Or in English, “Where is my toothbrush?” You may have been able to translate my title from Italian, and if so, I applaud you. Why am I blogging about the Italian language? And why the toothbrush? Read on.
I’m about a month away from a 500-day streak on Duolingo’s Italian course. 500 is my goal, and I’m looking forward to a break at that point. I have used a “streak freeze” with points on some days when I could not get it done. Not a perfect streak, but I have piled up a good bit of work on a foreign language that I may not have been motivated to continue if Duolingo wasn’t “gamifying” it for me.
I had 4 semesters of Italian at UVa, and it wrecked my GPA. Did my autism factor into my difficulty with another language? “Unclear at this time,” as the police officers tell the detectives on crime dramas. How can I be higher than average in my native language, and yet have so much difficulty picking up a second language? This time around, I feel good about some vocabulary and some basic sentence structure. Remembering idiomatic use and a few of those participles isn’t sticking as well as I would like.
Nevertheless, there is some research on keeping the brain in good shape with language study. When I learned that language study was a good brain training habit, I picked the language I had tried before. Duolingo seems to work for me. It has changed in small ways since I started, but not enough to put me off. I tried the premium version for a while, but the free version does what I need it to do, with a few ads.
Italian is fun on its surface, and then past participles show up. I had a Fiat in high school, and somehow, I began to believe that Italian was cool and sexy. I was privileged to travel at age 15 to Rome and Naples on an educational trip with some other Latin high school students in and around Richmond, VA. Latin wasn’t easy for me either, but it was all translation. Immersion gets the most praise among all the methods, and that isn’t going to happen with Latin – even in medicine.
Getting to go to Italy and trying to function in Rome as a teenager for 10 days was an adventure on many fronts. I arrived at the Rome airport, spent the night in the sea town of Ostia, and discovered that I had not brought a toothbrush from the States. I looked up how to ask for a toothbrush in my Berlitz phrase book, went to the closest shop, and gave it my best shot.
Spazzolino dei denti – literally “tiny brush for the teeth.” (Most translation engines now truncate this to simply “spazzolino.”) It worked, and I handed the cashier a 5000-lire note. I’m sure the guy saw me as a rookie tourist, ripe for fleecing. He gave me back two coins. When I tried to question him about the amount of change from this simple toothbrush, his gestures and his intonation seemed to say to me, “that’s enough, scram.” I walked back to my group of fellow Latin students having paid about 6 US dollars for a toothbrush worth about 75 cents at the time. Proud I had asked for what I wanted and had been understood, I was still a little miffed, thinking I’d been had. It wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last. I was young, excited to be there, and moved on.
Like anything, we get better with practice. I have hope that my brain is neuroplastic enough to keep learning, and I want to keep feeding it, stretching it, and disciplining it. Crossword puzzles, reading on new subjects, eating brain healthy foods…all of these are worthy of my efforts. I’m thankful that I had this early life affinity for things Italian, or I may not have been the least bit interested in working on any foreign language at my current age. British/Austrian Minis were the co-stars of The Italian Job; guido io! (I’m driving!) Arrivederci!