Do I Really Know How to Speak English?

So far, having been in Italy for 5 weeks, I’ve unintentionally managed to ask a kind old lady for another serving of pussy (Gnoccha) with pesto, and ordered a plate of angry penis (Pene arrabiata) from an unsuspecting waiter.  Miss just one vowel, or mispronounce a double “n” as a single “n” and this is what can happen here.  It’s not that difficult.  For instance, when I recently asked an Italian “In che anno sei nato?” (In what year were you born?), I was pretty proud of myself as the words flowed out of my mouth, surprisingly smoothly. But I didn’t realize I’d mispronounced the double “n”, so I was a little confused when this woman started laughing at me.  Apparently, I had asked her what “anus” she was born in!

So, it’s clear to me by now that there’s no question about the state of my Italian. I can’t really speak it, and I won’t be anywhere near fluent by the time I leave here.  But the other, perhaps more troubling, question that has recently emerged is whether or not I can really speak and understand English.  This uncertainty has come up after only 2 weeks of teaching private English lessons here in Padova.

This issue first came to my attention when my 16-year-old high school student, Matteo, brought his English homework to our lesson. First of all, his English speaking ability was not in question. He was nearly fluent. His assignment was to analyze a poem called “Virginia” by T.S. Eliot.  I had him read it out loud and when he finished he said that he didn’t understand it. Neither did I. So then I read it aloud and explained to him that it was indeed difficult to understand.  He looked at me, puzzled. He must have been amazed that a native speaker of English didn’t even understand poems in his own language. 'Who is this dumbass that my mom hired?' I pictured him thinking. And so we jumped right into the meaning of some of the words. He asked what “still” meant.  I told him it could signify continuity as in “I’m still waiting,” or it could mean not moving as in “standing still”.  He nodded and then asked which one it was.  I looked back at the poem’s line.  It was unclear to me. Still. I changed the subject. “Ok,” I said, “Let’s focus on the color symbolism.” So we looked at the lines with “purple trees” and “red river.” Of course, then he asked me what the symbolism was about. I paused, gazed out the window, and decided to make some shit up.  I told him that red probably symbolized blood and death, and purple-- the almost dead leaves of fall—symbolized a dying soul.  And that might have worked for him, but then I went into how T.S. Eliot, and most modernists, were greatly impacted by the devastation of World War I and that perhaps all this symbolic “death” referred to the millions of soldiers that perished in WWI.  I thought it sounded pretty decent for being unprepared and half bullshit. Then Matteo said, in rather articulate English, “But isn’t Virginia in the United States?” “Yes”, I replied. “Well, World War I was fought in Europe, so why would a river in Virginia be used to symbolize deaths in Europe?"  “I don’t know, Matteo. Good question,” I said. The rest of the lesson was not so pathetic on my end, and I’d like to think I recovered at some point, but it definitely brought up the question of my own shaky English comprehension.

Then there’s Riccardo’s fill-in-the-blank homework that he brings to me every Monday.  It’s usually much easier. He’s also 16, but I imagine he must be in the class that’s analyzing “Cat in the Hat” rather than T.S Eliot. Even so, there are still uncertainties that pop up. The directions say to fill in the blank. He_____ feeling well.  Some of the choices are “hasn’t been” or “wasn’t.” Jesus Christ, they both work! And another option is “mightn’t.”  Who ever says “mightn’t”!?  I told Riccardo that I’d never used the word “mightn’t” in my entire life. He gave me that same puzzled look that Matteo did. Then I scanned the directions and saw words like “conditional” and “past perfect” and “imperfect” and realized that I didn’t really know what the hell these things meant anymore.  So I ended up working backwards with Riccardo in order to figure out what the goddamn instructions actually meant.  By the time we had finished his worksheet, I felt like a fraud; a charlatan—mainly because I realized the fact that I wasn’t teaching these kids English as much as I was doing their homework for them.  I figured why not just put up a flyer at the local high school that says, “Pay me 20 euros-- I’ll do your English homework!” I might as well.

Thankfully, tutoring the 50-year-old Rosella makes me feel a little bit better.  Maybe it’s because her English is actually worse than my Italian. Maybe it’s because her mistakes are equally comical. My favorite one so far was when she invited me into her “kitchen” to see the fresh pesto she’d made that day. She said, “Come in my chicken.” That was a first. We both laughed, but I don’t think she got half of it. She ran into her kitchen and brought out a small green jar. “I am pleased of my pesto,” she told me with pride and then offered it to me as a gift.  Maybe that’s why she’s my favorite student? --She’s given me fresh pesto, an Italian language book, and a bottle of wine.  And she always pays me right after the lesson. Or, perhaps she’s my favorite because I end up learning more Italian from her than she learns English from me? Rosella speaks to me in Italian about 80% of the time and then asks me to translate it to English so she can repeat the words. Of course, that makes me feel like I can speak Italian, if only for a few moments-- and that’s a nice feeling after being here for over a month.  Nevertheless, when she hands me the 30 Euros at the end of the lesson, I can’t help but feel like I’m running a sham language business.  As I walk home, I shake my head at the fact that I don’t really know the rules of my own language, and in some ways English makes no sense to me. Still. I just happen to know how to speak a universal, highly valued language mostly because of geographical luck and circumstance.

Just as I make it back to my apartment, I see that Rosella has sent me a text message.  It says, “Your muffler lives in my house."  Oddly enough, I immediately understand her bad English. Translation: “You left your scarf at my house.”  Well, I think to myself, at least I made 30 Euros, got some free pesto, and have one student that could actually use my help.

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