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.


Romani/Sinti/Gypsies and (Italian) science fiction

Clearly, the attractive seduction of the ideal Gypsy lifestyle is easy to see: outside the grid, no taxes to pay, traveling wherever and whenever with whomever, no responsibilities other than to oneself, no consequences to engaging in what may be defined as some illegal activities. Nevertheless, there is always the other side of the coin, in this case,  discrimination, hate, uncalled-for beatings, detentions and arrests, etc. In addition to the  lifestyle mystique, the question of Gypsy origin looms large. And here is where things start to become full of amazement: what is their original “homeland”? Are they survivors of the Atlantis upheaval? Do they come from outer space?


This last is a hypothesis suggested by Lino Aldani in his themoro korik (Perseo Libri, 2007). Lino Aldani (1926-2009) is hailed by many as the most important of Italian science fiction writers. But by any measure, themoro korik cannot be part of a list of science fiction works simply on account of the other-worldly origin of the Gypsies, suggested but not elaborated on in this novel. Aldani’s love for the Roma and Sinti (living in Northern Italy) is obvious in this and his other novel, Quando le radici (Piacenza, Science Fiction Book Club, La Tribuna, 1977).  In both novels, Gypsies (more specifically, young Gypsy women) provide a possible way out for disenchanted young gadjo men: urbanized, caged-in by work and unable and unwilling to fit in a technological world, but above all who wants to find a different lifestyle.


In Quando le radici (literally, “When the roots”), Aldani seems to be suggesting that impermanence in the form of eradication of one’s past has two paths (for the gadjo). On the one hand, technology levels villages to the ground and therefore obliterates the old way of life. On the other, the possibly unchanged Gypsy nomadic life offers a fresh start. The protagonist, Arno Varin, works in the city but visits the area of the small village he was born in, and talks to the old generation of survivors who live without water and electricity and who are in constant danger of being dispossessed because a new highway is planned on the site. Gypsy peddlers come regularly to sell their wares and Arno falls in love with a young Gypsy woman. Being young and impulsive, he kills the bulldozer driver sent to prepare the ground for construction, and therefore he has to flee to save his life. His solution? Join the Gypsy peddlers.


Themoro korik (literally “the world over there”, in Aldani’s imaginative version of Romani) presents the view that the chasm between Gypsy life and non-Gypsy life is just too great to be able to make meaningful connective bridges. Towards the end of the first part of the novel, a  Gypsy father, his wife, and their daughter, enveloped in round, violet-colored light, disappear into another dimension (or another, parallel world, from which the Gypsies have been kicked out millennia ago), without the protagonist having a chance to join the daughter, with whom he is in love. The novel is more like a write-up of an unorthodox participant observation study, in which the protagonist joins an old professor, an admirer of all things Gypsy, and meeting them, studies their ways and above all, language. Almost half of the book is dedicated to a glossary of Gypsy terms, coming from both Hervatsko Roma and Sinto Lombardo, given as equivalents to the Italian lemmas. One can only wonder if all of these equivalents are in use or are genuine, as the introduction to the glossary notes that “lo zingaro e` svogliato e mentitore… ama scherzare e prendere in giro il gagio che l’interpella” (p. 153; “Gypsies are indolent and liars…they love to joke around and make fools of non-Gypsies who consult them”). Linguists have characterized Romani as an Indo-Aryan language, therefore Romani cannot support Aldani’s other-worldly origins.


In conclusion, Django, the Gypsy who disappeared, does not pilot a spaceship, nor is he a King of his people, like Yakoub of Robert Silverberg’s Star of the Gypsies (Pyr, 2005). So Aldani’s use of Gypsy characters puts them squarely in the HIC (here) and NUNC (now) of history, even though Django and his family vanish inexplicably, from a science fiction point of view, but not from the point of view of a fantasy, a very poorly elaborated fantasy nonetheless.

DNA and language: The Indo-Europeans

The article entitled “Mysterious Indo-European homeland may have been in the steppes of Ukraine and Russia” (http://news.sciencemag.org/archaeology/2015/02/mysterious-indo-european-homeland-may-have-been-steppes-ukraine-and-russia) reveals the results of as yet unpublished research which circulates on the web.
My more than thirty-years long experience with Romance linguistics leads me to believe that the study shows interesting (wrong?) presuppositions about the connections between DNA and language as they relate to Indo-Europeans.

The following three points vitiate the interpretation of the scientists’ data:

1) This statement “the genetic makeup of today’s Europeans is more complicated than anyone expected” underlines the original shaky ground for equating DNA and language(s). Sciences based on biology have as yet to make a strong connection to culture. Linguistically speaking, language transmission and change are as complicated – if not more – as the DNA transmission and change.

