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

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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.

 

On “the Way to Bee”

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One of the saddest sights I have ever been exposed to was the mound of dead bees in their hive once my brother opened it up for inspection after a cruel winter. To realize that more than 60 000 individual beings did not survive the freezing temperatures was astonishingly numbing. To appreciate the bees and their existence one must come close to them, observe their wings and pollen-laden hind legs, listen to their humming (happy as well as angry), share with them the fruits of their labor, and, yes, see them die by stinging you (unless you are allergic). Harsh winter die offs are not the only problem worker bees encounter during their short lives. As any beekeeper knows, honey is just the tip of the iceberg which is created when the bees and the keeper respect each other.

One such respectful relationship is the object of Mark Magill’s short book, the Way to Bee. Meditation and the Art of Beekeeping (Lyons Press, 2011).

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Magill describes the effects seasonal changes bring to the bees’ lives, their cycles of being, their purposeful existence, their focus on protecting their queen, feeding the brood, guarding the hive’s entrance. He mentions the research into bees behaviour and communication, especially that conducted by Frisch and Langsroth.

Magill also includes his take on the art of meditation. But his desire to somehow connect apiculture and meaningful meditation, to teach the steps to achieve one’s focus, seems too earnest and too rushed. It is as if he were searching for a focus in his own life. The book is lyrical and documentary; it leaves the reader with the desire to keep bees, and, as an aside, how to learn to meditate, presenting the necessary conditions and steps to meditation.

Some introspective books are written with the sole purpose of allowing the author to document an aspect of his or her life which still awaits a conclusive word. The danger in offering such a book to a wider public stems from the ephemerality of one’s experiences and feelings. Thus, documentary elements are mixed in with philosophising and, and, if the author is prone to pedagogize, all this is sprinkled with an earnest desire to teach. Perhaps giving the reader a nice package all wrapped up in colorful paper and topped up with a magnificent bow is not the intended aim. If nothing else, I hope that this book is read wisely so that it may instil different denotative and connotative meanings to the word “bee” to an English-speaking readership. Human culture and experiences are shaped by the language we speak, as Benjamin Lee Whorf’s linguistic relativity hypothesis indicates. Although Whorf and Sapir were more interested in the grammatical/temporal categories of languages, the meanings of words are a prime example of this relativity, and there is no better example of this than in the denotation and connotation of the word “bee”. For English speakers, “bee” is a non-marked, general term that denotes any insect that hums, flies, and possibly stings: wasp, yellow jacket, hornet, bumble bee, etc. The connotation is that if a vicious stinging insect, instilling fear and hate in children and adults alike. Speakers of other languages do not share these connotations, nor the generic denotation. For Slovaks, for example, the word včela is not the unmarked, general category, or hyperordinate term, but it denotes the Apis (mellifera). The connotations assigned to this word include laboriousness, cleanliness, and the attitude it brings to the Slovak speaker’s Weltanschauung is that of respect, not fear. Children used to receive a stamp of a stylized bee on their work in their notebooks, and that was a sign of great pride. Rather than trying to get rid of a buzzing bee, kill it or zap it, children were led to admire its characteristics and be inquisitive about it.

Having a negative connotation about all types of bees makes it perfectly acceptable to kill them using all kinds of chemicals which, in the final analysis, harm all living things. This is the strongest connection between beekeeping and meditation: there is a relationship between humans and bees (of all types) which goes far beyond enjoying a spoonful of honey.

Linguistic seductions 3: The subtle incursion of English

That the English language is found all over the world is not new. What is new, however, is the amount of infusion of English linguistic phenomena in other languages and cultures. Here are two examples, one from Slovak and the other from  Italian, of the extent of English spelling and pronunciation conventions taking over native conventions.

The Slovak case

One would expect, in a globalized world, the existence of Chinese restaurants in Slovak cities (Slovak Republic, not Slovenia). So it is no surprise that there are a number of them. Since I did not have the good fortune to taste their fares, I cannot comment on their quality. But I can make observations on the linguistic form of the names of their dishes on the menus. The most striking aspect of Chinese names of dishes is that they are spelled using English orthographic conventions, i.e., as if they were to be pronounced by an English speaker, not by a Slovak speaker. Here are just two specific examples: 1) ch as [č] not a [x]: chop suey,  (polievka so) Sichuanskej (zeleniny). 2) c as [k] not as [ts]: curry.The following conclusions can be reached about this subtle incursions of English here: either 1. everyone in the world is expected to know the conventions of English spelling or 2. the owners of Chinese restaurants in Slovakia all think Latin-based writing is pronounced like English or 3. restaurant owners, all foreigners, pander to non-Slovak, possibly English-speaking tourists.

The Italian case

The next step in this incursion of English is exemplified in Italian, where Latin expressions are pronounced as if they were English, specifically, sine die (Latin for “an indefinite day”) pronounced by a TV commentator as [sain day], as if these were English words. The other example is more interesting, it comes from an oral examination in architecture, where an Italian student kept saying [absaid] for the Italian word abside (apse, an architectural term), thinking it was an English word therefore pronouncing it as such, even though clearly it is an Italian word.

The most interesting fact about these incursions of English into Slovak and Italian is that the hegemony of English does not seem to have a linguistic policy propelling it and it is not supported by governments of English-speaking countries. Non-natives living in non-English speaking lands express their admiration of what they perceive as Anglo-prestige through emulation of anything and everything English, even in cases where it clearly is not English.