Learning a language on the fly gives a person a big helping dose of humility. Daily routine builds up your confidence and then you unexpectedly stumble into uncharted territory. You're hit with that blow, and that blank expression when you realize you have no idea what to say, you fumble through it with grunts and hand gestures and walk away feeling like an ignorant dolt the just set foot in this new country that you've inhabited for a year and a half. It's happened over and over and over again. To me.
Starts with making your way around the place the first few months. You avoid markets where you'd actually have to talk to a live person until you get fed up with the dismal selection at the supermarket and arm yourself with the words for things like "cetriolo" (cucumber) and "pomodoro" (tomato) and TRIUMPH! You pull it off. The market ladies are sweet and smiling and don't seem to mind when you can't figure out how to differentiate between one stalk vs. one bunch of celery (yes, you can buy a single stalk of celery). Minimal amount of grunting involved to sort things out and you're off with two buldging bags of fresh produce for under 10 euros.
This experience does good for your ego... I can do this italian thing, no problemo. So you're off to the deli.
Yea, the deli. Who knew such fumbles could be had at the deli.
Prosciutto crudo, cotto, salumi... I know these things. Let's get the good stuff from the deli today.
You casually saunter up to the counter, number in hand, roll off your polite "buongiorno" like a native and say "Prosciutto cotto, piacere".
Deli guy: Quale?
Uhhhh... ok. There's four different kinds... quick, what are the prices... something mid range... oh, that's COOP... the store brand. Is the store brand any good? "COOP" you blurt out. Whew!
Deli guy: Quante?
With your mouth half open you think, How much? Well, duh! Why didn't I think of how to say how much. About a quarter of a pound? Oh wait, metric. They must do this in grams. How many grams is about a quarter of a pound? Oh crap, I'm so blowing this. I don't care how much! Just give me some prociutto cotto!
Deli guy: Un cento grammi?
Si. Yes yes yes... exactly! That's exactly how much I wanted. Oh, well, that's not very much. "Posso avere due cento grammi?" Ah... nice recovery.
And so you've learned how to order from the deli counter. Things are really looking up. You figure out bread, school supplies, socks for your punkette, all pretty much the same way.
And then, out of the blue...Oooh. That's a great purse. It's perfect. I've got time, let's go in and check it out.
Death trap... well, language death trap... all kinds of crazy new words here. Words like "straps, pockets, adjustable, suede vs leather, snaps, zippers"... and I don't know ANY of them! How do you grunt "are the straps removable?"
Like I said, humility.