Learn Italian in 3 months!? Joys and pitfalls of learning a language in the XXI century


In the age of fluidity and speed, it is inevitable that “learning”, too, has received an alternative definition. The slogan “learning is fun” is accepted as given by educational  experts, administrators, and learners, as well as teaching web sites. However, as there are always three sides to the coin, here are 5 questions about learning a foreign language in the XXI century (Italian will be the chosen target since I have taught Italian at the elementary and university level as well as in continuing education programs, and at all levels of proficiency, for more than 37 years). While I have no doubt that the claims offered on the web by some operators may work in the short run, they clearly illustrate the commonplace but dangerous assumption that “anyone is an expert now”, and “anything goes”. As it is a “buyer  beware” world, the questions that follow may help you decide on the best course of action for you as learner.

  1. How much time and commitment to devote to learning Italian?  3 months and then? Language learning is lifelong, especially if one considers that native speakers never stop learning aspects of their native language (vocabulary). Learning may be fun, but it is also and not in a small measure, hard work, very time-consuming, and self-analyzing.  The manner in which you understand and act upon your definition of  learning (also called acquisition) becomes the base of expectations you set up  for yourself. Even the web site https://www.fluentin3months.com/how-to-learn-italian/ indicates that consistency is the key, although it then suggests that the learner start with pronunciation, without taking account of the learner’s purpose, which may not be oral fluency. Clearly, purpose and commitment and very much related but they depend on very different learning challenges.
  2. Why learn Italian?                                                                                                                    i.Machine  translators (oral and written) are getting more proficient by the hour as research continues (see, for ex., https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23331121-900-neural-net-learns-words-like-a-child-by-looking-and-listening/?utm_campaign=RSS%7CNSNS&utm_source=NSNS&utm_medium=RSS&campaign_id=RSS%7CNSNS-_ or https://www.fastcompany.com/3067904/ai-for-matching-images-with-spoken-word-gets-a-boost-from-mit).    So if your goal is to learn Italian in three months, then these programs may satisfy your requirements without you embarking on the joyous and challenging road to proficiency in Italian.                                                                                                                                                ii.Many think that Italian will get them a better job.  But AI will soon replace humans and the amount of proficiency one would need to have to/be able to keep ahead of the IA’s knowledge  far exceeds the level of Italian which one can learn in three months.   iii. Are you a gastronomy buff? Or a music enthusiast? It is clear that for knowledge of these specific functions one does not need conversational skills but reading skills.
  3. What Italian to learn? It is fashionable to offer courses entitled language “for special purposes”. Is your main interest gastronomy?  History? Music (www.edumusic.org) ? All these cultural products are communicated through special vocabulary and syntax. If a special purpose is your goal, then the Italian you seek must correspond to that goal. However,  extracting one cultural aspect closes the doors to infinite number of others. The shortest and most useful way to attempt to reach any of these is through reading: reading all sorts of materials. The same is true for other purposes, such as understanding Italian politics,  modern Italy, the  Renaissance, etc.
  4. How to learn Italian? Most people state that they want to converse in Italian. So web sites and conversational textbooks start with pronunciation guides, repetition exercises, and listening and repetition drills. But conversation is usually about a topic/topics, and in real life these are not given ahead of time. In this sense, it is not a wise use of time to “repeat” for the sake of the correct pronunciation of words.    Second language learning and teaching theories have undergone a number of revolutionary turns in the past 50 years or so: from the emphasis on translation, to oral-aural drills, to communicative competence. Various techniques exist to match  learning styles to teaching materials. These materials are best exploited with an experienced guide, a teacher who can provide much more than can be gleaned from the material itself.
  5. Where to learn Italian? Web sites? Small towns in Italy? Italian enclaves in major immigrant cities (New York, Toronto, Melbourne)?  Evening courses? University courses? The most efficient, although not the most deep learning happens with the locals in Italy. But Italian culture nowadays is rife with Anglo/American  paraphernalia, including language.  If you are an English speaker, beware of words termed “false friends” and “pseudo-Anglicisms”. Although English relies heavily on Latinate forms, and therefore certain partial equivalents can be made (for ex., assimilare = to assimilate, ovale = oval),  the Italian slip is not the English “slip”, and the Italian ticket is not the English “ticket”, and as an English speaker, your knowledge of English will not help you to decode what beauty farm and authority mean in modern Italian. The ideal situation points to combining living in Italy with formal study under an experienced tutor, as well as much deep reading of all kinds of materials, listening to radio, TV programs and films, etc. In this way, interaction,  input, necessity of communication are all supporting the motivational goal.                                                                                                                                                                                   The conclusion therefore points to learning a language as a complex process, requiring commitment, time, cognitive resources. Pronouncing 50 words in native-like fashion  does not mean knowing a language: if claims about learning a language in 3 months sound too good to be true, they surely are.


