When standing at the edge of a shore, the water you see immediately before you presents a sort of tantalizing innocence. The water reaches for you, playfully offering an invitation into its mysteries. You see so many others already in the water, some just getting their feet wet, others far past the breaking point of the waves. But there you stand, just barely outside of the grasp of the sea. As you take your first steps toward the clear ocean water, the temptation grows and becomes more exciting. When you make contact with the soothing touch of the tranquil waters, you feel a sudden desire to go further, a drive to get deeper. Stepping farther away from the shore feels great, an incomparable experience to any other. So you start to rush in. Suddenly you realize that the water is colder than you had first noted and it slows you down. You see others in the same position as yourself, frozen by the quick change of temperature.
Your journey into the water slows considerably, but you keep pushing on because you’ve gotten a glimpse of the abyss of secrets that the ocean holds. Once you’ve gotten your knees beneath the brine, you begin feeling the force of the tide. The tide that at one point, a point you can hardly remember, seemed so gentle. In the moment you took to glance back at the sand the current grabs your ankles and pulls you to the sea floor. You pick yourself, brushing off the sand stuck to your skin. Now it seems that with every step you take towards the horizon you’re dragged under, and every time it becomes harder to get back up.
As you approach the breaking point of the waves, they seem to triple in size, but you tell yourself you’ve gotten yourself this far and the promising reward feels too tempting to abandon. Luckily by this point, you’ve made friends throughout your journey who are there to help each other conquer the breaking point. The current pulls you in and pushes you toward the shore with every breath it takes. Each time the entrance to the vast ocean seems to open, it shuts right before you have the opportunity to pass through. The tide breathes in and you’re exposed to the beauty and wonder of the ocean before you. The tide breathes out you’re hit with the complexities that seem almost impossible to decode in order to join those past the crashing waves.
The reality of the situation is that most people are not able to break through this point. A majority of people give up after being thrown around by the sea for so long, allowing themselves to be drawn far back towards the beach. In order to break free of the difficulty of this stage, one must be lead into the oceans depths by others who have past it long ago. Even still, the process takes years to complete. Then there is an understanding and interaction with the ocean waters that is only capable by those who have know the ocean for the entirety of their lives or close to it. That is the ability to quickly and confidently navigate the immense sea and also to play with it, making it one’s own. That is fluency.
Here I stand, almost at the breaking point. With each day that passes and each conversation had, I feel myself being either pulling in or shoved away from the crashing waves. The process of learning a language that is not one’s own is, in my opinion, one of the most unique and complex experiences that can be had. It allows for a connection with people and cultures, which is unattainable otherwise. However, to master a language is to understand the intricacies of its linguaggio and its cultural context.
Here’s what I see as the difference between la lingua and il linguaggio (both of which could literally be translated as “language”): la lingua is a series of sounds, ultimately representing symbols, that are spoken and understood by a certain group of people whereas il linguaggio points towards the significance of words, phrases and verbal, social interactions within the context of a culture. Il linguaggio is the style of speaking and a certain train of thought and understanding of one’s world, which dictates the path of each social interaction. This is different in every language (lingua) and culture, which means that, even if a word in English is translated literally into Italian, it might not hold the same meaning within the context of the linguistic culture of the Italian language.
What I’m saying is that knowing vocabulary and grammar is great and useful, but without a deep understanding of the cultural understanding behind each word, phrase, or conversation, fluency is impossible. However, the ability to develop this level of understanding in any language, from the point of view of a non-native speaker, is extremely difficult without being completely immersed in the culture and language for years, even a lifetime. That is why I feel uncomfortable when people from home consider me “basically fluent”. I haven’t travelled to Italy to become fluent; I’ve travelled here to learn more about the language and culture from a more internal and immersive point of view. The concept of becoming fluent, or passing the breaking point, in 5 months is impossible. I don’t deserve the title of “fluent in Italian” because it is not my reality, and realistically might never be. Not to say that I am devastatingly crushed by this, because all I really want to do here is learn as much as I can about a world that I am lucky to get a sneak peek into, and if I improve my Italian a bunch in the process, good for me. But don’t expect me to come back to America fluent in Italian, just packed full of pasta, gelato, and good memories.
*This is my understanding and interpretation of these Italian terms. They may not be 100% accurate because I’m not fluent in Italian. Also, I tend to think too much and read into things.