Teachers and Terror Part 3
by Meg Curtis, PhD
Fast forward that initial experience with German to the next year, when I studied Italian. Then, once again, I was lost without my GPS unit, which hadn't even been invented yet. Once again, my Italian professor outdid my linguistic knowledge, which is exactly the way it is supposed to be for students. He smiled because he knew his class was terrified to open their mouths and expose their ignorance.
This time around, my experience was more devastating to my ego, if such a calamity is possible—and it is. Now, with five years of Latin to my credit, I kept speaking Italian with a Latin accent, as if I were singing in a church choir, instead of ordering an elegant meal in Rome, where he took Italian majors, to test their mastery of the spoken language. The Italian majors smiled; I wanted to cry.
Of course, with a year of German under my achievement belt, my ego thought it was prepared to be decimated, as I struggled to announce my name, and utter, "Ciao!"--as if six years of foreign language study rendered me a veteran of the language wars. Instead, German had entered my subconscious with its reverse word order. I thought in Latin, reversed in German, and stuttered in Italian!
Somehow, the music of Italian entranced me, nevertheless. I began to take pride in developing the accent of Roman Italian. If I couldn't say much, I could say it right nonetheless! I began to dream of visiting the Sistine Chapel, of understanding what Michelangelo meant when he said: "Those who love do not sleep." I researched his art, and discovered that he wrote poetry, too!
By the end of that second year of modern foreign language study, I had not gotten German out of my head, but I had developed enough courage to risk saying, "Buongiorno!" I had even begun to imagine that my mind could indeed master more than one or even two code systems. What I had not even begun to guess was that I had laid the foundation for research across literature from Dante back to Beowulf.
I could even sit in an Italian opera without keeping my eyes glued to the translation screens. I could enter into the drama of the music, and experience the glory of Italian tenors, as if they were singing right to me! When I saw Placido Domingo in person years later at the Metropolitan Opera, I wanted to race right up to him and declare: "Buona sera!" Where had my terror gone?
My terror was gone with my assumption that the human mind is shackled to one language like a woolly mammoth frozen in ice. My mind had begun to dance! If my feet could cha-cha, rumba, and mambo, so my brain could follow any routine that a language system laid out. It was true, as one English professor said: "Newborns can speak all the languages in the world!" And there I was with every dictionary before me.