Moving To Italy: Eight Months In

This month has been very exciting. With the weather warming up more and more, I spend all my weekends outside – cycling, running, walking, swimming in the sea, climbing in the mountains, campouts under the stars. It is beyond lovely to have the Italian Riviera on my doorstep. I had no idea Liguria was so beautiful before arriving. Everyone knows about the gently rolling hills of Toscana and the sunkissed beaches of Sardegna but Liguria doesn’t get much airtime so, before arriving, I hadn’t realised quite how stunning it was going to be.

Here are a few pictures of recent activities –

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The sunrise after a YesTribe Italia campout

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YesTribe bike ride by the sea

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Climbing in the Ligurian mountains

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Liguria 🙂

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On a run near my home. Just a casual relaxed pose, you know….

Another thing that has happened in the last month is that I’ve become more acutely aware of the manner in which I (and perhaps everyone) learns language and how much more holistic it is than I originally realised. When speaking a language that uses different muscles in your mouth, you find that your face also moves in a different way, to accommodate for this.

For example, the ‘r’ sound in Italian doesn’t exist in English. We say the letter ‘r’ using our lips, like when we say ‘red’. We push our lips forward and our tongue plays practically no part. This forward movement of the lips is not used in the Italian language so when I teach students how to do it, they look at me like I’m a bit crazy, while I tell them to pout at me! The rolled ‘r’ in Italian requires you to pull the sides of your mouth backward to create an open space for the sound to escape, as the Italian ‘r’ is made at the back of your mouth, with your tongue.

Using the example of the word ‘finestra’ (window), the fact of the rolled ‘r’ using the tongue means we also have to use the tongue to make the ‘t’ sound. Try saying an English ‘t’ then an Italian ‘r’ straight after it. It’s pretty difficult without adding a pause between the two sounds. So you also use the tongue to make the ‘t’ sound in Italian, then pull the mouth back and open to say the ‘r’. Which is all to say that your face and mouth are making shapes that are different to the ones we make in the English language.

While learning a new language, then, you are also learning new facial expressions. To add emphasis to the word ‘finestra’, for example, I would pull the sides of my mouth back even further, to make the ‘r’ bigger, exaggerating the way in which my mouth formulates the word, thus giving my face a different appearance to the one it would have if I were emphasising a word in English.

It was only last week that I realised that when I express surprise or shock, I raise my eyebrows, as one would expect, but the bottom half of my face does different things now. I often find myself pulling the sides of my mouth down and holding my hands up near my shoulders, palms forward, as though being arrested in a kind of ‘what am I to do’ type of gesture, that I had never used before living here. It’s interesting to see how exercising different muscles in my mouth have a knock-on effect on my facial expressions and what follows is an entirely new, learned body language.

I spontaneously used the praying gesture the other day to express exasperation. I’m sure you’ve all seen it in films etc, where your fingertips touch (but not palms) and you hold your hands near your chest and sort of rock them forward a few times, while your face is doing a ‘come on, really?!’ expression. I didn’t realise it was going to happen until I did it and I realised that, after seeing it a thousand times since arriving, I was bound to use it at some point, in order to make sure that my feeling was being understood by the person I was talking to. To use English gestures and facial expressions to someone unused to them is potentially going to be lost so, given that my linguistic skills aren’t perfect yet, I was bound to start adopting the gestures, to help me when my language skills fail me.

I am finding this process intriguing, as it helps me to understand how much more there is to learning a language, especially if you are also living inside that language every day.

As a side note, I forget English words with such regularity that it is becoming worrying. I have always prided myself on having a good command of the English language. I love words and I love what I can do with them, but I simply cannot find them in my brain sometimes. On Friday, I went on a campout with The YesTribe Italia and when the nighttime began to arrive, we saw lots of little tiny lights moving around.

“What are those called?” one of the guys asked me, as the only native English speaker in the group.

“Erm… um… I… erm…. ok, give me a minute. Erm. Light…. erm…. light….. lightbugs?”

Silence fell. I racked my brains.

“Fireflies,” said the Brazilian.

“Yes! Thanks! Yes. Fireflies. They’re fireflies. Not lightbugs. Thanks.”

Sometimes there are also situations in which Italians use a word or an expression that doesn’t have a translation in English, or the translation is clumsy. In those situations, the Italian word comes to my head instinctively, then later my thoughts switch back to English. It’s rather pleasing but also makes me slightly worry for my grasp on English. Being able to articulate myself effectively in Italian is still going to take a while so if I lose my grip on English in the meantime, I fear that I’ll go around speaking like a child, having command over neither language, simply resorting to gestures and facial expressions!

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3 responses to this post.

  1. You weren’t as far off as you might have thought. “Fireflies” is the general term for them, but here in Indiana they are often referred to as “Lightning Bugs”.
    Scott

    Reply

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