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.


Dumbing down of America?

It is fashionable to write and talk about the fact that the younger generations are getting dumber (Bauerlein, for ex.) or the fact that the idea of anti-intellectualism has been around in the US for a good while (see https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201407/anti-intellectualism-and-the-dumbing-down-america) – and this symptom will surely be repeated throughout the world, since the US/Anglo-hegemony is rampant. However, the problem is much more complex and it encompasses not only schooling, but also sociological threads that bind us as humans.
1) Digital media allow more people to participate in all the artistic and scientific activities: publish on the Internet and you (think you) made it. In the past, publishing was a castle which had gatekeepers who stopped what they thought was worthless crap from sprouting and proliferating, whether produced for printed or audio-visual enjoyment and learning. Clearly, the gatekeepers, being human, were not exhibiting flawless and generally objective behaviour, but on the whole, the scheme worked pretty well. Nowadays, no gatekeepers (other than profit-seekers or certain legal rules) ban our “publishing” activities.
2) In the past, schools were not for everyone, which meant that there was a base – or better, a canon – of knowledge that schooled persons shared, propagated, built on. The rest of the people, as intelligent as they may have been, did not participate in this process, only in so far as they promoted more schooling for their children. Of course, this system’s flaws are obvious and have been examined thoroughly by Marxist, feminist, critical analysts. Since national states have been generally abandoning the idea of state-run schools, learning is becoming an individual matter, prone to follow hype, or religious and other precepts.
3) Narratives (be they audio-visual or printed) have always been an intrinsic part of human existence, and they will persist to be so. The new media, however, promoting speed and quick flux of one idea/image at a time, do not support the slow digesting of a complex narrative. Being a literary “voyeur” (where a whole imaginative edifice accompanies the “who what where when” or “who done it” process) is different from posting your selfie on Facebook or on other platforms – the selfie is devoid of the narrative phenomenon, except for the originator of it. Reading a novel (i.e. getting the whole picture) is not being promoted by the new technologies. But reading of a more complex type (literary, scientific) has never been the part and parcel of every human on the planet.
The conclusion? It is obvious that until the Internet is used mostly to sell things, the idea that the human world is being dumbed down will persist. We as humans have to agree on what to set as the intellectual base on which we build our edifice. We cannot expect schools, as they exist now, to do this.

Incredible illogicalities of the human world: 5-10

This is the continuation of the series started on June 29, 2014. My rant may help some people at least think about the consequences of their actions.

5. Replacing honey bees with mechanical drones instead of attempting to cure the colony collapse disease.

6. Selling “organic fertilizer” and malathion in the same store.

7. Producing cigarettes even though it is like pushing (a pretty ugly kind of) death.

8. Allowing the purchase of cheaply produced stuff the manufacture of which clearly depends on non-renewable resources.

9. Thinking that the Internet is an example of democracy, when it is just a political security valve.

10. Allowing the (public) financing of the most stupid TV shows, specifically, in Canada, the Government supports the production of Scare Tactics.