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.

 

Quantum emanations and Byzantium

The other novel published together in the same volume with Francesco Verso’s Bloodbusters (see my post of December 14) is Sandro Battisti’s L’impero restaurato (Mondadori, November 2015). Both received the Urania Award in Italian Science fiction, and this decision to publish them together could not offer a better view of what Italian science fiction is today: the range, themes, scopes, languages, visions of future are widely different, distinct and thoughtfully enjoyable.  While Francesco Verso’s characters often enjoy a tongue-in-cheek, down to earth, palpable human (human/machine) interactions, Sandro Battisti’s world belongs to all-powerful aliens, capable of controlling quantum energies and use this power to achieve their ends. Thus, near human future  on one side of the literary continuum looks across to alien shenanigans at the other.

L’impero restaurato (The restored empire) is part of a cycle of novels dealing with various themes, but one of the leading concerns is the answer to the question “What could/would an all-powerful, alien, male being do to/with humans?”. To make the answer more concrete, Battisti endows the protagonist, Totka_II, emperor of the Connective Empire, with the ability to capture quantum emanations from earth of any historical period and allow them to be embodied. Totka_II is one of the most powerful of Nephilim  (in the novel, this race of biblical echoes is responsible for human ‘progress’). He is smitten with Byzantium’s power, opulence, military prowess, and therefore while he is looking to found another capital city for his empire, he is bent on establishing a new Constantinople. Using the ability to control quantum fluctuations he observes the court of Justinian and Theodora, the meeting between Justinian and a papal envoy, the triumphant entry to the city by general Belisarius. The most powerful pull on him, however, turns out to be Theodora, whose checkered past he knows.

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The novel proceeds as evil forces gather to attack  the positions of Totka_II’s empire, while the emperor is busy planning the new capital city. One of his envoys who was to report to him the augural liver reading does not return, and his vice, Sillax almost loses control while he is overwhelmed by the fluctuating energies which his technicians try to channel properly.    The augur whose observations of the sacrificed animal’s liver do not give a unequivocal answer to the emperor’s envoy turns out to be an enemy whose military ability almost destroys the Connective Empire. I will stop here not wanting to  spoil the pleasure for those who have not read the novel.

In an interview (with both Urania winners,  published together with their novels in the last pages of the book, pp 298-301), Sandro Battisti claims that “l’umano non mi ha mai affascinato: è l’inumano la grande frontiera da indagare, così immenso nelle sue potenzialità da sovrapporsi, nel mio pensiero di uomo, all’infinito.” (the human never fascinated me: the great frontier to be investigated  is the non-human, so immense in its potentialities that it superimposes itself as infinity, in my thoughts as human.) The novel clearly shows this interest: human beings exist as fluctuating energies, as posthuman entities bidding the will of the Nephilim and treated worse than slaves. But humans are also very attractive to Totka_II, especially Theodora, who in her desire to learn about the Connective Emperor’s real identity, abandons her earthly life. However, to imagine, let alone describe in verbal language, an alien world of vast complexity is impossible, and here is where the non-human empire meets its challenges. Battisti is careful not to be too technical, and leaves a lot to the imagination. But he also uses unexpected (almost deus-ex-machina) strategy to have Totka_II emerge victorious. One could quibble with Battisti’s mixing, on one hand, the  utterly out of this world aliens able to travel on quantum fluctuations, with, on the other, their need to hang on the words of an augur. Also, the human language in the alien world rears its head now and then, as in the case of the directional metaphor which uses the direction of the hands on the clock (!) (“passeggiando in rigoroso senso antiorario”: walking strictly counter-clockwise). Nevertheless, there is no better illustration of Giambattista Vico’s principle verum factum est  (we [humans] can only know what we made) as in the predictability of the fact that empires are created, have to be maintained,  and fall, whether they be human or alien. The lovers of empires will cherish this aspect of Battisti’s Connective Empire.

 

 

Eco-docu-scifi novel: a review

Cedimenti-Courtesy-of-Edizioni-Ambiente_

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.