ESSAY: Foreign language follies

I thought I could learn French and Italian in a month via the newly released Mango Languages app.

I like to think I’m pretty good with languages. I write for a living, though not very well. I’ve spoken broken Mandarin since birth, and studied Spanish for at least 10 years—four in elementary school, four in high school and two in college. But I barely ever speak it, and my skills have probably regressed back to third-grade level. 

OK, so I suck at languages.

Still, I thought I could learn French and Italian in a month—via the newly released Mango Languages app, available for free through the Sacramento Public Library. It’d help me get through a two-week honeymoon—a week apiece in Paris and Rome—I reasoned. Besides, Spanish and English share a lot of the same Latin base words as Italian and French, right?

It seemed easy enough. I sat in the same spot on my couch and practiced each language. I spent six hours on 25 French lessons and two hours on 15 Italian lessons.

First came Paris. Our shuttle driver at the airport didn’t feel like speaking at all, so he held up a tablet with our last name on it. It was a silent 30-minute ride to the hotel. “Merci beaucoup,” I said, handing him a 5 euro tip. He smiled and repeated the same phrase.

Luckily, the hotel receptionist spoke pretty fluent English, as I was sleep-deprived and could barely remember a word of French. Come to think of it, I hardly needed to use any French for the following week. I only really needed it when buying a carnet (book) of subway tickets, and saying “seulement boissons” (only drinks) when entering a restaurant, because—let’s just say I was consuming a liquid-heavy diet. Subway tollbooth attendants and restaurant servers were at least happy that I tried to speak French.

Rome was next. But here’s the thing about speaking Italian there: As soon as you mispronounce your first word, they’ll switch over to English. And then they’ll pressure you to buy something. Rome seemed to have a far more tourist-based economy than Paris, and vendors at businesses everywhere knew just enough English to pester me with hard-sell schtick.

Lesson learned: Spend more than a month learning a language before trying to go full-immersion. And, when in Rome, act like a Spanish tourist.

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