Toward the middle of the second semester last year, senior Alex Mak reached his tipping point. Mak grew agitated with how often his friend group chattered about Italian class during track practice. Feeling excluded, he made a decision to learn Italian for himself.
“It’s a really pretty language,” Mak said in an explanation of his decision, “and I already know Spanish.” He also speaks Mandarin and Cantonese, making Italian his fifth language.
Fast forward six months, and Mak is taking AP Italian. He achieved language proficiency in roughly a semester and a half.
“It was a lot of work, but it was rewarding,” Mak said.
The first step was to check out the Italian textbook Percorsi from the school library. Moving from cover to cover, he finished it in 6 months. But studying vocabulary lists would hardly support his conversational skills. Mak turned to Youtube to learn how to understand spoken Italian.
“I watch a lot of Italian Youtubers, and a lot of Italian singers,” Mak said. He knows practically all of the words to Andrea Bocelli's classic song, “Con Te Partiro.” (The English title is “Time to Say Goodbye.”) In addition to appreciating Italian opera, Mak has committed himself to staying well-versed on Italian pop culture. He often watches videos made by the Italian Youtubers Matteo “Matt” Pelusi and Valentino “Bise” Bisegna, known across the internet as “Matt e Bise.” In one of their ongoing gags, Bise dresses up as an elderly woman and pretends to be Matt’s mother. I asked Mak what he thinks of the Italian rapper Fedez, who recently married the celebrity Chiara Ferragni. Mak remarked that he does not really like Fedez’s music, and that the rapper is not nearly as attractive as people think he is.
Mak also began doing tutoring sessions with Italian speakers on italki, an app that connects language students with native speakers for Skype-like video chat sessions. Each session costs around $10 depending on the price set by the teacher. Mak’s teacher is named Giovanni, and he lives in Rome. Mak does not know Giovanni’s last name. In their first session, Mak and Giovanni discussed greetings. In their most recent session, they discussed the role of the internet and globalization in Italian culture.
Mak even taught himself to roll his r’s, which he had spent several months trying to do to no avail. He watched Youtube videos of people practicing rolling their r’s to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and in various arpeggios. He even memorized the anatomical name of the part of the mouth upon which one places their tongue when rolling one’s r’s. (He clarified that this part of the mouth is called the ‘alveolar ridge.’) Still nothing.
On a random day in June, Mak was driving alone in his car, a purple 1996 Lexus Sedan. Then, inevitably or miraculously, it happened. He rolled his r’s.
“You know the adrenaline that you experience after you do something unexpected, something really difficult — that’s what I was feeling,” Mak said.