04 February 2010

Linguistic Inconsistency

I've been learning French for over 20 years and Italian for about nine and yet while my written French is pretty fluent and better than my Italian, my spoken Italian far outstrips my French. This might be because I was taught Italian by a native Italian speaker and French by a Hungarian (via Yorkshire) and it might be because the Italians are always so bloody shocked and excited to find someone who actually knows their language that they are infinitely more welcoming and encouraging of my efforts than the French. It may also be because Italian is a fairly easy language for an English speaker in terms of its phonetics: no nasal vowels or diphthongs or uvular rs and it is fairly phonetically regular (i.e. each letter tends to be associated with only one sound, unlike in English or French); the only tricky part is the trilled r but that's not a problem for me.

In any case, I still get nervous when speaking to French people and my perfect grammar and mastery of the subjunctive, preterite, conditional and the pronouns y and en go out the window, and so today in Cannes, I kept quiet until lunchtime when we went to a little restaurant called Da Laura, which is run by a friendly Italian family (Laura and her family, funnily enough). Although it was a bit confusing switching between French and Italian, it was so much more relaxing to be able to speak in Italian; my Italian vocabulary might be much smaller but my fluency is greater.

I think the native speaker teacher point is the key one here. I did, of course, have a French assistante for 40 minutes a week for the last three years at school (shared with seven to nine other pupils) and at Cambridge, I had a weekly supervision with an assistante shared with one other person, but it was already too late. I started Italian at the age of 16 and got my A at A-level after two years and it really helped that the classes were conducted entirely in Italian from the start and that we had an Italian teacher (even if I now have a Sardinian accent and swear like a Sardinian/Sicilian).

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