Sicilian style language learning

learn english italian
A random sculpture found hanging out on the balcony. Sicily, 2016


First, find something you don’t know how to say. Gesture wildly, play charades, describe the word or phrase in high speed Italian (or Sicilian). Ignore my confusion.

Halfway through an elaborate sentence, pause. See that I’m trying to say something that might be useful. You’re sure it’s wrong, so keep gesturing until I say a word you prefer the sound of. There are many English words. You can pick and choose vocabulary. You avoid ugly words and choose emotionally. Maybe you don’t know why you like it, but that’s okay.

It’s probably wrong. Take both words. I’ll use them as pairs, defining one against the other ‘audacity’ fights ‘courage’, ‘to learn’ takes on ‘to find’. Somehow, I’ll convince you that ugly words are worthwhile too.

Sing a song. ‘Find’ is similar to ‘discover’ but you think it’s uglier, and Columbus discovered America, and at school Leonardo learnt about Columbus – on the 12 October he set off from somewhere in Spain. Don’t worry if you’re now lost. Comprehension is a bonus. Dance. If there isn’t enough space in the room, it doesn’t matter. Sing in any language. ‘We are the champions’ followed by ‘My bonny lies over the ocean’, if you like.

Discover, or find out, that this verb, to learn, is not regular. I fumble and speak in staccato. I gesture with the whole length of my arms. My gestures have become wild.

“No, no, no, no, no!” Who sounds Italian now? Slam the table.

I will watch as you argue in Italian, without breathing. Raise your voice until it’s indiscernible from shouting.

And keep shouting.

Then in a normal quiet voice turn to me, repeat the ugly word and clarify its meaning.

I’m starting to speak Italian.