Vale la Pena

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Talking with Giulio, the cheese maker in Sant’Ambrogio, Sicily

In Italian, the expression, Vale la Pena means, literally, it’s worth the pain. But the general meaning is, it’s worth it. Learning a second language is definitely worthwhile—especially if it’s Italian, and you like spending time in Italy. If you want to venture into the less popular regions of Italy, it helps to know at least some Italian. I realize that not everyone has the time or inclination for languages, but if you do—Vale la Pena.
Before we came to Italy, I decided to learn Italian because I’ve always loved languages and I was already quite fluent in Spanish. In fact, I majored in Spanish years ago, and had the opportunity to study in Mexico City. After about one month in Mexico, I learned how to listen for chunks of meaning rather than try to translate each and every word. From then on, I could pick up meanings much faster.
But learning to speak another language and communicate well is another matter. It takes study and practice, practice, practice. And what better place to practice Italian than Italy—especially in the smaller towns, or any city where you stay awhile. I’ve found that the Italian people are usually very patient with those of us who want to learn their language.
If you want to become proficient at speaking Italian, you can’t be shy. You need to start the conversations and continue using Italian. Often, people assume that you can only say a few words and they try to help out by speaking English. Also, they’re very surprised to find a foreigner who bothers to learn Italian. I am often asked the question, “Why are you learning Italian?” They are even more surprised that I don’t have any Italian relatives or ancestors.
In the less popular cities and towns, it’s a bit easier to get into conversations. Even the retired Sicilian guys on the piazza are talking to me this time around. It’s taken me three trips to Italy to get to the point where I can have real conversations. And I have to say—it makes a big difference. I am hearing more stories and spending more time in friendly conversations.
When we were visiting the main church in the town of Castelbuono, Sicily, I struck up a conversation with the man who sold the tickets. After a few exchanges, he stood stood up and decided to give us a guided tour. He took us beyond the area with restricted access to the main alter, so we could take a closer look at the fabulous wooden backdrop. He told us stories about the church’s history and talked about the various miracles he had witnessed when people came to pray to the Blessed Mother. These are things you don’t get from a guide book.
It seems like at least once a day, I receive a special price or an extra item because I’ve had a conversation with someone. It’s not the reason I learned Italian, however, it’s a fun, added bonus. The main reason to study Italian is to be able to talk to these wonderful people and learn more about their rich culture and history. As my good friend, Carolyn’s Portuguese grandmother always told us—”it’s good to talk two tongues”.
Below: Helping a trusting local in Castelbuono, Talking in Cefalù

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About msraaka

I am a writer, ESL teacher and desktop publishing consultant living in the Pacific Northwest. After our first visit to Italy, my husband Bob and I have found ways to spend more and more time there. We love the people, the language, the food, architecture, art and the history of this amazing place.
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