2) Any introduction to Romance linguistics shows that this statement is unscientific: “linguists cannot be sure if the Latin attested to in written documents really was the direct ancestor of later Romance languages”. In fact, linguists are sure that written Latin is not the direct ancestor of Romance languages. Their statement also assumes that there is one linguistic ancestor for all Romance languages: this assumption is theoretically correct, but assumes geographical, cultural, historical, social uniformity where there was none.

3) Why is the original homeland of the Indo-Europeans so important? Is there even such a location as the “original homeland”? It is also interesting that the article talks about a Ukrainian-Russian area (north of the Black Sea) which these days receives military attention. Needless to say, migrations may be culturally predictable, but their impact on the DNA is yet to be determined.

Of course, the researchers behind this study conclude that “the ultimate question of the Proto-Indo-European homeland is unresolved by our data” and that more ancient DNA may finally tie our linguistic history with our genes. It is unclear, though, how exactly this may be done.

“Report me!”

wild flowers


Three people are taking a leisurely stroll on well-maintained pathways in a suburban park, where the flora and fauna are relatively ecologically free to roam and multiply at will. Suddenly, another visitor to the park starts to pick the tall, violet flowers: she is pretty vehemently getting a good bunch of these, destroying about 70% of the existing plants. One of the three people cried, half in jest: “You are stealing!”. She retorts: “Report me!”. And off she disappears almost running.
This real story, of which I was an eye witness and one of the visitors to the park, teaches at least three things:
1) Sometimes there are utterances to which a judicious, reasonable, well-meaning reply is not possible. What can one say to the phrase “Report me!” in this case? Here, a linguistic analysis falls short: we have a perfectly understandable setting, the interlocutors’ roles are clear, the locutionary and illocutionary (directive) forces of the speech acts at hand are elementary. And yet, that’s not the whole story.
Any reply to her utterance would be useless to make her understand her uncivil behaviour. The closest one can say now, with all the technology, “I already did: I sent a picture of you to the police…”. But this would not have any real impact on transforming even so slightly the lack of her ethical behaviour .
3) Ignorance about nature is great especially as regards native plants. Native wild flowers do not last in water very long, so her “enjoyment” of these will be over in no time.
Conclusion? Wanton destruction is everywhere, and it starts with the local wild flowers.

“Saussure’s Muse”

This blog post concerns a relatively new publishing product: from blogs to book. In other words, the blogger collects his or her Internet blogs and then publishes these on paper, the old-fashioned way. Apollonio Discolo’s La musa di Saussure (Edizioni ETS, 2013, pp. 116, 12 Euros) is one such example. This booklet is also an example of that type of reading material which produces great intellectual enjoyment as well as abundant cognitive frustration.
Apollonio Discolo (a pseudonym of a well-known Italian linguist teaching in Zurich) is of course the name of the most august of the ancient Greek grammarians; but it is a somewhat fanciful anagram of the Italian version of two names of Greek gods: Apollo and Dionisio. As a consequence, the reader is forewarned and expects thoughts about languages and grammar, and culture and fancy. This expectation is fully realized, and more.
The 58 blogs (which appeared on the Web between 2005 and 2012) all present interesting and thought-provoking ideas; there is simply no way they can individually be dealt with justly here. What follows presents some general impressions which underpin this reader’s enjoyment and frustration with the libricino. The points below contain two parts: the first part expresses my intellectual enjoyment and the second part, introduced by “But”, my cognitive frustration.

