Friday, September 29, 2017

Observations on Learning the Italian Language



What follows are a few observations on learning - or shall I say trying to learn - the Italian language for years now. Perhaps reading this you may find something to take comfort in if you are struggling with learning a new language.

Sure, I'm slowly improving with my Italian, but to me there will always be a frustrating lack of progress, naturalness, and ease in speaking. Yes, learning a language is more than speaking. There is listening comprehension, reading, writing and gestures, and they are all related to speaking. However, in my experience and especially in Italy, speaking is the most important to master, especially if you are learning the language as an adult. If you can speak reasonably well in Italy, you can get yourself understood.  Therefore, the following observations focus on speaking.

Talkers and Story-Tellers 

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He who talks a lot in his native language, talks a lot in the new language, and therefore, masters speaking quickly. It's not really all that surprising. I've seen many cases that prove this, including two friends, one Persian and one German, who I'd say are talkative types and have picked up Italian easily. In Italian, these two friends would be said to be portati per le lingue.

I've also noticed that people who often tell stories (gossip, what they had for dinner, etc.) to relate points or just do it naturally as part of conversation, also easily pick up speaking a new language.

So, what to do if you are more of a listener and not a natural story-teller in your native language? Answer: nothing. You'll be the same way in the new language. Changing the language doesn't change who you are fundamentally.

Ears vs. Eyes 

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How to categorize learning styles and whether instruction should be tailored to these styles are not widely agreed upon subjects. The Wikipedia page for Learning Styles gives a taste of the differing categorizations of learning and critiques of them. Notwithstanding, I can't help but notice that there are those who learn more aurally, and those that learn more visually. I fall in the latter category. For example, when meeting someone in Italy, I often ask the person to spell their name so I can process it or write it down. It might be because I'm unfamiliar with Italian names and have no existing points of reference, but I think it's because I process information better visually. While the person is spelling their name, I'm writing it in my mind. I don't hear it by sound only. In my opinion, people who learn aurally, can usually get the name right hearing it just once.

As well, when learning a new word someone tells me orally, I can rarely repeat it perfectly the first, second or even third time. The only time I can repeat the word on the first try is if it is a word I already have seen or know. In fact, if someone tells me a new word like a name, I often write it down or at least "see" and "spell" the word in my mind. Whether it's laziness on my part or a mode of learning I've fallen into, but could possibly change, I don't know. My visual style also applies beyond just single words. My little black notebook, on my person at all times, is littered with phraseology and idioms heard during the day. Italian friends who are telling me a new word or phrase in Italian know me well enough by now to prompt me to pull out my notebook and write it down.

I relate these anecdotes to point out that it helps to think about how you learn and at least start by maximizing that mode for learning a language.

I've often wondered about the connection between people who can carry a tune well and their related ability with language. Again, not to disparage myself, but I'm a bit oblivious to melody. In Italian, I'm said to be stonato or tone-deaf. Is that connected to my penchant for tending to process information visually? Would taking singing lessons help me speak Italian better?

Accept Your Accent 

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Of course, I can't hear my own accent, but I'm often told that I have an obvious American accent (accento) when I speak Italian. To think that my "Italian" voice in my mind - when I'm speaking without really speaking so to speak - always sounds perfect and without accent! What's up with that discrepancy between the inner voice and my actual voice?

The other day, I was part of a conversation and we were talking about a foreigner who spoke Italian like mother tongue (madre lingua), with no accent. What struck me about the conversation was how the Italians kept praising her ability and how she had essentially no accent. I cringed just a little inside wondering what they really thought about my accent.

What's wrong with having an accent? Answer: nothing is wrong with having an accent. It's more important to get your ideas across. Remember that successfully communicating simple or profound ideas doesn't require complicated language or a perfect accent. Feel better?

Reading vs. Speaking 

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Reading doesn't always lead to better speaking, at least immediately for me. In fact, reading for a few hours takes a short term toll on my speaking. After reading for a good two to three hours, I'm almost paralyzed when it comes to speaking. I've wondered about this phenomenon. Is it just me? Is it imagined? Does reading temporarily make part of my brain for speaking less accessible? Eventually, my speaking returns. In fact, I think that reading really does help long term.

The book I'm currently reading in Italian is Carlo Rovelli's, La realità non è come ci appare or "reality is not what it seems." It's an wonderful book about physics. I've noticed that after several hours of reading it (sometimes quietly, sometimes out loud), I can barely manage a ciao and buongiorno. So read you must, but before you head to your local café for a chat, warm up with some common phrases*. I've learned not to walk in and expect to rattle off a interesting tidbit from Rovelli's book like this bit about quantum field theory, "sono oggetti strani: ciascuna delle particelle di cui sono composti appare solo quando interagisce con qualcos'altro." (p. 127).