Food and (Italian) science fiction, or where are the transhumanist sources of energy?

Some years back, in Toronto, during one scrumptious supper, while the banqueters (mostly Italians and Italian Canadians)  were enjoying their tasty food, they all joined the discussion about what menu they would like to imagine for the next day’s meal. The Italian cultural attaché, one of the diners, exclaimed: “Italians are the only people who, while eating, think of the next meal!”. Whether this is true or not, food is a universal concern, although Italians, given their historical, regional, cultural, and character traits, seem to be overly obsessed with what, how, when, where, why they eat. So it is no surprise that food and science meet in Italian speculative fiction, although not as often as could perhaps be anticipated. This is why a lot of my expectations surfaced as soon as the publication of the volume Ma gli androidi mangiano spaghetti elettrici?  was made public.  The book is edited by Francesco Grasso, Marco Minicangeli, Massimo Mongai, and published as a companion to activities planned for the World Expo held in Milano in 2015. It contains 18 short stories by sci-fi known and less-known writers (among whom 4 women), and an afterword which attempts to tackle the question “Why do women not read and not write science fiction?”. The contents of this collection receive a more academic review in a forthcoming specialized publication, so the following muse on two considerations (out of many) which arose from having thought about food, science fiction, and transhumanism.


ma gli andr


Cyborgs and electric spaghetti?       

Although the title is a catchy transparent spoof on Philip K Dick’s Do androids dream of electric sheep? (this ploy was also used in an academic article entitled “Do androids eat electric sheep?” by Josh Toth), the stories do not involve androids and the protagonists do not eat or prepare electric spaghetti. (Caveat emptor.) Every contribution has to do with food: either in the form of seeds, insects, reclaimed produce after a cataclysmic disaster, humans as choice fodder for aliens, and many others. But it is still food for biological beings (human and otherwise).

If food provides energy (food apparently provides much more than that as the scientific literature on food informs us: see for ex., the Works Cited section below), it is legitimate to ask what would the sources of energy be for augmented humans? We need speculative fiction to give us imaginative answers to this. Energy provided to biological beings is surely different from that required by mechanical/nano-bio-cyborgian embodiments (the Borgs “regenerate”). Augmentation-prone transhumanists have so far avoided to deal with this topic, and it is highly surprising since the energy sources and the ways of their ingestion/ injection / imbibing/etc. are crucial for the augmented body. Senescence-abolishing transhumanists, though, will soon have a crowd-sourced cookbook (https://mariakonovalenko.wordpress.com/tag/longevity-cookbook/).

Transhumanists and gastronomy

Perhaps silence about food in transhumanist circles stems from the trouble with the visionary separation already anticipated by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in his Manifesto della cucina futurista (1930). Marinetti, a clever self-promoting artist, bon-vivant and iconoclast of traditional ways of doing things, envisaged two types of food: 1) Pills to satisfy the working classes’ need for energy during their couple of working hours a day and 2) Special banquets  with newly invented courses. It’s a pity that every commentator concentrated on the second suggestion, rather than elaborating on the first. Suffice it to say then that according to the Manifesto of Futurist Cooking, food is either to be swallowed without regard for any sensory input, or enjoyed with almost a sensory overload. There are no half-measures, no in-between compromises. This may be the reason for the transhumanist gastronomic and ironic quandary: in the augmented beings, every feeling, sense, cognitive capabilities are ameliorated, so how can they accept eating pills/getting their energy from electric pulses, which presumably do not give any sensory pleasure at all?  Or will they, and how will this be accomplished?

In conclusion, it is hoped that future sci-fi and/or real nourishment will not be devoid of sensory pleasure, unless augmented beings lose that part of humanity which craves and is able to enjoy the energy consumption, whatever form it will take.


Works Cited

Belasco, Warren. Food. The Key concepts. Berg, 2008.

Jurafsky, Dan. The Language of Food. A Linguist Reads the Menu. W.W. Norton, 2014.

Marinetti, Tommaso Filippo. The Futurist cookbook. Translated by Suzanne Brill. Edited with an introduction by Lesley Chamberlain.  Bedford Arts Publishers, 1989.

