Saturday, March 28, 2015

Speech! Speech!

Though I was born too late to take advantage of the importance of learning Latin and Greek for a well-rounded education, I understand that there was one component of learning those so-called Dead Languages that has been eliminated from today's methods for learning 'modern' languages.  I'm referring to exercises of composition.  Until I suppose around the 1950s or so, every education person was expected to have at least a superficial understanding of written Latin or Greek and many instructors assigned writing exercises that involved using what the student has learned to create short essays or stories in the target language. 

It seems to me that this is a custom that could do with a revival, with modifications of course.  One of the hindrances I've often spoken of in regard to being confident when speaking Italian is the issue of avoiding long pauses and the anxiety and discomfort that such hesitancy produces.  It seems to me that one way to avoid this stumbling block is to fortify one's memory with a repository of stock phrases and sentences that can be used to fill in those periods when you can't think of anything to say or when you know what you want to express, but the words either won't come or you're not sure of the word order and vocabulary needed to get your point across.  After all, when we having a conversation in our native language, for the most part the words just flow; we spend very little time carefully selecting every word and thinking about syntax.  If we practiced writing out typical conversations regularly, such fluency just might come over time. 

Of course, another approach toward making our conversations flow along smoothly is to practice orally, either with ourselves or with a partner.  But it seems to me that writing out the conversation first with focused composition exercises would be a good supplement to oral practice.  Writing helps us to get our thoughts organized before we speak.  Textbook translation exercises are fine, but the process of composing your own dialogue and using your current knowledge of the language to form your own sentences and paragraphs gives the exercise and immediacy and an interactiveness that you don't get by simply working with examples other people have given you.  I presume composition exercises are not provided in self-instruction books because it would be impossible to supply a key, since everyone would write something different.  After all, though, when a person seeking public office has to give a speech, very often the first thing she does is write an outline and then the speech in its entirety.   Perhaps its not a bad idea to treat future conversations in Italian as if they were political speeches that we had to prepare for days ahead.  That way we won't need notes or a teleprompter, because the words are right there--on the tip of our tongues, as the saying goes. 

Certainly, it's impossible to predict everything that could possibly pop up during a spontaneous conversation in Italian, but having those stock phrases and sentences available for easy retrieval could relieve some of the stress and awkwardness of face-to-face conversations.  In fact, a pet peeve of mine is when textbooks and other learning materials use vocabulary and sentences in their lessons that I am unlikely to ever need to use.  I doubt I'll need to say 'Koalas rarely eat anything but eucalyptus leaves when they are in their natural habitat.'  At least anytime soon.

Alla prossima...

Friday, March 27, 2015

Musica italiana

Here's an Italian song (canzone) that is perfect for learning Italian because it uses so many words, like spaghetti, that are familiar to most English speakers.  It is a remake by the Gypsy Queens of a very popular Italian song originally by Tuto Cugugno called L'Italiano. 

The Gypsy Queens perform L'Italiano--caldissimo!

Now all I need to do is find the lyrics. 

Alla prossima...

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Et tu, Brute? Or is that Et Lei, Brute?

For some reason I find knowing when to use formal pronouns and verbs a much harder process to master in Italian than in either French or Spanish.  In French it seems to me that, as far as one adult speaking to another, unless they are related or in some other way intimately connected, it is necessary to wait for the permission to 'tutoyer.'  In Spanish, my experience has been that formalities are much more flexible and most of the Spanish pen-pals I've had very quickly dispense with all the Usteds and Ustedes.  Italian usage, however, seems much more restrictive.  I have an Italian correspondent who is considerably younger than I am and she tells me that technically she must always address me with the formal Lei.

