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The curse of monolingualism

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I spent 10 days in Italy, and I still don’t know if "ciao!" means hello or goodbye, or if it’s a word like "aloha" that can mean both.

I assumed that "pronto" means hurry, as in "get your ass into the boss’s office, pronto!" but that doesn’t explain why people answer their cell phone that way.

As far as I’m concerned "prego" is spaghetti sauce, but it seems to be used in Italy as a verb, usually by officers conducting traffic and restaurant waiters.

I made a few feeble attempts to communicate, I feel silly saying things like "bonjourno" and "grazie" because of a lack of confidence in my pronunciation so the words usually come out in a whisper.

As a result I’ve become one of those annoying tourists who try to communicate in simple English with accompanying hand signals, while making wild guesses at what the correct word might be. "Aqua, agua, water," I’ll say, making a sipping motion. "Bathroom, salle de bain, lavatory, toilets, um, toil-ettas" I’ll ask confused Italians who look like they’re in some kind of position of authority because they’re wearing uniforms. I won’t even describe the hand signals I use for that one.

I’ve become a walking thesaurus, blurting out synonym after synonym in the hope that I can find a word in English that sounds enough like its Italian equivalent. Sometimes I’ll go back to the words I learned up to Grade 11 French, which I only passed because I had no intention of taking Grade 12. The teachers at my high school were good like that.

As I sat in the Sestriere media centre, humiliated after my last attempt to communicate with a poor shopkeeper – "just looking? Um, shopping? Um, browsing? Um, browse-ero ?" – I found myself wishing that I had the ability to go back in time and pay closer attention to Madame Baker-Carr, Mr. Mickey, Madame Treffleur and a host of other language teachers I had over the course of my school career. All I can honestly remember from Ms. Baker-Carr’s class was that she was hot.

The problem with our education system is that it’s based on a rigid progression, and the progression relies entirely on your grades. Students learn languages at different speeds, and if you get behind in one lesson, there’s no hope of catching up because the rest of the class never stops moving. By the time you get one thing sorted in your head, you discover that your peers are already light years ahead of you.

I gave up French, math AND science because those marks brought down my average, and I knew my average would determine whether I got into a good university or not. It doesn’t matter that someone who went on to Grade 12 French and got a mark of 50 per cent actually knows more French than I do, what mattered was the fact that I managed to get grades in the 80s and 90s in my ‘safe’ subjects.

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