1) The author presents ideas about language of which we do not find echos in the linguistic literature of the received, generally accepted and published, academic knowledge about how languages function. In other words (as is wont in many linguistic circles on the periphery), throughout the booklet, there are subtle and not so subtle hints at the ridiculousness of some of the traditional and above all modern (read: formal[ized]) theories of language. The observations offered by Apollonio Discolo range from sheer anger at the continuous usage of terms which do not really illuminate our knowledge of what language is (terms such as, for ex., “noun”, “possessive”) to heartfelt mockery of the idea that linguistic theory as practiced now really illuminates our knowledge about such complex phenomenon as language.
But, Apollonio Discolo never presents any way out of this situation: if linguists are useless because they do not really illuminate our knowledge of what language is, then what would make them useful? It is well to define linguistics the science of the relation(ship) between being and expression (“la scienza della relazione tra essere ed espressione”, p. 7), but it is clearly not enough to remain within the vagueness of Saussure’s “relationship (of difference)” procedure. No clear examples of this procedure are given – hence the frustration.
2) The author’s modus scribendi presents an idea as a given, which the reader accepts at face value, but then he quickly presents the opposite of this idea and therefore forces the reader to choose between the first or the second interpretation. Obviously, this follows the Socratic method, but Apollonio Discolo goes even further and uses chiasmus whenever he can to make this love of the opposites shine through.
But, the final and highly dissonant reading experience leaves us neither here nor there, and therefore frustrated. Even he falls into the hands of postmodernist tyranny of “fluidity” and “speed”, when, evidently, a more lengthy train of thought (his thought) is required.
3) Being disconcerted at the amount of conventionalized, accepted ways of doing things (and of seeing linguistic phenomena) is one of the endearing features of these bits of wisdom. The subtitle of the booklet can be “Against conformism”: especially in the sciences and in the science of language particularly. In research, conformism marks the death of originality.
But, interestingly enough, Saussure’s idea of language (or any semiotic system for that matter) requires convention and therefore it is based on conformity: how could we presume to have a notion of understanding even slightly what our interlocutor has in mind if we did not agree/conform to the values of the system which lies between us as speakers? Apollonio Discolo does not entertain any discussion regarding this point.
4) Italian as a foreign language is defined jokingly as a “frivolous subject”, listed in one publication (the title of which is nowhere cited) among other frivolous subjects such as music and arithmetic for household use. Apollonio Discolo makes the following wish: “il cielo voglia ancora conservare a questa lingua non comune il carattere che la rende insostituibile tra le lingue del mondo: la sua femminile, amabile, irritante, profonda frivolezza.” (p. 63, translation mine: may heavens keep the characteristic of this not-so-common language which makes it irreplaceable among the languages of the world: its feminine, lovable, aggravating, profound frivolousness). As a personified image of the Italian language, this picture warms the heart; could it (the frivolousness) also explain the attraction Italian has for non-natives who attempt to learn it and who therefore do not believe that pragmatics guides everything (i.e. having frivolousness does not mean having a goal…)?
But, even all irony and joking aside, as a non-native speaker, I would more than like to know what exactly contributes to the Italian “feminine, lovable, aggravating, profound frivolousness”.
In conclusion, if it is true that Italian is one of the less common languages, then this booklet must be translated; not only for the intellectual enjoyment the reading of it brings, but also for the cognitive frustration it creates, because these two are sure to produce novel ideas. Hopefully, linguists and non-linguists alike will come up with a way out of our metalinguistic tunnel. It remains to be seen whether anything like this can be achieved thanks to “from blogs to book”.

Apology for Saussure’s silence


For those scholars whose preoccupation is the analysis, teaching, observation of all aspects of language, it is only natural to keep asking: “Whatever happened to Ferdinand de Saussure?” In other words, whatever happened to his ideas, his fresh outlook on language, his standing as  “father of an academic, scientific discipline”? These questions receive significant answers in the slender publication entitled Ferdinand de Saussure, il linguista senza qualità (Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2013, pp. 5-26) written by Nunzio La Fauci.

Let us examine a number of threads which weave through the booklet, making specific points not only about Saussure himself but also noting how these threads contribute to a possible profound re-examination of  “Saussure’s” Cours de linguistique générale,  as well as the science called linguistics. The whole portrait painted by La Fauci rests on the premise that Saussure embodies what Musil described as “man without qualities”, and, I add, that is to say, perhaps, a man of post-modern qualities.


Whatever Saussure was or has become, firstly and foremost he was a teacher. La Fauci underlines the fact that Saussure, not really so sure of his ideas that he would put them to print, had the chance to present his musings about general linguistics to students in three courses. It is a well-known fact that without Bally and Sechehaye (who did not attend these lectures but who, with the collaboration of Riedlinger, assembled notes made by students), Saussure’s ideas about language would not have seen the light of day. Although La Fauci does not analyze this aspect of Saussure’s life, it is clear that without the courses themselves and without the  student notes, there would not be the book which so transformed many social disciplines. But what is more important is the fact that Saussure had the possibility to verbalize his ideas about language in a non-threatening environment, clearly attempting to rationalize and justify in some way the direction of his thoughts. However, this is also Saussure’s damnation, so to speak, since whatever the Cours de linguistique générale offers, cannot be undone, cannot be defended, explained, elaborated on, it can only be attacked.


“Linguistics is a science”. This is a claim put forth by all the definitions of linguistics, but which very few look at from another perspective, that of social science. The science in the definition deals with concepts, in Saussure’s case, to put it crudely, of notions of relationships among and differences between forms: syntagmatic and associative/paradigmatic. The social in this instance must furnish the role of forms for the expression of ideas. Is it possible (but La Fauci does not deal with this) that Saussure was uncertain about his ideas regarding language precisely because he did not want to be stuck in a formalistic straight-jacket but did not know how to get out of it? I have always found problematic Saussure’s use the image of chess pieces for explaining synchrony and diachrony. This picture does not include the players, i.e. speakers. (An analysis of the use of chess for scientific explanations is reserved for another post.) Clearly, the conceptual bases change with time, but the danger of linguistics having self-absorbed notions is ever present.