* Common phrasing. I've been enjoying the interesting video content on the Alma.tv site, in particular, the Italiano in practica series. I wish had seen these videos years ago.

Relax Parrot Smile 

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Like skiing, I'm stiff when it comes to talking. And, unfortunately, this is the case in both English and Italian. (Can you notice it in the writing?) I know the key is to relax. I'm not on a stage, it's not a do or die situation, there are no obligations, but still there are times that I have to remind myself to relax. It also helps to remind myself that I'm speaking with Italians in their language and not in English, i.e., I'm making the effort.

Besides relaxing, being a parrot helps, in Italian that would be pappagallo. Repeating back phrases and asking questions will at least keep the conversation going. You don't have to have original ideas for every conversation. Repeating and paraphrasing what you heard is fine at least as you warm up to the conversation.

And, always smile. A smile is understood in most languages without needing a translation.

Dosey Doe Language Partners 

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In my language-learning world, people fall into these categories:

  • Scrunchies: People who scrunch up their face and are prone to saying "whaaaat?" They make little effort to cross the bridge of communication.
  • Sweaties: People I feel nervous talking to. They make me sweat. I feel like I'm on trial. It may have nothing to do with speaking a different language.
  • Sweeties: People I could talk with for hours. They make learning a language a joy. 
If you are the non-confrontational type like me, you'll search out the Sweeties, put yourself in front of the Sweaties every now and then, and avoid the Scrunchies. If you are a talker, story-teller, or even mildly confrontational, you'll likely get bored with the Sweeties, and enjoy the Sweaties and the Scrunchies. To each his own: a ciascuno il suo. The point is to understand what types you like to talk with in your new language.

I will take this moment to rant a bit. I actually get annoyed at Scrunchies. I know I can't master one consonant versus two consonants* (nono - 9th, nonno - grandfather) or put the accent in the right place (pappa - food, papà - dad, papa - pope) but please Scrunchies, just try to pay an iota of attention to the context of the conversation and work with me!

* Last year around New Year's we wished many people a Buon Ano (or Good Anus) instead of Buon Anno (Happy New Year). New Year's resolution: I will pronounce my double consonants!

Let There Be English 

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I used to get mad when people spoke English with me in Italy. It felt like I had failed in my ability to speak Italian, that my Italian wasn't good enough. Then I realized that there are a couple of good reasons why this happens. First, someone's English may be better than my Italian and in the interest of efficient communication, we communicate in the strongest common language. Second, I find that people are eager to speak English, even if they just know a few words. Many Italians want to learn, and want the opportunity to speak English. Italians learn English in school starting pretty young but don't really have a chance to practice it.

Finally, there is what I would call the over-eager, tourist-friendly service provider phenomenon. Typically, it's a waiter who wants to make you feel as comfortable as possible and speaks in English no matter what. He has sized me up as English speaker and that's what I'm served. What the waiter doesn't know is that while Debbie from Dubuque or Takashi from Tokyo may feel at home with that approach, he loses points with us. This tends to happen in the most popular Italian tourist destinations. So the solution is obvious, go where there are less tourists. For example, when I want to escape English for sure, I head to the hills. In small towns in the hills in Italy, I can tip the balance back so that our Italian is the best mode to communicate. Travelmarx has been known to talk for hours to a sweet old grandmother in the middle of nowhere.

Aside: Don't expect that when talking to an Italian and using an English word, in particular, a city name, that you'll be understood right away. It's not because the word isn't known, but rather how you pronounce it. For example, to this day when we say we are from Seattle, pronounced /siˈætəl/ with the sound of one "t" like a "d", it almost always elicits a hesitation and then a restatement of Seattle as /siˈæt təl/, with two "t" sounds distinctly pronounced. That's because in Italian, two of the same consonant sound very different than just the single consonant. Beyond places, there are many English words commonly used in Italy that are - as you'd expect - pronounced according to the Italian alphabet and pronunciation rules, including top (pronounced "taupe"), stop ("stow-p"), hamburger ("amburger" ), ok ("oh kay"), and mix ("mee ix") to name just a few. I find myself starting to use these Italianized pronunciations. When in Rome, do as the Romans do….or in Italian: paese che vai, usanza che trovi.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

History in the Streets - Comparison Between Italian and American Street Names



Walking through a typical Italian city you can't help but get a lesson in Italian history: it's all encoded in street names. It wouldn't be uncommon to receive directions such as "Follow Viale Vittorio Emanuele II, turn left on Giuseppe Verdi and follow it until you come to Via Cesare Battisti." In the course of your journey you would be honoring, respectively, Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a united Italy in the late 1800s, Giuseppe Verdi, the famous Italian opera composer of the second half of the 1800s, and Cesare Battisti, the Italian patriot and socialist politician of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It turns out that street names in Italy fall into a couple of broad categories dealing with important people and events in Italian history.  By contrast, street names in the United States tend to be based on numbers (e.g., First, Second) or names of trees (e.g., Oak, Elm). 

