In February of 2004 I started two weeks of study there, hoping to hack down at least some of the language barrier that stood between me and my research. I was placed in an advanced beginners class (thanks to some introductory Italian study and previous Spanish and Latin classes), and I had one classmate, Wakana from Japan, who spoke no English, and about as much Italian as I did.
How much can be communicated with those limitations? I learned that Wakana’s home town in Japan has an annual festival taking a local god from their temple down to the ocean to be washed. I learned that she hoped to speak Italian well enough to attend a university in Italy to study architecture. She learned about my home town’s annual Irrigation Festival, and about the research I was doing for a novel set in the 13th century.
Vern and I walked around Sorrento, visiting the touristy places—shops selling ceramics and inlaid wood products, learning Italian as we bought coffee and pastries in the sidewalk cafes, and tickets for the bus to Positano. The ancient city walls, medieval cloisters, and brightly painted fishing boats in the Piccola Marina all delighted us, and kept the camera clicking.
About ten days into our two weeks of Italian study, I woke up from a dream. I was drifting on the Bay of Naples in one of those small fishing boats, an Italian fisherman at the oars. I held a fishing pole and cast out into the water. Soon I had something on the line, and reeled it in. Not a fish, but a paper with an Italian word written on it. Unfortunately, not the word I was looking for. Disappointed, I threw it back in and cast my line out again. I reeled in another word, but it still wasn’t the right one.
Perhaps it was my frustration that woke me, because I never “caught” the word I wanted! But I woke up laughing, and shared the dream with Wakana and our teacher, Elena, at school that morning. I had heard of people dreaming in a language they are learning, but my fishing expedition was a new take on the theme.
After our last day of classes, Wakana and I put our communication skills to the test. She joined Vern and I on a visit to Pompeii, about 40 minutes by train from Sorrento. As we wandered around the remains of the Roman-era city, we jabbered in a mixture of bad Italian, a few Spanish words, and her limited English. Then we saw a Japanese tour group with a guide explaining things to them in Japanese. Hanging around the fringes, Wakana translated into Italian for me, and I translated into English for Vern. A little like the old party game of Gossip, I wonder if what Vern heard was anything like what the guide told his group.
I left Sorrento far from fluent, but far better equipped than when I arrived. We were able to manage much better during the following two weeks as we traveled. When we returned to Italy in August, we again spent two weeks at SorrentoLingue. With another leap in language skills, our travels were much more enjoyable, and research more productive.
Immersion language schools are available in many countries, and if your travel time is flexible enough to include a week or two—often the classes are half-day, so you can still see the sights—do it! Check out SorrentoLingue at www.sorrentolingue.com.