyndicate (on Instagram) recreated it, and well, the rest is history.
It’s wild, though, because it’s a joke that, while incredibly funny, no one actually invented. It’s like the Terminator technology loop. In Terminator 2, you’ll recall, it’s revealed that the way humans got the technological prowess to create Skynet and eventually the Terminator came from finding and examining the technology on the arm the original terminator left in the past in T1. It’s a creation with a black hole at its center, which is pretty cool, I think.
On the other side of the whole thing, in terms of linguistic misunderstandings is the hands-down best video ever committed to the internet: Drunk-Russian-putting-sweatpants-on-like-a-shirt. Just watch it. I’ll wait.
Oh, you’re back! Listen, how great is that? Can you possibly fathom how many crimes were committed within fifteen minutes of that clip? I’ve had people tell me that they think it’s fake, to which I say, you’d have to be some kind of truly bizarre genius to fake that so perfectly. The best part is all the yelling in Russian. To me, the lack of understanding of what’s going on at all (as I understand literally zero Russian) makes it even more spectacular. Much like the protagonist trying in vain to make those sweatpants become a shirt somehow, I am completely adrift in this world of garbage, beer cans and bald muscly men screaming loudly about something or other to each other. If I knew what they were saying, I suspect I would like the whole thing a little bit less.
That said, I bet that someone who speaks Russian who is reading this would absolutely delight in telling me exactly what they’re yelling about, since two things humans absolutely love to do is show off superior knowledge and ruin some dumbass’s good time that’s derived from not knowing what’s going on.
But sometimes, misunderstanding leads to terribly weird confusion that’s not as much fun. For example, when I opened the app yesterday, I saw a feature I’d never seen before called Seek & Speak. I’m not sure if it is actually new or if I’ve just been so focused on doing the core lessons that I never noticed it before, but regardless, I clicked on it and it told me to find five (5!) electronic devices that fit into a handbag and take pictures of them. I believe the idea was that the app would then tell me how to say said items and use them in casual conversation. I say “I believe” because the whole thing didn’t really work out for me.
First, I can’t even think of five electronic devices that fit in a handbag. Never mind that I don’t have said items in this hotel room I’m currently working from . . . what are they? I can think of a Kindle . . . I guess a phone (but that’s what I was supposed to be using to take the pictures) and, uh . . . what, a watch? A Tamagotchi? You see my quandary here. Also, a Kindle is a proprietary brand name, so my assumption is that it would just be il Kindle in Italian, which I don’t really need a lesson to figure out. Even if we forego the branding, I gotta imagine that ebook is a new enough word that it’s just ebook everywhere, right?
But alas, I could not even ‘seek’ these items, let alone speak them. With mild dismay, I abandoned Seek & Speak and went back into my core lessons.
I went into a new level, and the first thing I had to do was pronunciation. Armed with a little bit of knowledge about how to best tackle the verbal aspects of Italian thanks to a little instruction from an actual Italian, I kinda killed it, actually.
So, I’ve recently learned to start trying Italian pronunciations from the end of the words first because that tends to be the hardest part to nail, and, as we just discussed, that’s where the tricky vowels tend to be too. But the Stone’s pronunciation exercises go syllable by syllable through each word, starting at the beginning. This is in stark contrast to what the actual Italians have been teaching me, although starting at the end HAS seemed to yield better results, at least in my experience.
. . . I’ve recently learned to start trying Italian pronunciations from the end of the words first because that tends to be the hardest part to nail . . .
I take this as proof positive that either Americans or Italians are a completely backwards people. Jury is still out on who has the more backwards culture, mostly because one guy on the jury overslept and now he’s in jail as a result, and another jury member has no health insurance so he’s working four gig-economy jobs where he gets paid less than a living wage just to make ends meet and pay off his trip to the emergency room from when his daughter broke her ankle on the playground, but . . . what was I saying? Oh right! One of our cultures is obviously backwards. Hard to say which one, really.
But this is almost certainly just a comic Three’s Company-esque misunderstanding on my part. On to my progress: in Italian, I’m learning that you pronounce vowels with a kind of controlled, carefully cultivated laziness. For example, we all know from the stereotypical pizza man Italian accent that almost every Italian word ends with a flourishing vowel sound. However, I had the wrong idea about how this flourish is actually pronounced out in the real world of negronis, colorful scarves, and moody art film directors.
Del pane, which means bread, you may recall, was the word that initially caused me enough consternation to try to get outside pronunciation help. See, I was under the impression (again, based on the hilariously stereotypical Italian accent we throw around here in the US) that it would be pronounced like del PA-nay. However, the reality is much lazier. It’s closer to del PA-neh. The vowel at the end is more of an afterthought than a flourish, and it makes ALL the difference when trying to game these pronunciation lessons in the app.
The vowel at the end is more of an afterthought than a flourish, and it makes ALL the difference when trying to game these pronunciation lessons in the app.
