Learning a new language is one of my favourite things to do. I get a thrill when I am finally able to communicate with a native speaker without embarrassing myself too much. No matter how proficient you are in a language, you will most likely come across a language barrier at some point. Even after living in Italy for over four years, I still run into Italian language barriers every now and again. After all, it’s impossible to know every single word you may need to know in the future. You can make an educated guess by judging what kind of situations you may come across in everyday life. For example, trying to buy something in a shop in another country is always a little tricky, especially if you can’t rely on speaking the same language. I always tell people that the first three sentences I learned in Italian were from my travels to the supermarket. A girl’s gotta eat, right? Yes, so a girl’s gotta learn how to do the shopping on her own. With my translated shopping list in hand and a full basket behind me, I would step up confidently to the checkout having perfected the routine in previous visits.
“Would you like a bag?”
“Do you have the loyalty card?”
“Would you like the stamps?”
So far, so good. It wouldn’t matter which order the questions came in because the answer was always the same. However, if another question was ever thrown into the mix, one I didn’t recognise and didn’t know the answer to, I would quickly trip over and flash my linguistic ignorance for all to see.
“Non parlo italiano!” would be my frightened response before shoving all of my groceries in a bag and running home to cry about the injustice in the world.
Of course, after four years in Italy, my abilities are much improved and I am able to regale the cashiers with tales of my adventures in far-flung, exotic lands. Where I’ve met princes and princesses and a 6-foot-tall mouse. Okay, not quite, but I am more than able to hold my weight in a conversation.
A Facebook notification the other day, reminded me of one of my more amusing linguistic encounters, where no barrier would stop me from buying the perfect cat food. This happened perhaps two years ago, when my general conversation skills were well-practised but any special vocabulary still required a bit of research.
My six-month old kitten, Figaro (yes, named after the naughty cat from Pinocchio, not the opera) had stopped eating his food. I would put it in his bowl and he would just look at it, before giving it a quick sniff and turning his back. This was strange as he’d always been one to inhale his food and then try to steal from the other cat’s bowl, too. After a couple of days of him eating nothing or very little, I decided to try changing his food. I’d found a small pet shop that carried a wide-range of good quality cat food and set off on my mission.
I wasn’t too worried about this as I already new most of the flavours cat food could come in – beef, lamb, chicken, salmon. There’s not exactly a huge selection. Walking in to the store, the gentleman behind the desk greeted me politely and asked how he could help. I explained my situation and he suggested trying to add a little bit of wet food to the normal food. Truthfully at first, he told me not to worry because as far as he knew, no cat had ever starved itself to death and my kitten would probably start eating again soon anyway. However I was not to be put off in my mission – Figaro needed me! So, the shop owner took me over to his range of wet food and started explaining the various flavours. Well, it was like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, if Charlie were a cat and the factory made cat food. I saw some names that I recognised and some I could probably guess – tonno – tuna, tacchino – turkey – so far so good. Then, the owner uttered a word that I had never heard before in my life.
I looked at him. “Excuse me?”
“Granchio,” he repeated.
The bubble of embarrassment started to swell in my stomach. A word I didn’t know! Granchio?
“I’m sorry,” I implored, “but I’m not Italian. What does that mean?”
“You know,” he said patiently, “it lives in the sea.”
Yeah, sure, we’re talking about cat food here with hundreds of different flavours of fish but it lives in the sea.
“I’m sorry but I don’t understand.”
He then launched into an even longer explanation, describing in intimate detail what this animal looks like. Unfortunately for me, and him, I hadn’t covered the Describing Sea Animals unit in Duolingo yet and had no idea what he was going on about (newsflash: that unit doesn’t exist). The look on my face obviously told him all he needed to know and he proceeded to put his hands up in the air like pincers and scuttle across the shop floor like a – you guessed it – CRAB!
The relief was astounding. Fireworks went off in my head and I almost hugged him with joy.
“Oh, crab!” I cried excitedly in English, not that he understood but I had. Not only had I learned a new word, I’d also happened upon a decent person who wasn’t afraid to make himself look a bit silly in order to help someone out. It’s not every day you find these gems. I bought three tins of the most expensive cat food just to say thank you, even though he was still insisting that I shouldn’t bother. That is how I learned a new word and a pet shop gained a new loyal customer.