Learning The Language Of My Ancestors

By the time learning the language of my ancestors became a serious bucket list contender for me, I had already mastered a few basics. I knew my 1 to 10, my greetings and a handful of terms that related to genealogy, predominantly through trying to decipher 150 year old Venetian baptism, marriage and death records.

I wanted to learn Italian as it was used, not as it was taught. ‘A presto’ was one of my favourites in the early days. And simple phrases like ‘Come stai?’ are not unfamiliar to non Italian ears. If you want to find out how it’s really spoken there are some great Youtube channels out there. I recommend Tom Weila. It makes sense and you learn great pronounciation as you go.

Essentially it isn’t just about learning for nostalgic reasons. My genetic connection to Venice is 4 generations removed. Unless I’m planning to move there, how will I use it? It’s about understanding the culture, which helps me realise not only where I come from, but what made them tick.

In my work on Tita Falcieri, everything I see of him in the early days is Italian or in Italy or is based on his culture. Understanding why he does certain things, or says things in a certain way is rooted in his upbringing and his language. If you want to understand your past, why would you not try to understand life from their point of view?

The thing is, I am rubbish at learning things. The reason, I cannot do anything by rote or by sitting in a classroom. I learn by living and breathing the skills. I am a doer, not an academic. I learn by trying out, making mistakes, by correcting those mistakes and by trying again. The reason? I am impatient. I want to implement my new skills from the start and make them productive, not theoretical. I don’t do anything unless it has an immediate practical implication. That’s just the way I am.

I became a designer not by going to university or evening classes, but by buying the tools, getting the books and doing it. 20 years later I decided to refine my skills at university. By then, design was a way of life and learning new skills was simply honing my already clear methods.

I always wanted to be good at music. I’ve learned piano and drums. I was rubbish at both of them because I was never able to use it in day to day life and because by sitting and practicing in a classroom setting, it went in one ear and out the other. Drilling simply does not work for me. The reason, boredom sets in and my mind, which is always thinking of at least four or five things at once anyway, goes off in search of pastures new. If the new skills cannot be applied to something, I simply lose interest.

I have always wanted to learn a language and have always admired anyone who is bilingual. School put me off languages very early on. French was my worst nightmare and I had no interest in France anyway. It was a pointless exercise for me. For me to learn a language I have to live in it. Live with it. Be amongst its culture, its people. Be in the country. To have a reason for wanting to know it. So why it has taken Italian so long to become my focus is beyond me although I have to confess to thinking it for a while. I suppose confidence was an issue and finding the right learning strategy.

This last 6 months or so, transcribing old Venetian documents written by and about my Venetian ancestors has galvanised me into action. I’d always asked for help before. Now I wanted to transcribe them for myself. And now that Venice is back on my list of places I am going to visit every year, I don’t want to be a clueless tourist when I get there, especially since I am going alone. I want to be connected to the city by more than distant DNA. I have to understand it and I can’t unless I know the language.

In an ideal world I would move to Italy, maybe for 6 months and take my business and my writing there and see how I get on. But the practical problems with this are numerous. Instead I have an app on my phone, I have subscribed myself to as many Venice Twitter accounts as I can manage in a day, and I am learning it for myself thanks to Duolingo which fortunately happens to be the learning tool that works best for me.

I downloaded some tapes for the car, but it just goes in one ear and out the other. I need to see the words, to understand the structure, not learn to copy phonetically. Instead I make myself read as much in Italian as I can and look up the rest. Informal word usage is better learned than formal ones. There are nights I go to sleep mentally building sentences in my head.

There’s not much use for Italian here in Manchester which is why I surround myself with it on social media. Thankfully one of the guides at Newstead Abbey is fluent. This will give me a sounding board to bounce my attempts off. Pronounciation is important. Understanding the written word is important. Being able to understand someone talking back to you is very important!

And so between Christmas and New Year it began. So far it is going well. Watch this space. Italian sentences are starting to appear on my Twitter. Ciao!