Learning a Language Takes Gumption

If it were easy, everyone would do it.

Three generations of women standing together

Table of Contents


The Start of my Language Journey

I’m a first-generation American. My parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, et cetera, were all born in a small town in Sicily. It was a familiar story at the time: they wanted a better life for their kids and future generations, so they packed up and moved across the world with little more than the desire to start new. It was the early 1960s, and they wanted their piece of the American dream.

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My grandma Josephine (right) in her teens

My grandmother didn’t speak English when she came to the US, and she learned to rely heavily on her children - who also didn’t speak English but were put into the American school system upon their arrival. Her favorite phrase to use with neighbors, nuns, and store owners in her community was “lu signori ti lu renni,” which roughly translates to “I can’t repay you, but the Lord will repay you” because she didn’t have anything to give back monetarily. It’s the first Italian phrase I learned growing up, and it's the only one I can speak now, despite hearing the language for the last 39 years.

My parents and grandparents only spoke Italian around my siblings and me when they were having a conversation they didn’t want the kids to hear. That’s when I knew that if I wanted to hear the juicy gossip – who lost their job, who was getting divorced – and all of the other scandalous things happening in the Italian American community in Buffalo, New York, then I had to learn the nuance of the language. To this day, I can understand most of what’s being said in conversations between my family members; I can’t speak a word back. My grandma still gives me her nursing home gossip in Italian, knowing no one will understand what she’s saying except me.

My story is not unique. The US is built on the back of immigrants from all over the world. These people knew that language learning would come with experience, time, and patience. They had to learn a language to survive. That’s a plight I’ve never experienced, and quite frankly, one that most Americans won’t ever have to face unless we choose to.  

The Continuation of My Language Journey

Americans, me included, learn a language because we want to, not because we must. Typically, we don’t know what it’s like to move away from the only language and culture we’ve ever known to start over. We take for granted a sprawling landscape in the United States that feeds our sense of cultural appreciation, so we treat second language acquisition as a luxury, not a necessity. We take for granted that even though there’s no official declared language in the United States, everyone speaks English. We don’t have to worry about being misunderstood while grocery shopping or ordering coffee. We know that even if someone doesn’t speak English as their first language, they know enough to accommodate us.

It’s time to change that conversation. Given my rich heritage and lineage, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m not fluent in Italian. I want to connect with the part of me that makes me, me. To do that, I need to learn how to speak the language of my ancestors. When we make language learning personal instead of mandatory, we truly experience the privilege of learning a language. I’m starting Italian lessons with a woman based in Milan, and even though I’m terrified of sounding like a fool, I know that she will support me on my journey in a way that makes sense for my life.

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My grandpa, Salvatore, top left

For now, that means being able to chat with my grandmother (who’s now 90 and can’t remember English words and phrases as she used to). My “why” is different from yours, so your language-learning journey should differ from mine. I’m really thankful to have an Italian teacher who understands that. She and I spoke about my language goals before me starting lessons, and I told her I want to be able to speak to my grandma – truly speak to her in a way that she understands – before she passes. I know I don’t have much time left, and I want to honor her through words.

Learning a Language Takes Gumption

Learning a language takes gumption. It’s complicated and messy, and frustrating. But it’s also beautiful and honest and brave. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. But if my grandparents taught me anything, it’s to do it anyway. I can be scared and still put myself out there.

Want to follow my journey as I learn Italian? Stay tuned. I’ll be sharing all of it. Even the parts that make me look like a silly American.

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