Last night I found myself sitting with seven Italians ontop a huge hill overlooking the whole of Milan. For a long while they were all turned round to listen to my crappy Italian, loving every word and laughing their asses off. Realising the situation I found myself in, I remember looking out into the distant city lights and asking myself, ‘Sam, how the hell did you become this badboy at communicating in Italian?’. The question remained with me as I awoke this morning, and after some pondering I think I can now pinpoint the techniques that have led to – and indeed still fuel – my success (/badness).
1. Listening to People is Overrated
When does a lifetime of not really listening to anyone else pay off? When you learn another language. Yes, a lifetime of failing to pay attention to people accustoms you to continuing conversations regardless of the input of the other person; a talent of upmost importance when endeavouring in new language mastery. Using the highly refined skills that I’ve acquired over 23 years of such neglect, I have managed to continue a conversation with someone for a whole hour in Italian without understanding one thing that they said. On more than one occassion.
Have you ever met that guy who no matter what you say before, you feel would always say the same thing after? As in if you said ‘Last night, I got AIDs from my cat’, he’d still just continue his story about the funny thing that happened to him in the supermarket. Yeah, be that guy. He’s an asshole, but in the end he’s the one who gets all the babes. Maybe. Ok, probably not, but he learns languages really well. YES of course the whole point of language learning is to learn to listen to and interact with more people… but inevitably on the way to this sacred land there will be times when you don’t understand nothing. Being able to just continue the chatting is crucial to having badboy conversations when you’re still only taking your (bad)baby steps in the paddling pool of linguistical knowhow.
2. Answering questions incorrectly is better than not Answering them at all
Good conversations flow. Awkward ones stop and start. The above section made an exaggeration; although I have conversations without understanding what someone said, I still use my brain and take a guess. Intonation 99% of the time let’s you know if they’re asking you a question, and ofcourse the questions are what one dreads because you actually need to understand what they said to you. If it’s not a question you’re safe; when they finish their piece you just say ‘si, si’ and then continue the story about the supermarket. However if you detect it may be a question, then just answer that mutha; think about what you were talking about, use your instincts, did you hear the word ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘make’. It’s better to answer wrongly than to keep stopping everytime they ask you something and needing them to repeat it again slowly. It makes you seem more comfortable, and people who are more comfortable are always more bad.
Sure every now and then they sneak a question without you realising, and you just say confidently ‘yes, yes, it’s true’, then they go ‘no, I asked you a question’. Yeah, that’s awkward for sure. But it’s always going to be awkward sometimes, you just gotta ignore that shiz and move on.
3. Be Resilient
This section is devoted to good ol’ resilient Mike, who I think of every now and then out here. Resilient Mike is my cousin, and he’s very resilient (hence the name), and I pray for his talents of resilience frequently. With languages, you’ve gotta speak to learn how to speak, and in an earlier post I mentioned going walking in the park , speaking to strangers, asking them to speak Italian with me. That requires a bit of resilience. But what requires more is just extending every conversation and every interaction you have with anyone for as long as possible. Milan is a metropolis just like London or any other; the people here are fast talking, high riding, low jibing cats who ain’t got time for bits of chit chat. You buy a coffee, you pay, you leave. But not this cat. I ask the barrista how their day has been, then tell them something about mine, then another question, then talk about the supermarket, and keep going. Don’t stop if it gets awkward, be resilient. Ask another question. Plough through and 90% of the time you end up having a really nice conversation. People in big cities sometimes put up a barrier at first because their not used to being talked to in a friendly way by strangers, but quite quickly they drop it and welcome it. So go out, speak, and if in doubt, wonder what resilient Mike would do. (he’d be resilient).
4. Use swearwords, and use them incorrectly
‘I work as teacher, and my student is big shit’. That’s the kind of thing Borat would’ve said, and regardless of whether he’s still funny now, that sort of thing was hilarious when it first arrived back in the year 2000. Everyone who met Borat loved him too, while in the real world his ways still remain amusing. Maybe not on the television and I’m not talking about impersonations of him either (that’s sooooo 5 years ago), but when you actually meet a foreign person and they are smiling and laughing, and you start swearing together badly in your language, that is often funny. The colloquial swearwords like shit, bollox, piss, these are at the heart of our culture, much more so than almost all our other words. Everyone in Italy says ‘cazzo’ and ‘stronzo’ all the time, using them makes people laugh and everyone bonds over the love of agreeing that some things are shit. Using them slightly incorrectly (usually by accident) makes it funnier still. And here’s a big point: You go on the internet and everyone advises how to become fluent in a language, how to lose your accent, how to immitate the locals, because when you emulate them this is how you get accepted… This is often bollox. At least at first. When you start out and you can’t speak the language properly, your foreigness is what you have going for you, it’s what makes you interesting, what makes you exotic. If you come across as a local at this point then you’re just some retarded local who can’t speak properly. Noone is interested in him. Embrace that you’re not from there, speak badly, people find it funny hearing things in ways they’ve never heard before.
5. Le Femme
I’ve saved the best tip for last. Though, I’m afraid unfortunately it’s only really for men. It’s a tip I gave a friend once when he was going to Morocco a few years ago and I’d completely forgot about it and it’s power until now.
I joked that when in Morocco and sitting near a man, when you feel like you should talk to each other, or one starts speaking to you and you don’t understand them, just say ‘ma, le femme…’. This is french for ‘but the women…’. And my friend said saying this was hilarious everytime. The guys would just respond ‘Oui, oui, le femme!’, laughing lots, and they’d shake hands and nod at each other for a while. The appreciation of women is something that most men can definitely bond over, so learn how to say ‘the girls/the women’ in your new language and say it. The laughs, the nods that you get back and the funny looks from guys make it worthwhile everytime. In fact it’s how I made friends with a lithuanian who ended up taking me to an incredible party last night in a park. As I said, it’s a tool of much power.
6. Conclusion: Be bad
All of the above comes to nothing if you ain’t gonna be bad. So in between your grammar books and wasting your time reading shiz like this instead of doing some actual learning, go watch some Michael Jackson videos or something.
As always, leave a comment and I’ll slap you up with a reply whether you want it or not, much love, SAMUEL.