Monday, June 6, 2016

Adventures in Language School

My purchase of 12 months of Italian language instruction from a government recognised school assisted me in getting a one year visa with the ability to apply for a second year thereafter.  I needed to learn Italian in order to enjoy living in Italy.  I had taken some German in high school and at the University and did not have any difficulty in class.  Italian was a bit more challenging.
     The movie where Rodney Dangerfield goes to college? That was me!  Back in the states I foolishly the language school to be a congenial gathering of folks who were interesting in enjoying learning in a non competitive atmosphere.  I envisioned a small class of friendly people conversing in Italian, while learning how to use the language in real life situations.  I studied Italian by myself before I left, and expected to have a real good start in the language.  I did not realise that I from my first day in class it would be like hearing a tango while dancing the macarena.   And with two left feet!

     The first day, after quick introductions, the class began covering a lot of ground.  Five minutes on counting, ten minutes on the alphabet and pronunciation and BAM, we are deep into reading.  Using English to help learn meanings was forbidden as the class had students who spoke other languages.  After three days I was taking two steps and sliding back one.   I couldn’t figure out how so many of the students were not having difficulty.  Then, after a few days, while coffee breaking it, I learned that they had taken Italian when in high school.  The effect was that I was in a go-kart while the entire class was speeding along at the speed of a Japanese train.   There was nothing I could do about it, I just had to dig in and survive.    
Survive I did and I even elected to repeat some classes.  It was a daily rollercoaster ride    There were days where I had to skip class and go to a government office, or to a medical appointment, and the next day I sat wishing I was somewhere else with my line in the water.    Other students never continued past two months, which tells you a lot about the school.   You would think that the school would be encouraging people to continue.  

     Let me stop here and give some advice to any English speaker thinking about taking a language class in a foreign language.  Make sure that they allow explanations in English.  Make sure that they will teach the language in a way that you can practice it and learn it outside of the classroom.  Making purchases,asking for directions to places while understanding what the person is saying, reading a menu, greeting others, are important skills to know.

                         Sit Down And Belt Up!
     My third female instructor had the teaching techniques of Vlad the Impaler.  With the body characteristic of Luciano Pavarotti,  she used that weight to bully the class.  Thumper (Nothing about Bambi), became my most hated teacher of all time.   I hated how she taught, using a total negative system, without a bit of encouragement.  She had everyone, including me nervous and dreading each day.  
Where I Wanted To Be
Every morning on the bus to school I kept hearing  “Hey, Mr. Custer,I Don’t Wanna Go!”  (Maybe you are too young to know that song)  

Here I am, an old guy, with a Master’s Degree,  and hating every minute with that mean spirited teacher, counting down the minutes until the end of the day.    

I even began to hate Italy!

                          A  Day In That Class…..

     WHAM!!! (Clenched fist hitting table)  At the same time we heard, “NOOoooo!”   Think a long nooOOOOoooo in pitch.  A heavy dead wind filled the room.  Total silence.  No one moved.  It was the fifth time that day that one of us had received the slam of her fist on the table.  Jumping at the smackdown, it took its toll on all of us,….. eyes down, and stiff with fear.  Something is wrong here, at my age I should not be afraid of his overweight bimbo!  But I am.

     Who would be the next chosen victim, forced to answer a question?  A question asked in  lightning-speed Italian.   When answering you were not allowed to pause and think about what you had heard.  There was no time to process the words.  Sometimes I heard all the words but could not put any of them together for a meaning.   It is hard to think clearly when you are fearful.

She Lacked Some Sauce
(Italians do not use these much)
But they need it
Her uncompromising tight fist shot into the air and was poised to pound the desk to claim another loser.   I am convinced she enjoyed bullying.  Obviously something was missing in her life… Her teaching techniques were downright mean.    She had the anger of Jack Nicholas.  An old guy my age should not be making plans to spring for the door and escape, never looking back.   I am not a physical person, but I had thoughts to  leap over the table and happily grab her by the throat.  

     I was not alone in my apprehension.  The three Japanese girls, as if on command, would duck for the tabletop and hide their faces behind their hands in shame.     My mouth was dry, my face sweating.   All I could think of is a quote by Cicero, “The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn.”

     There was a joint sigh of relief as we heard  the doorknob turn as Carl, shuffled in, murmured a soft, “scuzi” and took his seat.  Having Carl present in class meant that I was further from the bottom.  He was the class victim, more often than anyone  punished by the wrath of Thumper.   His blooper reel responses showed that  he was without a helmet on free bat day.   I do have to say one thing in his defence, he kept coming back for more.  

     I had one huge complaint with the class.  As the questions from the illegally photocopied material made their way around the table, I noticed that everyone, even numbskull Carl, was counting ahead to find which question they would get and figure out the correct answer before being called on.  No one bothered to listen to others in their attempt at their questions.  The result  was that the rounds of questioning went much faster.   I was trying to learn, and I was following each question, not counting ahead and think how I would answer it correctly.   The result was that each person in the class was not learning all the material, only their sentence.  Each sentence had a new verb and a new conjugation.  They were only learning how to survive.  While I scrambled to read, translate, and think fast enough keep up!

     The last part of the class Thumper handed out a test that the school would use to evaluate how we had absorbed their lessons that week.  Finishing that we then traded papers and corrected our neighbor’s work.  Nearly everyone failed!  Thumper was soon going to be having a long talk with the head administrator.  

     Thumper expressed her anger by thumping her fingers on the table.   She was clearly frustrated in wondering how most of the class always had the  correct answers, yet the final test revealed that nothing was being learned.

