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.

 

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Teaching

In May of 1994 I was invited to present a workshop during the “Springtime Teaching Refresher” at York University; i.e. the workshop was geared to my colleagues, members of the teaching complement of the university. My memories of this experience bring up murky ideas of the positives and negatives group work brings to language teaching, but just recently, while clearing out my university office, I found the letter of thanks from the Academic Director of the Center for the support of Teaching, which included the summary of my session’s evaluations (see these below the post). As usual, participants were asked to list two things which they liked (among which these make me proud: variety of actual techniques presented, generation of discussion and sharing, well organized and presented). They were also asked to describe two things which could be added or improved. And here matters start to be interesting. Let’s concentrate on the following, i.e. some of those things the participants felt could be improved or added:
• handout with outline of group activities,
• instructions need to be clear,
• reading exercise probably did not reflect the students’ experience.
As for the first suggestion for improvement, there is something amiss when my colleagues need a “handout with outline of group activities”. Either they do not know how to follow an organized talk without some type of written outline, or they do not think any workshop presentation is worth its salt if it does not include some type of a handout. This attitude of “must see things written down” is troubling, since instructors themselves give students predigested chunks which the students follow during a lecture (and, predictably, their cognitive world crumbles if the instructor strays from this outlined material). Needless to say, there is no meeting, no conference (no matter how learned), no presentation, where handouts are not present. What does it say about our culture? Cannot we rely on our memory any longer? Perhaps: perhaps I would remember more of my presentation if I had made and kept a handout for it… But this reliance on written bits reflects the fragmented chunks of information we are surrounded with. It is not that we no longer read, it is that we read bits without context, that troublesome and time-consuming framework which helps us make sense of the world. And, in any handout, the context is sorely missing. What is the upshot of this lack of context? As my experience in the past 35 years of teaching has showed me, individuals (especially those between 18-30) do not have the skills, patience, willingness to read anything that has been written/published more than 30 years ago – let alone before and during the Roman Classical Period, Middle Ages, Renaissance or the Enlightenment. Culture is therefore moving in the direction of a two-tier system where some people will be able to learn from and enjoy imagining the past and other will not. As one of my ex-colleagues tends to repeat, “We live in the new Dark Ages.”
The second suggestion surely conflicts with the approval the presentation received (well organized and presented) and reaffirms yet again the uselessness of session/course/workshop evaluations. Granted, the manner in which presentations of any kind are received by the audience transcends any quick-reply to questions on the evaluation sheet. Back to the fragmentation again, this time with a false sense of pride and security for the organizers: “We have written proof of the participants’ evaluative thoughts!”, which in the great majority of cases resemble the “like” button of Facebook. However, it is not always a question of the lack of time for the respondents to muse about the just transpired experience during a workshop.
The third suggestion for improvement of my presentation cuts to the core of what it means to teach at the university level, and what it means to teach nowadays. Teaching materials should “reflect the students’ experience”: that’s the slogan now. My question is why should they? Let me back up a bit, and say that any good (no need to be great) instructor can make anything he/she teaches, shows, relates, explains, demonstrates, etc. reflect the students’ experience. However, reflecting the students’ experience is not the purpose of teaching: that is simply an aid/trick used for the benefit of some students to help them grasp concepts better. One of the fundamental problems with university teaching now is due to this constant need to reaffirm the students’ experiences. And yet, that is not learning, that is simply helping students stay within their own individual bubbles, it supports their navel-gazing, endorsing the me generation’s understanding of the world. Teaching must be able to burst the individual bubble, to help lift the gaze outside of oneself, to learn about something brand new which is totally unlike oneself, unpredictable, amazingly and wondrously albeit dangerously different.
This is true for all types of courses, “Competency-based degree programs” included: these let students “breeze through courses” because they have a practical knowledge of the areas taught in those courses. The opinion that “[Competency-based courses] challenge the traditional belief that the professor holds all of the knowledge and that I must be disseminated in the classroom.” (from University Affairs 06/14, p. 31) shows a myopic, dim-witted and hollywoodian perspective on what professors really do.
How to stop this inopportunely unintelligent stance? First, by not using hand-outs. Second, by permitting students to make mistakes. Third, by forcing the students’ gaze outside of their bubble, outward. All of this with only a judicious use of materials that “reflect the students’ experiences”. Hopefully, this will aid in preparing a citizenry who can think on their own, who do not need (movie/sports) stars to lead them on the way to more consumerism. In other words, who look deeper into everything.

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“We were not made to…” or a neurobiological contradiction

During a TV Ontario program about the brain (shown at the beginning of January 2014), a neurobiologist said something like “We were not made to sit in a quiet room and read; after all, we hunted for more than half a million years and our brains and bodies are made to do that”. Aside from the fact that the claim “Human beings were not made to do something” smacks of shallow thinking whoever professes that thought, his statement is blatantly contradicted by neurological research into reading. The brain allows for reading ability by moving functions to other parts of the brain, according to the research done by Dr. Stanislas Dehaene (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSy685vNqYk). Hence, the contradiction: we were not made to do it, but we do it anyway. This contradiction engenders at least two cultural consequences.

            On the one hand, the statement “We were not made to read” is repeated and supported variously in different sources and for various purposes (see, for ex.,  Adrian Van Der Weel, Changing our textual minds. Towards a digital order of knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011, p. 189: “reading is a far from natural brain activity…if it wasn’t for the fact our education system remains firmly based on books and literacy, the digital medium would probably be a great deal less textual in nature.”). Reading  (specifically deep reading) is not “natural”, and therefore has to be convincingly taught, practiced, artificially supported and promoted. It means that this activity appears external (outside of the thinking and living body: echoes of Plato). Reading relies wholly on the ability to accept, decode, understand, keep intact the linguistic form and meaning produced by others. No other activity related to language comes even close to this astonishingly complex feat. However, in the age of multimedia and multimodal communication, as language is devalued, so is reading. And thus the statement “We were not made to read” keeps gaining currency. It is therefore logical that if humans want to keep this skill alive, it has to be peddled differently and time and effort have to be devoted to making time for the effort of reading.

            On the other hand, one can easily envisage a society where reading does not happen at all (Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 comes to mind readily, although it laments its absence and gives an example of how things written could survive in a non-reading world). “We were not made to read” becomes then “We do not read”. The cerebral area now devoted to the function of reading would be taken over by other functions. It is not clear, however, how would the more than four thousand years of written verbal historical documentation of all types be “translated” into other than visual linguistic medium. If looking back to the past and thinking about it makes human life so much richer, then the past has to be kept alive somehow. The transhumanist proposal of nanochips or other bio-electro-chemical modules which contain information may be just what would fill this need. The nitty-gritty of the manner in which this would be accomplished, however, remains unarticulated.