Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Transfer of Knowledge

People often ask me about my competency in speaking/understanding the Italian language during my time abroad. In response I often stress the fact that, while I was in no way fluent, my comprehension of the language was sufficient enough to get around and be generally understood by most Italians. Furthermore, if speaking failed I managed to pick up enough hand gestures (because Italians love speaking with their hands) to fill in the conversational gaps where my Italian language skills were lacking.

In addition to speaking and comprehending (some) Italian, I also managed to pick up another handy craft--feigning comprehension. Why is this such an important skill? Well, about a month or so after arriving in Italy I was becoming very disheartened by my inability to speak or understand any Italian (give me a break, I had only been taking classes a month!). Additionally, whenever any Italians realized I had no clue what they were saying (something they figured out merely by noticing the dumbfounded look on my face), they generally reverted straight to English (if they knew any), stopped talking altogether, or--in some extreme cases--were so disgusted, they walked away. Now imagine yourself--a helpless American in a foreign country not understanding anything and even worse EVERY PERSON WHO TALKS TO YOU KNOWS! Quite depressing.

After a while however, it dawned on me that I didn't actually need to understand what the other people were saying, but instead I needed to fool them into thinking I understood. After a few weeks of perfecting my technique I came up with, what I like to call, "Emerson's Survival Tips to Comprehending a Language You Don't Speak Too Good."

Step 1): Eliminate all body language which screamed "I'm an American! What the hell are you saying!!!" 

Step 2): Every now and then nodding in an approving manner as if you agree with what just came out of the speakers mouth
    *I also found it additionally useful to repeat words that the speaker says--particularly proper nouns. So, for example, when asking for directions and someone mentions a landmark--let's say "Piazza Italia"--even if ALL the other words out of the person's mouth made no sense, just nod approvingly and say "Ahhh...Piazza Italia. Si, Si."

Step 3): When the speaker is finished simply say "Allorah. Grazie" and IMMEDIATELY walk away.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, "Doesn't this seems a bit disingenuous or insincere? After all, didn't you go to Italy to learn the language?" Obviously yes, I did and as time (along my Italian) progressed, my reliance on this tactic dwindled. Besides, it's not like me doing this in any way offended or belittle Italians. The way I see it, this was nothing more than a defense against awkward situations for both the speaker and myself.

Sadly, following my departure from Italy, usages for understanding Italian culture and language have significantly tapered. Yesterday while skate skiing however, I was reminded that not everything learned in Italy needed to necessarily stay there. Before getting into this story it should be mentioned that I have been XC skiing only a handful of times, know very little about the sport and can barely make it 20min without falling. Needless to say, I'm a total amateur.

Therefore you can only imagine my surprise when the guy behind the rental counter started talking to me about the benefits of a "kick and stride technique" with this particular set of ski and wax combination. He then went on to describe the bindings and their benefits but I was a bit to distracted by his previous assertion on skiing technique to listen. As a followup to this statement the only question I had stuck in my head was in regards to my particular "kick and flail" technique. Would that work well with this particular ski/wax combo? Are there combination's which would work with my method? Does it cost extra?

The best part however came at the end when the guy concluded his speech with the sentence "I would go on, but you look like you know what I'm talking about. Have fun!" With friendly nod I just grabbed my skiis, thanked him, and walked out the door totally oblivious to what was discussed for the previous three minutes.

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