Learning Italian in Italy as a Spanish Speaker

Three weeks ago my brain felt like it was short circuiting. After five months of living abroad  I could not distinguish what language I was speaking. My mind would understand the words being thrown at me, but my responses felt like jumbled nonsense. This was my first language coming to a head with a new one learned much later in life, and while I was invigorated to be at this level of comprehension I was stunned at being at a loss for words in any language.

It was extremely frustrating to not understand Italian when I arrived. Every word felt familiar and I instinctually felt that I should know what was being said to me on some deep, innate level, but I could not make connections. I quickly identified the words that were the same in Spanish (si=yes, grazie=thank you) while picking up the nuances in pronunciation for words that were slightly different (oggi=hoy=today). With no formal classwork to help, I relied on the conversations around me and the power of free wifi for Google translate.

Italian has a swinging cadence that lingers on vowels and hits hard consonants, while Spanish is a steady stream of smooth sounds that fall off your tongue as swiftly as a rolling “r”. My grandmother says my Spanish has become accented with hints of that Italian swing, and I would wager that my Italian has an unfamiliar flow.

Learning pronunciation was the best and most fun part, and felt like a game of embellishing every letter in a word with crazy flair. Both languages have a lot of great rhythms that are close yet deliciously distinct. I relished in repeating every new word out loud, first in Spanish and then in Italian. This method ended up burying the words in my mind in a three-language sorting game.

A special shout out to food for coming to my rescue! The first words in my new vocabulary were food related, easy enough to go through and used often enough to stick. It goes without saying that I ate a lot of incredible things and was greatly helped along by everyone’s boozy, good time friend, WINE. At the end of February I was able to translate an entire wine tour, my language skills growing bolder and falling out of my mouth more rapidly than wine into our glasses. By the end of the evening I was spitting out Italian slang and stopped asking a translator friend for help. Was some of it Spanish? Probably…but to receiving ears equally as tipsy it all made sense.

Then there were the words with no Spanish counterparts that always dealt a blow to my growing confidence; the sly cockiness melted into embarrassment from being “caught” in the act of faking it. When asked if I had a “prenotazione” in a restaurant, I burst into a goofy grin and “gave up” with a “sorry, what?” in English. No signor, I did not have a “reservation” (reserva in Spanish) but I wasn’t ashamed enough to run out with my tail between my legs. I stuck to Italian for the rest of the meal. Hey, fake it until you make it.

The fatigue of not knowing would get to me. I would default to Spanish more often than English, although the latter would have been more effective. My mind was wired to use any other language than the one I knew best because I was not surrounded by it. That was strange and felt silly. More people knew English than Spanish, but to me Italian felt like a dialect that would eventually be absorbed if I kept speaking a language that felt close to what I instinctually know. An Italian speaking friend yelled at me to stop using “eso” (“this” in Spanish) and use”cuesto” because “You’re in Italy, dammit!”. I had not even noticed it.

I am not fluent in Italian, but this new language seems to be etched into my mind a lot better than any other language learning experience. The huge similarities between Italian and Spanish make them a natural pair if you already know one and wish to know the other, and the cultures of the two heavily overlap. Growing up speaking Spanish with my family is complete immersion of another kind, and learning Italian in Italy with no preparation other than knowing Spanish is a roller coaster. It feels like the most natural decision I could have made and I’ve never felt more tuned into my first language than ever before.

My brain is still short circuiting but I think it has mellowed out. I’m surprised to find that when I think in Spanish, Italian peppers my thoughts. It weasels its way into my speech and replaces words, yet sometimes it escapes me when I cannot think of what to say. There’s this new, small dimension of myself someplace in my mind. Somewhere nestled between the Spanish and English is something that isn’t as prominent but the tug of war between the three languages can leave me overwhelmed and with nothing to say.

6 Comments

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  1. I have to say, I agree with you and have felt your frustration even if just a bit when I visited Italy for over a week. Given that I’m fluent in Portuguese and Spanish, so much of the Italian words sounded familiar YET I could comprehend so little of it all. It’s like your brain is playing a mean game and we end up on the loser board, lol. Glad you have a few months out there, and unlike me, it seems you came out winning!

  2. This is amazing! I applaud you for taking the time to learn another language. I also speak Spanish and even visiting other Spanish speaking countries is an adjustment. Thank you for sharing !

  3. Hmm, this sounds very familiar: When we spent a month in Barcelona a few years ago, (and learning Spanish with our own course, Duolingo, and Pimsleur before), every time I wanted to speak, it came out Italian – a language I had learned about 10 years ago when we lived in Rome for 5 months.
    I had experienced the same already once, when I came to the US a few decades ago. Although I had learned English in school for 8 years in Germany and thought I could speak it quite well then, my words came out in French, a language I had learned while working in the French part of Switzerland for 3 years.
    So my theory is this: The language you have learned just before will interfere with the one you are currently learning.
    Curiously, my French did not interfere with my Spanish, only my Italian did – maybe, because it’s further solidified in my brain, or because Italian and Spanish are closer?
    The latter could be true, as I don’t feel the interference of Spanish while learning Dutch at the moment. (Here it is rather German that comes to mind when I try to speak Dutch and am looking for a the right word!)
    So the similarities between the languages certainly seem to play a role in confusing us when speaking.

    • I think that makes total sense, especially with the similarities and tone of related languages. I know a small amount of German and the flow of it is much more Dutch than Italian, so I understand what you mean! Perhaps some Linguistics research would answer some of our questions 🙂

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