     Not known for being irresistibly charming, I had finally had enough, and like a kid in grade school I held up my hand.  It was time to offer my viewpoint on things.  This was my big moment!   I explained in my bad Italian what everyone in class had been doing.  Everyone had been counting down the questions in order to find the one they would get and then they would be able to offer a correct solution.  This meant that they were only working on one sentence, not all of the lesson.  This caused the class to fly through the page, and for me, learning a language at that speed was impossible, and I was failing miserably to keep up.   I went on to say, while I looked at the students in class, clearly there was no “one for all-all for one spirit”.  The boat was listing and there were no life preservers.
     That was the first time I saw Thumper bamboozled!  The sardonic smile vanished, as she began to see the results of negative learning.  Her open fist waved us  to the door.  I am sure she was thinking that my mouth deserved a liberal application of duct tape.  However, from then on no one knew who would be called on next, as she picked randomly and we went at a much slower speed.  

     There were other teachers, as the school’s policy was that you would have  a different instructor the following month.  My first teacher was an energetic 22, attractive and tried her best to teach the basics, while  befriending the students.  She actually made an attempt to teach at a level that everyone could succeed.  Something I needed and expected. She even organised a class trip to her village by train.  However,  the administrator heard of her plans and suddenly it was quietly forgotten.  Fun activities were out!   She was the most popular teacher, but the school dropped her after two months of employment.

     Another instructor knew how to use their material, and threw out sentences on the work sheets with bad grammer or complicated language way over our heads.  We knew she had a disagreement with the studies she was forced to use.  Later I found out that they had photocopied entire pages from an outdated book and put their name on it as if they had developed what we were to work on.   At least, with her, I felt okay to stop the lesson to ask questions on what I did not understand.   I also felt comfortable to speak up if  the pace was a bit fast for me.  

     The only male instructor at the school was demanding, but he was smart enough to introduce parts of his lesson in small 15 minute sections.  He would then change subjects and apply a different approach so our brains would not drift off.  I believe that he had been, at one time, a classroom teacher in a high school, as he knew how far to push us and when to slow down.   I learned a lot in his class and he was always patient to make sure I understood completely his answers to my questions.

                       To Give You An Idea Of The Students
     My second month in the school began with everyone taking a seat and being checked off the roll.  The class consisted of three Americans, including myself.  One lady, the age of 40, was a wife of a Protestant missionary based in Padova and the other lady was middle aged and from the Midwest.   There were 3 Japanese women, one taking Italian to better pronounce the Italian words when she sang opera, another who sat with her husband, who was also Japanese.  The husband was in the class to learn enough Italian to work as a chef in a restaurant in Italy.  His goal was to take the techniques of Italian cuisine back to Japan and make a go of it.  I had lunch several times with them and later kept track of there whereabouts as he got a job in the mountains and learned pasta techniques. 

     The tall Ukrainian fellow had been  a monk, who had left the monastery to study and  learn Italian. He was about 30 years old and had spent his adult life studying in classes, etc.  He never had trouble in class, and there was no doubt he was the most intelligent student and  knew how to learn.  He was not very friendly to me as he saw me as one of the students who slowed the class down.
     Seated across from me were the Palestinian version of “Cheech and Chong”, 20-ish in age, who were often absent, sleeping in or off or just plain goofing off.  Therefore they were always behind, exasperating the instructor no end.  The school was forced to make phones calls to  the parents in Palestine.  Missing a day in language class meant you missed out on a lot as in this school they never went back to review things.  The bonus for me was that these “behind” slackers  helped slow learners like me stay under cover, as the teacher had to stop occasionally to explain things taught the day before.  That gave me time to read the sentences we worked on over and over, while they struggled for a vocal answer. I used that valuable time to  translate things back and forth from Italian to English.  Nothing in my mind was automatic.  

     Another Palestinian who usually sat away from the others was from Nazareth and I had coffee during the break with him a few times.  His story was that he wanted to be a doctor and go to the University in Padova, but first he had to pass an Italian test upon returning home. Failing the test he would have to fall back to helping his father attend to his orchards back home.  This was not his life’s goal and he worked hard to know the materials.  He had a good attitude.  I hope he made it.

     There was one likeable Austrian guy, who did well in class for three weeks, then he disappeared.  He had claimed he was an engineer between jobs after building a dam somewhere.

   There was only other male American in any of the classes I took.  He was sent by his corporation to learn Italian as they were branching out into the Italian market.  Why they would send someone to learn a language with the attitude of Justin Bieber I don’t understand.  During the coffee breaks all he ever talked about were the Italian babes he was meeting in the piazza. 

You can see that it was a mixture of many different types of individuals.  There were many reasons why we were each enrolled.  Most needed the ability to know Italian well enough to survive a class at the University in Padova.  A few needed the language to find a better job.  Each class had a couple of people who wanted to know Italian better while they spent a month or two here.  I wanted to learn and speak with people I meet and be able to express myself when I am at the doctor or at a government office, etc.  Imagine having a pain and trying to talk to your doctor about it, let alone tell him what medicines you have been taking back home, etc.  Italian government offices do not offer explanations in English and many of the people who work there do not care to help “stranieri”—foreigners new to Italy—like me.   Yes, there are racist attitudes in Italy by some.   In the states, a foreigner can get help  so much easier, and trust me, this is a good thing.  

My Life Now
I Wish You The Same
I feel that the school was teaching for the first mentioned, the students headed for a class at the university.  For that reason it was then up to the instructors to decide if they would give time for all the students to understand the materials.  That didn’t happen as often as I needed. I  had paid for 12 months of instruction, but I did not finish the year.  After a few months of peace in my life, I knew I had made a good decision.


1 comment:

Эльбрих фон Глауштерн Фламандский said...

Nice post, Dave! Thanks. Makes me think of taking Italian classes myself. Also reminds me a lot of that english tv show, "Mind Your Language".