In this post, we'll compare and contrast street names between the US and Italy. Specifically, we'll talk about the top names used for Italian streets. Then, we'll use Bergamo as a specific Italian city example and list some street names found there. Finally, we'll close out by talking about American street names.

Italian Street Names


The data discussed here is from Laboratorio internazionale di onomastica (LIOn), but unfortunately doesn't seem to be easily accessible anymore. (Long live data on the internet!) So, we have to rely on others who analyzed the data, in particular these two references:



These two references (circa 2013) give the following top 20 Italian street names:

  1. Roma 
  2. Giuseppe Garibaldi 
  3. Guglielmo Marconi 
  4. Giuseppe Mazzini 
  5. Dante Alighieri 
  6. Camillo Benso conte di Cavour 
  7. Giacomo Matteotti 
  8. Giuseppe Verdi 
  9. IV Novembre 
  10. Castello 
  11. Papa Giovanni XXIII 
  12. Cesare Battisti 
  13. Alessandro Manzoni 
  14. Aldo Moro 
  15. Antonio Gramsci 
  16. Chiesa 
  17. Vittorio Veneto 
  18. Piave 
  19. Alcide de Gasperi 
  20. Umberto I

Some information and observations about this list of street names:
  • The list of top street names came from over 8,100 Italian cities. 
  • Reference 1 states that streets named for John Fitzgerald Kennedy comes in at number 66. 
  • The names of important Risorgimento (Italian unification) / Irredentism and political figures provide 50% of the top 20 names. 
  • A full 75% of the top 20 are the names of people, specifically men. 
  • Reference 2 reports that names of women make up 2.4 % of the total list of names and the first woman to appear is "Santa Maria" at 57th place. 
  • The three "place" street names in the list (Roma, castello, chiesa) are all you would ever need in a town: how to get to Rome for business, how to get to church for absolution, and how to get to your nearby castle for protection. And rest assured, these streets take you there, if not quickly, at least eventually. (If you are wondering, there isn't a via Roma in Rome, but there is a Via Roma Libera. For more information, see the Italian Wikipedia page on Via Roma. There it is stated that many of the Via Roma street names come from Fascist times in Italy.) 
  • Score one for science! Guglielmo Marconi comes in high on the list, only behind Garibaldi, but before all others. 
  • Other, older top street name lists are from 2011: Il Risorgimento scende in strada and 2005: I dieci nomi delle vie più diffusi in Italia. Their data is slightly different.

Categorizing the top 20 names gives us a handy list for a possible crash-course in Italian history.

Risorgimento / Irredentism: Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807 - 1882), Giuseppe Mazzini (1805 - 1872), Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour (1810 - 1861), Cesare Battisti (1875 - 1916)

Statesman: Giacomo Matteotti (1885 - 1924), Aldo Moro (1916 - 1978), Antonio Gramsci (1891 - 1931) , Alcide di Gasperi (1881 - 1954), Umberto I (1855 - 1900)

Artist / Scientist: Guglielmo Marconi (1874 - 1937), Dante Alighieri (1265 - 1321), Giuseppe Verdi (1813 - 1901), Alessandro Manzoni (1785 - 1873)

Place: Rome, Castello, Chiesa

WWI: IV Novembre (Armistice of Villa Giusti ending war between Italy and Austria, 1918), Piave (river and site of Italian victory over Austria in 1918), Vittorio Veneto (battle 1918)

Religion: Papa Giovanni XIII - pope (1958 - 1963)

I remember my first few times in Italy and the feeling of heaviness the names conveyed. I didn't know Battisti from Gramsci. After a year, they seemed less opque as I've began to slowly imbibe Italian history from friends and reading. Heavy, yes, but interesting I must say. Compare the top Italian street names with the bland, functional names of the top American street names (listed in full below) like First, Second, Third, and so on. The streets of Italy are rich history lessons. Italians live their history daily.

The categories we give above, in particular, Risorgimento, Statesman, and Artist/Scientist, are our inventions, used for convenience. People or events in a category don't always neatly fit. Take for example Antonio Gramsci. Yes, in general, he was a statesman, but he was also a journalist, a linguist, and a philosopher - to name just a few other hats he wore. In the Risorgimento cateogry, conte di Cavor's was a businessman and politician as well as a key protagonist of the Risorgimento.

And sadly, there are not shortage of tragic stories in these street names, including Matteotti - murdered during a kidnap attempt by Fascist secret police, Moro - kidnapped and murdered, Gramsci - imprisoned the by Fascist government, which led to a serious decline in health and his death, and Umberto I - assassinated.