Image result for Lei o tu
Besides the fact that this seems to me to open up the possibilities of appearing rude or disrespectful, already a reputation that often follows Americans wherever they go, it also makes the Italian grammar difficult, as if it weren't already challenging enough.  When I was studying French, practically all pronouns and verbs were introduced in their formal forms.  This worked well, I thought, because it was with these forms that one would first begin a conversation with a French speaker.  I could always pick up the informal speech later.  With Italian, though, it seems to me imperative to learn both forms thoroughly right from the start, since I'm older and it's quite likely I would need to address a lot of people with tu.  So, that makes for a lot of doubling up.  I suppose this inconvenience is leveled out by many other aspects that seem to me to be easier than French or Spanish:  in general the pronunciation is very similar to English and there are very few sounds that are problematic for English speakers (unlike the soft g's and b's and v's and the Castillian c in Spanish) and also making a statement into a question in Italian is usually simply a matter of raising the tone a little at the end of the sentence or phrase--very little inverting is involved. 

A language expert once noted that it is unproductive to dwell on the difficulty or simplicity of any particular language--such concerns will only slow down the learning process and impede your studies.  They're all hard in that they are different from the language we grew up with.  Most languages express things completely differently.  If I ever get to the point where learning intuitively when to use Tu or Lei becomes a mandate, then I'm sure I'll be able to rise to the occasion.  Meanwhile, I'll just continue to absorb as much as I can--and enjoy myself.  Mi piace imparare l'italiano.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


According to my Italian pen-pal, Vasco Rossi is a big rock superstar in Italy.  For your listening pleasure, above is a sample of his music. The song is called Vivere, which I think means To Live, or maybe the imperative Live! 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Is That Roberto Benigni Speaking Italian? Oh, my God; It's Me!

Listening to a recording of one's own voice is often rather like looking at a photograph of oneself.  'Who's that?' you might say before you recognize yourself.  And this, of course, is only natural; the image we see in a mirror is in reverse, so a photograph looks different.  And except for the times we've found ourselves in a canyon and heard our echo, we never hear ourselves speaking.  

Image result for audio file typesThanks to the wonders of technology, though, we are able to hear what we sound like to other people--and sometimes it's a bit startling, at least the first time.  It turns out that recording yourself when learning a second language can be a very useful (and informative) process for improving your pronunciation and capturing that illusive linguistic tone of a language--and its nuances.

By playing back a short recording of yourself as you continue to attempt to speak Italian, you can hear your mistakes, rather than just see them on paper.  I was very surprised when I recorded my first Italian speech at all the mistakes I made in syllable stress.  These are errors that would not be detected in your written exercises.  As you are well aware, the stresses in Italian are often irregular and a misplaced emphasis could interfere with making yourself understood by listeners.  The same goes for the other difficult pronunciation problem in Italian: double consonants.  The mistake of saying casa when you meant to say cassa glares out at you when you hear yourself pronounce those words on a recording. 

I had wanted to add an MP3 of some of my first attempts to record myself speaking Italian, but it would seem that with the Google Blogger platform, though it's relatively simple to add photos and videos, attaching audio files is difficult--involving using HTML, which I've tried to avoid.

The important thing about recording your Italian is to avoid being overly critical.  You're just learning, for chrissake!  If you could speak it perfectly without any effort, there would be no need for recordings, interminable grammar exercises, comprehension practices, etc.  Record a short monologue (or you could even write up a little dialogue and play both parts--that might be fun).  Then play it back several times, not just passively letting the words and sentences slide by you, but listening closely--both for the mistakes and for the things you did very well with.  If you sound even remotely like a native, then pat yourself on the back and have a gelato.

Ora, viaggiatore (Now, voyager), the next step is to record a video.  That way you can not only hear your progress (or lack of it), but also practice the body language and gestures that go along with good, animated, expressive Italian.  Also you can compare the way you employ your mouth, tongue, and teeth with what you see when you watch a native speaking.  Yes, le mie amiche, this is going to take some courage, but if we want to eventually become fluent, we need to put aside our fears and go forward to seek and to find.  (If this paragraph sounds familiar it's because I've been paraphrasing Walt Whitman :))  Yes, I know he's not an Italian, but he could write a good ditty every now and then, va bene

