How studying Italian helped me learn Japanese

How studying Italian helped me learn Japanese

I recently fulfilled my lifelong dream of going to Italy, but many (including my husband) wondered….

Why Italy?

As many of my long-time readers know, I’m half-Vietnamese. My mom is a refugee from Vietnam and her native language is not English. While I grew up in an English speaking home, my mother struggled to adapt to her non-native tongue. Not being able to fully communicate with my mother made me feel like a stranger in my home.

Since I cannot speak Vietnamese, many of my friends often assume that I was not exposed to Vietnamese whatsoever. However, while my mom never spoke Vietnamese directly *at* me, the language was actually all around me growing up. My mom watched Vietnamese music videos and dramas constantly. In fact, whenever I hear the string of an erhu and guqin with the long winded cry of traditional Vietnamese singing, I am immediately taken back to my childhood living room.

As a child, I used to cuddle up with my mom and watch Vietnamese movies with her. I think I saw this is as a way to bond and become closer with my mother, and she loved to have me nearby as she watched her shows. Despite hearing Vietnamese day-in and day-out, however, I was deaf to the language.

Believe it or not, I didn’t learn how to say ‘thank you’ and ‘hello’ in Vietnamese until I was 18. The only word I could understand in Vietnamese was ‘oh my god!,’ because my mom said it to me constantly.

Suffice to say, I developed a complex: I thought I sucked at learning languages. Even though I listened to Vietnamese for hours on end, I picked up nothing. This created a long-held fear in myself that I sucked at learning languages. In junior high school, I outright refused to enroll in a foreign language class.

In high school, however, I couldn’t escape the foreign language requirement. My high school only offered Spanish as an option for foreign language. Two of my friends, people I would consider “soft-rebels” of society, said that they didn’t want to run with the crowd and learn Spanish–they were going to study Italian at the nearby community college. I joined them in their rebellion.

How I found my calling in Italian

To say my Italian community college class was hard is a massive understatement. I am not exaggerating when I say that I studied verb conjugations late into the night, only to wake up in the morning in the same position clutching a cluster of flashcards. The speed at which we learned Italian was crazy–in fact, many of my classmates (actual college students) submitted formal complaints to the school because it was their Italian class (not Chemistry or Calculus) that was causing them to flunk. I kid you not when I say that, by the end of the year, we could read Pinnochio (a full blown novel) in Italian.

Our professor was a crazy linguist with aspergers. While he was socially-incapable, he was somehow fluent in seven languages. Essentially, he was the entire foreign language department at the community college.

Despite the difficulty of the class, I excelled–in fact, I kicked ass–and relished in it. I loved studying Italian. The pattern of the verbs, the construction of sentences, the way we rolled our r’s and sung the intonation of the words–I was in love. Italian class was the highlight of my day.

“Maria, your pronunciation is flawless and your conjugations are always correct. You alone scored 100% on our final exam… now, if only the rest of the class could perform up to Maria’s level…”

I soon earned the ire of the class, but I didn’t care. In my other high school classes, I was either a few steps away from the top or trailing far behind–but not in Italian. In Italian, I reigned supreme.

Around this time, I gained the confidence to approach Japanese. Although I had always wanted to learn Japanese, I was afraid. Since I was unable to learn Vietnamese and pick it up from my mom, I thought that learning Japanese was a pipe dream. However, Italian made me realize that I wasn’t just good at learning foreign languages–it was my competitive advantage.

In other words, Italian helped me discover my true strength. My trump card.

A Dream Come True

It only took 16 years, but I did it. For our long delayed honeymoon, husband and I went to Italy.

Like Japan, Italy had quite the reputation to live up to. I imagined a boisterous and passionate people, pasta and pizza of the highest quality, and vast landscapes of rolling hills with cypress trees and the glow of the Mediterranean.

Well, I must say Italy lived up to the hype.

As I sat on the patio of our hotel that was perched on the hills of Florence, waiting for our morning taxi to pick us up, I stood and looked out to the city below. The dome of the Opera Santa Maria Del Fiore. The bridges near Palazzo Vecchio. The vineyards and hills that stretched on beyond the city limits and to the horizon. The birds were singing. I was full from the breakfast of fresh honey and fruit from the local villa garden, and the morning mist was clearing up into a beautiful, blue day.

I almost cried in the moment. Everything came full circle.

