Odd twists and turns of new phrases

One of the most frustrating aspects of having inadequate skills in a new language is losing the use of idioms. I miss them almost as if they were boring but cherished longtime companions who have gone away.

I admit that I didn't say "it's raining cats and dogs," for example, all that often back in southern California. But the idiom's familiar presence was always hovering in the background, available. Coming in out of a downpour here in southern Italy, however, if I try a literal Italian translation of the saying I provoke only stares of consternation. To express the same idea in idiomatic Italian, I must say instead, "it's raining as if God sent it." Not bad, really; I like it. It has the gist. But for me, the nonnative speaker, the saying arrived only yesterday. The reflexiveness integral to any true idiom may never arrive for me.

Now approaching the third anniversary of my move here after I married a native Italian, I can describe my progress toward fluency in the complex grammar and gradations of this language and its umpteen dozen dialects as "piano, piano" - to use a popular expression for our "slowly, step by step." My progress is far too "piano," in my opinion, but it's certainly better than it was in my early days here.

I remember just a few months after I arrived when we went to the birthday party of the young daughter of a friend. I had recently enrolled in a beginning Italian class at a school in Rome. The class was four hours a day, four days a week. I was eager to test my progress, though it was meager.

When the pretty little birthday girl dutifully presented herself for introduction, politely kissing me on both cheeks, I took a deep breath and told her my name and asked hers.

A dead pause followed. By the confused look on her face, it was clear I wasn't speaking any kind of Italian she recognized. My husband quickly came to the rescue, repeated what to my ears sounded almost identical to what I had just, said and all was well again.

It's the pronunciation, of course. Italian, with its fully sounded vowels and double consonants (also pronounced), is not only a challenge to American speakers, but also a challenge to our untrained ears. It's an audio mystery. The double consonant was a complete surprise to me. We certainly have them in English, but who bothers? In Italian, it's most important to bother or you'll risk disaster.

My own minor calamity occurred while I sent my soon-to-be husband an e-mail for New Year's soon after we met. I intended to wish him a Happy New Year using the Italian expression "Buon Anno!" after consulting with an American friend who knew some Italian phrases, I carelessly ignored my recently purchased bilingual dictionary, glowingly typed "Buon Ano!" and hit the "send" button. Only afterward did I learn that my friend had neglected the double consonant in her pronunciation and that I had sent greetings to my beloved for a "happy bottom"!

This pronunciation dilemma is a two-way street. The complaint I hear most frequently from the many Italians I meet who have spent years in school studying English is the impossibility of their understanding anything Americans say when we speak to them.

This is true for all languages to some extent, of course. But from what I hear, the offense is especially egregious in American-style English. We engage in a kind of mushing when we enunciate. More accurately, we don't enunciate, which eliminates intelligibility for the nonnative speaker. This is especially true for an Italian, accustomed as he is to a more musical rhythm in language.

How disappointed my husband was one day when he pointed to a roadside area near our home and said "Aye you ka leap toose" and I stared at him blankly. I neither recognized the word "eucalyptus" nor the trees lining the roadway.

Returning to the lost idioms: Although I do mildly mourn their absence, I enjoy discovering the variety in this linguistic area. Sometimes comparable idioms are similar, with perhaps only a change in body part separating them. For example, where we say, "you're pulling my leg," the Italians say, "you're pulling my nose." And instead of "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it," the Italians admonish "not to bandage one's head before breaking it."

For anyone who loves language and imagery, though, the real pleasure occurs when the idiom expresses the same idea but structures the concept in a different way. Take the Italian version of our cryptic "looks count." Choosing personification and lending more majesty to the expression, the Italians say "vero è che l'occhio vuole la sua parte," translated literally, "it is true that the eye wants its share."

Learning a second language to the level of fluency is, for me, sheer hard work. But I'm not such a nincompoop that I don't appreciate the privilege of the task and its benefits. It gives me a greatly expanded view and experience of language, its origins and structure. It also helps me see my own language in a fresh light and with greater appreciation.

Observing the reactions of some Italian friends recently after I told them the "cats and dogs" idiom - and watching as they laughed and mimed to each other the incomprehensible experience of being pelted by cats and dogs falling from the sky - brought the saying to life for me for the first time. I still can't use it here and be understood, but then nothing's perfect.

Or, as the Italians say, "la perfezione non è di questo mondo" - perfection is not of this world. There's that Italian majesty again.

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