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.

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