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Amici ed amiche di penna

Image result for language exchangePenpals.  I have several, including a couple of Italians.  I always feel quite humbled when they write me back with my attempt at Italian vigorously corrected and amended, and the expression 'you learn from your mistakes' is really made evident in these situations.  It's very helpful to compare what I wrote with the way it should have been written.  It helps solidify the knowledge by giving me a negative set of rules as well as the positive one:  One must not use di in such and such expression; da is more appropriate.  But what is also very helpful is the reverse.  When I correct their English I can see that they often make precisely the same mistakes that I do.  What this tells me is that the fine-tuning of a language, when one gets to the point that she no longer makes these important mistakes using prepositions or a specific sentence construction that differs radically from English, comes much later, after years of constant exposure and being corrected. 

In the meantime, though, it's important to proceed, even though my Italian is riddled with errors.  The fact is that, even with all the mistakes, most of my correspondents have very little trouble getting the gist of my message, so we are therefore communicating.  And it's rare that I can't decipher most of the messages that Italians have written to me in English, though there have been a few cases in which the meaning was not at all clear and I could only guess.  But the main thing is that it is crucial not to demand perfection and to continue to make regular attempts to communicate with natives--even if it's embarrassing at times.  I'm always proud and amazed at how brave and hardworking my Italian penpals are.  They know they're probably making mistakes, but they try anyhow.  E questo è bene.

One of the best things a language penpal can do is encourage her writing partner.  Learning a language can be a very frustrating endeavor and it always gives me impetus and courage when someone tells me my Italian is pretty good--even if they are just being kind.  It's very easy to just throw in the towel (asciugamano) when you feel your progress is slow, so it's important to look for positive feedback whenever you can. So, I'm encouraging all you Italian learners now.  È possibile farlo! You can do it.  If I can, then you can too.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Italian--It's a Mystery to Me

Image result for pietro sermonti
Pietro Sermonti

Still finding it very difficult to locate TV shows and movies in Italian with Italian subtitles, I've been watching 'Nero Wolfe' in Italian on YouTube.  For some reason this character, based on the detective novels of Rex Stout, seems to be very popular in Italy.  There is both an old black-and-white version of the series (perhaps from the late 50's or 60's) and a newer one (maybe from the 90's?), which is the one I watch.  Archie Goodwin, Mr. Wolfe's right-hand man, is the handsome and elegant Italian actor (he's older in this Wiki; he looks more like the picture on the right here in the series) Pietro Sermonti. The plot lines are genuinely exciting and the show is very nicely produced and directed.  I find that the Italian seems to be spoken for the most part very clearly and a tiny bit slower than in the more contemporary Italian TV shows.  I'm convinced that people are talking faster these days--in fact, they're doing everything faster :).

I ordered a cheap used copy of Agatha Christie's C'e Un Cadavere in Biblioteca a while back, but it hasn't arrived yet. I find that Christie's books are perfect for beginning language learners because 1) they've been translated into just about every language ever known, and 2) they usually use relatively easy vocabulary and grammar.  It does get tiresome having to interrupt one's reading every few minutes to consult the dictionary,but language learning takes time and effort.

Also continuing with the Pimsleur all-audio programs for Italian.  Some criticize Pimsleur for spoon-feeding language, ladling out new vocabulary and structures at an extremely slow pace, but I find that works for me.  It teaches you all you need to know for a very simple conversation in Spanish and then drills on these phrases over and over.  Even when you advance to another level, you still get drilled on material you learned previously.  With all that repetition and with replaying the MP3's over and over, certain common phrases become very ensconced in the brain and can be reproduced very quickly without going through the thinking process that slows you down when speaking.  I find the program very helpful also, in that it's all audio.  I don't have to put my earbuds down to do some written exercises every few minutes, which means the program is perfect for using when exercising or doing some other activity.  It actually makes my morning walking routine much more pleasurable.  Now, we'll see if I'm making measurable progress as I advanced through the first 30 units of the Beginning set.

A presto....