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.



(Cultural) politics


The French linguist, dialectologist and lexicologist Jules Gilliéron is reputed to have said, “chaque mot a son histoire,” each word has its own history Books are like words, as they too, follow the vicissitudes of history, politics, publishers’ guidelines, editorial recommendations, translator’s preferences, their owners’ quirks and habits. What follows are some annotations to Anatolij Nikolaevich Tomilin’s Как люди изучали свою Землю (Moscow: Raduga, translated into English as How people discovered the shape of the Earth and published  by the same publisher in 1984; the Slovak translation Ako l’udia objavovali tvar Zeme appeared in 1989). The book’s history will not be traced here, even though it would be instructive to follow the successes of the Soviet publisher Raduga (now Mir), whose books have reached young readers especially in India, the US, Canada, and the ex-Soviet satellites. Furthermore, Tomilin’s work in any language seems to be classified in the rare book category, and it is, in many rare book stores, sold out.

The book deals with an aspect of geography, that of the shape of the earth, from a perspective not usually used in explaining this science to young readers: Tomilin presents historical facts related to ancient philosophers’ ideas about the earth, attempting to  answer  the question Who decided that the Earth is round?  Starting with the description of early Neolithic cultures and explaining the need of people to live together, the narration passes through the ancient Greek city states, touching upon the Phoenicians, ancient Chinese empires, and India, mentioning the Egyptians’ and Carthaginians’ circumnavigations of Africa, and so the size and shape of the  Earth goes through various transformations. Aristotle, Eratosthenes, Ptolemy,  Ibn Khordabeh, Ibn Rustah, Ibn Idrisi are some of the ancient protogeographers mentioned. Sections of the book are devoted to the art and science of map making, specifically for the need of navigation on the seas, and globe shaping. A full chapter is devoted to the story of the Globe of Gottorf, now in the Leningrad’s Kunstkamera. The second last part deals with  the question Is the Earth like a pumpkin or an apple?  The conclusion offers concrete measurements of the Earth and a suggestion that the well being of the Earth depends wholly on people, and therefore it is the duty of everyone to defend it and try to make it even more beautiful and enjoyable.

The wealth of interesting illustrations done by Jurij Smol’nikov adds to the overall reading pleasure.

No information exists on the web regarding the translator from Russian to Slovak: Vlasta Ballova’, other than she translated some other books for young readers. The translation reads beautifully, and not having seen the original, I cannot comment on the actual choices of the translator. However, reading the Slovak version after more than 26 years after its publication is fascinating. The fall of the Soviet Union, the division of Czechoslovakia, the entry of Slovakia into the European Union and other political and cultural events put the content of the book in a different perspective.  The Soviet attempt at cultural policy and hegemony comes through so much more forcefully. In view of the length of the book (80 pages), a lot of space is dedicated to Russian and Soviet connection to the topic of the shape of the Earth. The translation could have mentioned the existence of at least one Slovak geographer, František Bokes, and his assiduous role in Slovak historical geography. Ironically, without this mention, Slovakia is “not even on the map” and the Soviet tendency to suppress the satellite’s accomplishments is obvious.