Ipsi dixerunt

Historical chances underscore the vagaries of being in the right place at the right time supported by the “right” people. In fact, La Fauci describes the manner in which the attitudes toward the Cours expressed first by Meillet and then by the three points of the “structuralist diamond” (p.14)  Hjelmslev, Trubeckoy and Jakobson, shaped Saussure’s reputation in scientific circles. The Cours, read in a structuralist perspective, helped to elaborate other fields, such as anthropology, sociology, literary criticism, etc. Saussure becomes “an emblem” of the first Forty or so years of the Twentieth Century (p. 16). La Fauci asks: What is left of Saussure in a world where linguistic Parnassus now swells with new names and then deflates? His answer: two things remain of Saussure. The first idea makes of Saussure a promoter of novel thinking, which nonetheless nowadays is perceived as irreparably old and out of fashion. The second opinion regarding Saussure brings to the fore a group of admirers and specialists who keep the interest/cult of Saussure alive, especially those who work on unearthing Saussure’s thought from the mountain of private writings and other sources which need to be analyzed and published. The destiny of Saussure therefore rests on the good will of those who cavilously seek to discover what Saussure said (or worse, thought) (p. 18). Furthermore, as Jakobson so clearly communicated, Saussure was not able to bring new ideas to the study of historical linguistics/Indo-European; but Saussure’s attitude of dignified prudery did not allow him the publishable expression of his innermost thoughts (La Fauci , p. 21). And, I add, interestingly enough, if the scholar from Geneva  lived today, perhaps he would be less reticent to consign his thoughts to electronic technology…

Before concluding with a quote from Musil’s Man without qualities, La Fauci makes the point that Saussure’s though is worth much more deeper analysis and use than simple mention and celebration of his existence.

Ambivalent attitudes to interesting historical figures make for learned disquisitions or one-sided decisions, when they ought to be presented as bases for a really profound re-examination of many of accepted versions of “the truth”. La Fauci’s work is a step in this direction.

Linguistic seductions: 1. “Italian is for lovers”

cuoriThe series entitled “Linguistic seductions” deals with those areas of language that linguistics (the scientific study of language) has not focused on. “Seduction” created by language and “seduction” leading to the workings of language are both the focus of the posts.

Some of the topics planned include the languages of science fiction, the language of transhumanism, the origins of language.

Linguistic seductions: 1. “Italian is for lovers”

Learning languages for specific purposes is not a new endeavour. To be multilingual meant for Charles V (1500-1558) to be able to give different languages different functions (according to an oft-repeated, although contradictorily worded anecdote). It is said that he proclaimed: “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, German to threaten and French to friends.”

Speakers have always been judging foreign languages they may or may not know. Harro Stammerjohann has devoted  a whole book to documenting foreigners’ judgements, perceptions, impressions of Italian (La lingua degli angeli. Italianismo, italianismi e giudizi sulla lingua. Firenze: Accademia della Crusca 2013). As may be expected, both language Italomania and Italofobia is expressed by authors belonging to the same nation: specifically, some French observers like the relatively freer word order in Italian, other French writers loath it (for other examples of this, see Stammerjohann 190-191).

            Although language perception (in the sense of measuring differences in perception of sounds etc.)is a burgeoning field, and linguistic esthetics (stylistics) flourishes, linguists have not devoted any research to the combination of esthetics (value judgements), pragmatics (purposeful communicative action) and linguistics (the study of language).  Perhaps a new discipline could be founded, called esthetic pragmalinguistics, or pragmalinguistic esthetics,  which would combine research in these three fields. Its foundation is a formula of this type: “language x is … and therefore it is good for …”. Although the statement itself is not scientific, its underpinnings must be studied scientifically. This discipline may answer questions such as the following:

A.    Native speakers and their native tongue

  1. Do native speakers always love their mother tongue? If not why not? How does this judgement affect how they speak?

2.    Are poets/novelists the only deeper esthetic judges of their own language?

3.     Is language judgement (positive or negative) towards one’s native language a reflection of (positive or negative) perceptions of one’s co-nationals?  How exactly are linguistic judgements and people judgements related?

B.     Non-natives and foreign language(s)

1.     What are the criteria on which non-natives judge other languages (they may or may not know)?

2.     Is language judgement (positive or negative) towards a foreign language a reflection of (positive or negative) perceptions of the people who speak that language?  How exactly are linguistic judgements and people/nation judgements related?

3.     Does having a certain pragmatic judgement about a foreign language affect knowledge of that language?

In lieu of the lack of a scientific study on the topic, here are some questions you may wish to answer in your comments to this post:

a.     If you are a native speaker of English, what do you think of English?

b.     If you are not a native speaker of English, how do you judge English?

c.      If you are a native speaker of Italian, what do you think of Italian?

d.     If you are not a native speaker of Italian, what do you think of Italian?

e.     You may wish to replace English/Italian with any other languages.

A conclusion based on the answers to this short questionnaire will be discussed as soon as we get about 50 answers, so get your friends