I always thought I was useless, that I wasn’t good at anything, that I was stupid for not even being able to pick up Vietnamese and communicate with my mother. However, Italian showed me that I was not only good at learning languages–but there was nothing I enjoyed more. Although I didn’t learn to speak fluent Italian (I switched to Japanese in university and went that route instead), Italian gave me the confidence and skillset to excel in Japanese… and later, Chinese.

Like Japan and Ireland, I have a feeling I’m going to go back to Italy many, many times in the future. While Italy does have some stunning natural sights, it’s the history and culture (and food!) that really connect to me. I hope I’ll have an opportunity to visit and travel around Southern Italy soon.

Io Amo L’Italia!

I’ll write up some posts on our travels throughout norther Italy soon. In the mean time… arrivederci!

7 thoughts on “How studying Italian helped me learn Japanese

  1. I laughed over your community college linguistic department, all in one intolerant Asperger’s dude. And how he made the class hate you. *fellow nerd hi-five* That is a great story.

    Italy is so fucked up currently, and yet so amazing in terms of beauty, history, and culture. And food. Have you read Donna Leon’s mystery series set in Venice?

    1. Nerd high-fiving you back!

      Yes, Italy is fucked up right now. In one mid-sized city we saw the political extremes played out. There was a group of young (and some middle aged) Italians holding up signs and chanting phrases that were in support of helping refugees. On the other end of town square, we saw the other camp telling refugees to go back where they came from. It made me happy to see the anti-racist crowd in larger numbers. It made me realize that, despite what I hear on the news, there are still a lot of progressive Italians in the country.

      But yeah. As fasicsm started in Italy, it’s pretty ehhh. Anthony Bourdain’s episode on Rome really opened up my eyes to how racist Italy still is. But I think just like in the US, they are quite divided.

      I haven’t read Donna Leon’s mysteries! I jumped on the bandwagon and read all of the Robert Langdon books, so seeing all of the “inferno” sights made me geek out. I’ll have to read Donna Leon’s mysteries and go to Venice next!!

  2. Welcome back, Mary!! I missed your posts hahaha. And you, in general.

    Did you speak a lot of Italian when you went there? Or did you forget mostly everything these years? I studied Dutch and German for 2 years each but I don’t think I remember more than 3 words in total now hahaha. Somehow Chinese occupied all my language-related brain space.

    You’ve been in Europe a lot lately, no? I am looking forward to your posts!!

    Also, I have a question that I’m not sure if it’s rude or too personal. Why didn’t your mum speak Vietnamese to you? I guess she thought it was the best for you, but it must have been very difficult for her!

    1. Awww Marta I missed you too!! You’re so awesome. I hope when I have kids I can be a cool, chill mom like you 🙂

      I remembered a few words and phrases, but I was very far from having a conversation. Surprisingly I could get the gist of a lot of conversations (and same with my husband, since he can speak Spanish!). The two languages have a lot of similarity.

      I have no idea why she didn’t teach me Vietnamese (I was even willing and eager to learn! I remember walking up to her with a notebook and asking her to teach me). I think it boils down to her just… well, being lazy. I think it’s difficult to teach your child a language that your partner doesn’t speak (and that isn’t the language of the environment you live in).. the only way to ensure they speak your language is dedication. I think it takes real effort to be laser focused on making your kid bilingual in another language. I think a. my mom just didn’t care enough about it or b. she was too lazy cause it’s a lot of work. I often think about if my husband and I have a kid, and I think it’s going to be really hard to raise the kid Chinese speaking (which I would like, but since we use English a lot and live in America it’s going to take a ton of effort on my part).

      Is your son learning spanish!? Spanish and Chinese first, then maybe English later? 😉

      1. Yes, he’s learning Spanish although I’m the only one speaking it here. Most of the words he can say now are Suzhounese dialect (not even Mandarin, hahaha) because that’s the language his grandparents use and they’re the ones taking care of him when I’m working. But he understands everything said in Spanish, Suzhounese and Mandarin!

        My mum is from Catalonia and when I was little she would speak Catalan to me. I never dared to talk in Catalan myself but I can understand mostly everything, both oral and written. If I lived there for a few months or took a course I’m pretty sure I would be fluent very quickly. So I guess just talking to the child is indeed useful. Your kid would at least understand Chinese if one of you talked to him/her in Chinese! Characters are another story, though…

  3. According to my feed, you wrote a post about a Chinese movie… but your website says it doesn’t exist! Will it come back in the future? haha!

    1. Lol yeah omg I’m so embarrassed but I tried to publish it in the future and failed epically at planning the post!! I think it should be live now 😉

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