Pautasso, Guido Andrea. Cucina futurista. Manifesti, menu, documenti. Carte d’artisti 158.Milano, Abscondita, 2015

Poulain, Jean-Pierre. Alimentazione, cultura e società. Il Mulino, 2008, trad. Aldo Pasquali.

Riva, Franco. Filosofia del cibo. Castelvecchi, 2015.

Eco-docu-scifi novel: a review


Francesca Vesco, Cedimenti. Milano: Edizioni Ambiente, 2011.

What happens, when in a nation which allows illegal house/hotel construction to occur, you find an unauthorized building in your own back-yard obstructing your view of the Mediterranean? This is the situation facing the protagonist of the novel under review, Martina, who has inherited a piece of property in Sicily from her grandfather, the marquis Ignazio Scaduto. Surely, her first reaction must be to sell the property – but selling it would mean giving it away cheaply to the mafioso who controls the construction business. The second option is to fight the illegal construction lawfully: but the lawyer she consults gently suggests to her not to follow this line of action, especially since her grandfather has attempted to have the building demolished using legal means – clearly unsuccessfully. The third way out could be to use illegal means to get rid of the illicit eyesore built on protected land: put an explosive device around the structure and blow it up: this is in fact what her new-found friend, the local journalist and eco-fighter Giuliano Chimenti, spurs her on to consider. (If a reader anticipates some type of ideological/political/literary/emotional connection to Brigate Rosse, this connection is not forthcoming, although mentions of Greenpeace tactics are present.) The rest of the novel follows Martina as she wholeheartedly adopts the illegal tactic to get rid of the structure. The strategy she chooses rests on her obtaining cement-eating microbes (a not so scifi turn, and the novel ends in 2023), placing them in strategic locations and puff! The structure collapses, hence, cedimento (i.e. “caving in”). This illegal action results in the protagonist’s not very long internal fight whether to confess to the authorities who do not even come close to solving the collapses of three structures. She and her beau confess, spend time in prison, and start a new life together.
But in Italian, cedimento has other meanings as well, such as : “giving in”, “yielding”, “surrendering”, “submitting”, “sinking” – and the novel’s title is in the plural, suggesting other collapses as well.
The other givings–in the characters experience reflect purely human surrenderings; to passions: love for one, physical attraction, spur-of-the moment decision-making, guilt, sense of duty, sense of right and wrong. Yet another submitting is of the chance type: giving in because of being at the right place, with the right people and things at the right time. The descriptions of these tribulations receive an unusually participating treatment, one could almost say by virtue of a “feminine sensibility”.
Sadness pervades the language of the novel, notwithstanding its happy ending including marriage, children, and beautiful unobstructed vistas. The melancholy may reflect the gloomy fact that laws do not actually trump unreasonable political choices, or illegal behaviours, or violent solutions.
The novel has been published by a publishing house specializing in eco-fiction, but it can also be subsumed under the heading “science fiction”. Moreover, Cedimenti also has the feel of literary docu-fiction or creative non-fiction. It cites legal rules and regulations, it describes the waste and destruction of natural beauty at the hands of unscrupulous builders and offers one solution to seemingly impossible legal solutions to do away with illicit building.
Some perplexities remain after the last page of the book has been turned. It is not clear, within the content of the novel, what happens to the mafiosi and the collusive politicians, i.e. the real culprits of the ecological ruin. If the book is intimating that they keep on acting as usual, then the example the protagonist goes through is for naught, or to be imitated anytime an illegal structure is around. The other unanswered question regards the cement-eating microbes: they have been given food, and therefore it would be logical to assume that their colonies will grow and attack other cement structures, making a total collapse of all the buildings, not only of the illegally-constructed ones (of course, the environmental, climatic and biological conditions must be right for this to happen). The third point has to do with the third-last section of the book, which is entitled “Suggestioni e commenti”. First of all, suggestion in Italian means “influence”, “fascination” – but clearly it is used here as an Anglicism meaning “suggestions” – nevertheless, the few pages written by the likes of Nanni Balestrini and Umberto Eco, as well as Libero Mancuso, do not proffer any suggestions and the comments are not really necessary because they do not add or otherwise explain the content of the novel – the book stands very well on its own.
All in all, this novel offers good reading times, and makes the reader aware of the complex intertwining of human, ecological, legal problems which a nation such as Italy must confront at every moment.