Bergamo Street Names


The following list of streets in Bergamo is not an official list. The names were not rigorously selected nor are they selected based on popularity or relevancy. Rather, they are simply streets in Bergamo Città Alta and Città Bassa that we've noted. Still, the list is interesting for two reasons. First, it confirms a similar pattern seen in the list of street names across Italy, that is, names honoring the Risorgimento, national statesman, and artists. Second, many Bergamo street names honor a local prominent citizens of the past, so that in these cases, there is a local history lesson. For example, streets in Bergamo honoring "locals" like Locatelli, Camozzi, or Colleoni are not found in the top 20 street names for all of Italy.

Bergamo street names honoring prominent local people and places:

Statesmen 
  • Antonio Locatelli (1895 - 1936) 
  • Gabriele Camozzi (1823 - 1869) 
  • Francesco Cucchi (1834 - 1913) 
  • Bartolomeo Colleoni (1395 - 1475) 
  • Giacomo Costantino Beltrami (1779 - 1855) - patriot/explorer 
  • More info about personaggi illustri or promiment citizens of Bergamo. 
Artists / Scientists 
  • Girolamo Tiraboschi (1731 - 1794) - historian 
  • Mario Lupo (1720 - 1789) - historian 
  • Torquato Tasso (1544 - 1595) - poet 
  • Giacomo Quarenghi (1744 - 1817) - architect 
  • Andrea Fantoni (1659 - 1734) - sculptor 
  • Giacomo Manzù (1908 - 1991) - sculptor 
  • Evaristo Baschenis (1617 - 1677) - painter 
  • Gianandrea Gavazzeni (1909 - 1996) - composer 
  • Gaetano Donizetti (1797 - 1848) - composer 
  • Simone Mayr (1763 - 1845) - composer 
  • Antonio Stoppani (1824 - 1891) - scientist 
  • Clara Maffei (1814 - 1886) - a woman of letters and important backer of the Risorgimiento 
Places 
  • Viale delle Mura - runs along the top of the Venetian walls or "mura" of Città Alta, the wall of which are now officially a UNESCO site. 
  • Via alla Rocca - takes you to the fortification called La Rocca
  • Via della Fara - runs alongside the green space in Città Alta called the Fara. 
Religion 
  • Papa Giovanni XXIII (1881 - 1963) - beloved pope from the Bergamo area; Bergamo's main hospital is named after him as well as many other buildings and organizations in Bergamo and around Italy. 
  • Angelo Mai (1782 - 1854) - religious scholar; today the beautiful Biblioteca Angelo Mai carries his name as well. 
  • Street Saints: Via Sant'Alessandro, Via S. Giovanni, Via S. Giacomo, Via San Salvatore, Via San Lorenzo, Via San Pancrazio, Largo di Porta S. Alessandro, Vicolo Sant'Andrea

American Street Names


In 1993, the U.S. Census released a tally of common street names (a scan someone made of the data; the original data is hard to find). In 2014, a new set of data was released. Both the 1993 and 2014 dat are discussed in two references we'll use here:


From Reference 1, we have the following top 20 street names (1993 data):

  1. Second, 2nd 
  2. Third, 3rd 
  3. First, 1st 
  4. Fourth, 4th 
  5. Park 
  6. Fifth, 5th 
  7. Main 
  8. Sixth, 6th 
  9. Oak 
  10. Seventh, 7th 
  11. Pine 
  12. Maple 
  13. Cedar 
  14. Eighth, 8th 
  15. Elm 
  16. View 
  17. Washington 
  18. Ninth, 9th 
  19. Lake 
  20. Hill

Categorizing the names as we did for Italian street names leads to:

Numbers: Second/2nd, Third/3rd, First/1st, Fourth/4th, Fifth/5th, Sixth/6th, Seventh/7th, Eight/8th, Ninth/9th

Trees: Oak, Pine, Maple, Cedar, Elm

Places: Park, Main, View, Lake, Hill

Statesmen: George Washington

Almost 50% (9/20) of the top 20 across all of America are numbered streets. Just one surname, Washington, appears in the top 20. If you look at the top 50 names, the numbers start to become less common, the tree and place names stay about the same, and more surnames start to creep in: Lincoln (#26), Jackson (#33), Johnson (#40), Jefferson (#42), and Wilson (#44).

For me, the numbers, trees, and place names used for American streets are a far cry from weighty Italian street names. Why that's the case I'm not sure and won't hazard any guesses.

Finally, Reference 2 for American street names gives information about variations in the top 10 names by state. While there are variations between states, the top 10 lists are consistent in their use of numbers, trees, and places. What variations there are speak a little to history and surroundings. For example, Arizona has "Apache" and "Mesquite" while Hawaii has "Aloha" and "Lehua". Connecticut has neither, or at least in the top 10.