This, I’d liken to the Frog And Toad shirt, the guy putting on sweatpants as a shirt, or the Terminator tech loop. No one decided consciously that the ends of Italian words should kinda trail off with these vowel sounds. It’s just the way the language kinda developed without any one inventor…through the day to day use of tons of people who happened to net out on the same branch of the Indo European language tree. When you try to apply thought to it, you end up with PA-nay, since it seems like that vestigial vowel sound is well thought out and important, but it’s not. It’s the ‘fuck the police’ or the inadvertent hilarity of the Russian guys screaming at one another as one super ossified dude tries in vain to make something into something it’s not. You can’t make this shit up. It’s borne of inconsequential misunderstandings and classic human laziness, but, like the Terminator arm, it has become something culturally pervasive, even if that was never anyone’s intent.
But back to pronunciation. In contrast to the consciously lazy vowels, the consonants are really hit hard. The T and M sounds (not to mention the rolling R’s that they’ve got such boners for in Italy) in the middle of words are, at least in these lessons, really, really strongly emphasized, hence the description “cultivated laziness.” You can’t be lazy all the time. Turns out, it’s a bit of a dance between consonants you can set your watch to and vestigial vowels. Luckily, bouncing between extreme laziness and extreme overkill is my stock in trade. So, as I said, I killed the pronunciation lesson. Which is more than I can say for my daughter.
My daughter is nine, and as she’s got a dad who, you may or may not recall, is an Italian citizen who votes in the elections there via la posta. In fact, we recently moved and I had to hit up my local Italian constable in order to correct the records in Soglio, where my family is from, so I can continue receiving ballots (that I hopefully can now read thanks to Rosetta Stone) and therefore continue to participate in at least some version of democracy.
Soglio is a tiny, tiny town on a hill in Northern Italy where my cousin Silvano maintains our ancient family home, which, as far as I can tell, involves him bottling wine of varying degrees of quality, as well as high powered grappa. The home itself is cool as shit. The basement is made of dirt, which is to say that it’s got tables and benches and reliefs and wine racks and all that shit but it’s just the leftover underground clay from where they didn’t dig stuff away. The table is part of the earth, just like the walls and the places to store wine and the profile faces and flowers that decorate the walls. It’s kinda hard to explain, but think about it this way: you can’t move the table. It’s literally just the same clay as the walls and floors left there in a shape like a table when they dug out the rest of the room. But if you wanted to, you could take your fingernail and eventually scrape it away into nothing. Does that make sense?
Anyway, basement and grappa aside, Soglio is cool. My ancestors are Croces and some of the Croces are depicted on a little memorial type thing at the fountain that seems like as close to the middle of town as a town this small can have. It’s really pretty neat to see. My kids loved it there the one time we all went, and I figured that with that much classic Italian blood in her little veins, and her sponge-like young mind, my daughter would be able to kick ass at the Rosetta Stone pronunciation lesson. Plus, I figured it would make for great fodder for this column, and here we are.
Well, I don’t know what’s up with the app, but I think it may have (Terminator style) learned my voice, because it didn’t recognize hers at all when she tried to do the same pronunciation lesson that I did. It’s a good thing too, because she totally sucked ass at it. I’m KIDDING! She’s a child. For heaven’s sakes! She tried but it was only when I interjected that the app perked up and recognized a pronunciation coming through at all, which I suppose could be considered to be a negative, but I found it to be very futuristic and cool. My daughter ended the lesson with a terrible score but told me she wanted to do the next one next week, because (her words) “it’s really a lot of fun.” So there you have it: uncoached praise from a real human being that I, a person on the Rosetta Stone payroll, have almost total influence over. If that doesn’t somehow sell you, I don’t know what will.
This brings me to my final misunderstanding for the week: My direct point guy at the Stone didn’t totally love my first version of this week’s article (now last week’s) and said that it seemed as though I’d maybe progressed through the parts where I was learning really quickly and that now maybe it’s possible that I was getting bored and that there was less to write about as I was just building on foundations that I already had learned and the results were no longer as sexy: ”driving on a cross country road trip and getting to the Midwest after all the excitement of just getting going” were the words he used.
First, I’m not bored AT ALL. Have you ever even TRIED this Rosetta Stone app, Gary (his real name)? Secondly, there’s probably nothing on earth sexier than Three’s Company except for the Midwest. I was born in the Midwest and I live in the Midwest (probably die in the Midwest and that’s probably where they’ll bury me . . . God, I hate John Mellencamp) and I’d like to point out that despite what anyone may think, this ride just gets better and better the more I learn. Nothing, as they say, motivates like success, and every time I conquer a new thing I can use it to take on the next challenge. My understanding of pronouns and verb forms is now such that I can kinda fake it and figure out certain vocab words, which is super cool. It feels like a very Nerf version of being Neo from the Matrix and just having Kung Fu downloaded straight into my brain (whoa!) and suddenly being able to access it a little.
I’d like to point out that despite what anyone may think, this ride just gets better and better the more I learn.
He also suggested I take advantage of the tutor program they offer at Rosetta Stone and that sounds exciting so I think I’m going to do it, even though it’s a situation ripe for Three’s Company style misadventures. It seems like a cool way to bolster my skills alongside the tutelage of the app. As a plus, he suggested to the tutor that I maybe could interview her, so that promises to be weird and fun and weird again. We shall see.
I guess that’s everything for this week. To sum up: my Italian lessons have me reaching out to multiple generations of my family and thinking a lot about Three’s Company and the Terminator, taking on a tutor and really deeply analyzing pronunciations. Also the Midwest is sexy. Especially if you like bacon, cheese and pie.