Thoughts on learning the lingo

As  mentioned in a previous post, I’ve noticed that when I am tired, the language centre of my brain seems to shut down. It’s as if the old left hemisphere wants to hit the snooze button and get five more minutes in the sack. When I am travelling from Bologna to Florence by train in the mornings I am normally a bit foggy-headed, so I use the journey to try to get myself in gear for the day. Usually I do some or all of the following: scribble in my sketchbook; try to read and understand every Italian sign I see; try to translate announcements at the station and on the train; eavesdrop on other passengers conversations and look up the words I don’t understand (oh the gossip I have been privy to!); flick through the dictionary to find new Italian words I might need for the day. So most of my journey is focused on language learning. Often I get the opportunity to engage with real live Italians and test myself properly. I get quite a kick out of it on the few occasions when I can understand clearly and respond appropriately without faltering, and they can also understand my response. When a woman recently asked me where she should change trains for Florence I was pleasantly surprised that I could respond with no hesitation ‘È la prossima fermata, Prato Centrale, di solito binario due’ (It’s the next stop, Prato Central, usually track two). I admit I may have done a mini fist pump after I told her, which no doubt undermined my credibility.

I have not had any formal tuition in Italian. Actually, I tell a lie – my friend Matteo taught me how to swear like an Italian trooper when I lived in London. Swearing in Ireland isn’t really a taboo activity to the degree that it is in the UK. Irish people sprinkle their conversation with a few expletives for added emphasis, humour and drama, but it’s rarely intended to offend. I’m happy to find that Italians attitudes towards swearing are quite relaxed. Actually, I’ve been told that Italians take it to another level altogether and swear at God and other heavenly entities when things are going badly. I’m half considering unleashing the knowledge gained from Matteo on the hoards of Italian students clogging up the footpaths in Florence. Apart from receiving tuition on how to swear, mostly I have been learning by myself using two free language apps, Duolingo and Babbel. They are incredibly helpful and available in a number of languages. I’ve been using them for about ten or fifteen minutes almost every day for a year or so. The best thing about these apps is that you can use them at points in the day that are not much use for anything else. When you’re in a queue, waiting for a bus, travelling or trying to sleep at night you can whip out the phone and do five or ten minutes. If you play games on your phone, you might consider using some of that time to have a go at Duolingo and Babbel. Personally I use them mostly just before I go to sleep, because it’s a way to switch off the chatter in my head and it helps me to fall asleep easily. Be warned though, if you are too tired and lying on your back you will drift off and smack yourself in the face with your phone. The most helpful language-learning advice I have found is via this link and I’ve tried to implement a lot of what is featured in it. I highly recommend giving it a read if you’re toying with the idea of brushing up on your school-learned French or Gaeilge, or starting a new language from scratch like I have. Tim Ferriss and Benny Lewis are largely self-taught polyglots so they know what they’re talking about!

The one thing that I find remarkable about learning a language as an adult is how enjoyable it is. A few months before I left London I labelled various things in my flat with their Italian equivalents and it was effortless to remember those words. I’ve recently learned another tip from Babbel – add the verbs and adjectives associated with those items. So for l’interrutore della luce (light switch), you could add the verbs accendere (to turn on), spegnere (to turn off), and add the adjectives for light and dark (luminoso and scuro respectively). Using low tack masking tape or post-it notes prevents any damage to paint on the walls or furniture. Learning the lyrics of some Italian songs is another thoroughly enjoyable way to absorb the target language. Not only have I gained an array of new vocabulary, I learned a little bit about opera which has in turn given me a greater connection to the streets I now walk through. ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ is a song I’ve loved listening to on the radio for years, but I never understood what it was about, so I learned the Italian lyrics and wrote out the English translation.

English translation of 'O Mio Babbino Caro' lyrics
English translation of ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ lyrics

Now when I walk across the Ponte Vecchio or along Via Porta Rossa in Florence, I think of the desperate pleas of Lauretta to her father for permission to marry her beloved Rinuccio. Plus I learned that l’anello means ring, which is handy considering what I’m learning in Metallo Nobile! My friend Teran, who has lived and worked as an English teacher in Italy for years, recommended lyricstraining.com as a way to use contemporary music to learn Italian. It’s like karaoke with gaps and is weirdly addictive. Eros Ramazzotti and many more artists offer a modern take on expressing the urge to throw oneself off a bridge if your love is forbidden or unrequited.  As well as listening to music, I also have a few books that I use a lot: a big Italian/English dictionary, a couple of grammar textbooks and a book of Italian idioms. I don’t labour intensively over them, although maybe I should. Instead I just refer to them if I need to know something specific.

Italian language books
Italian language books

My absolute favourite out of these publications is a little pocket Italian phrase book by Penguin. I bought it many years ago when I lived in Galway and got the idea into my head that some day I would live in Italy. It was originally published in 1968 but I picked up the 1979 edition second-hand in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop making it only about 25 years past its peak by the time I acquired it. Thanks to this invaluable little guide, whenever I need to send a telegram I know how to ask the cost per word. I also know how to ask for flash cubes and 35 mm film with 20 exposures for my camera. The money is all lira instead of euro of course. At the moment this book is a treasured possession and an interesting reminder of the not too distant past. I like to think of it as the phrase book James Bond would have used.

Telegram page from Penguin phrase book, © Jill Norman and Pietro Giorgetti , 1979.
Telegram page from my 1979 Penguin phrase book, by Jill Norman and Pietro Giorgetti.

Enjoyment is the key to learning anything well. I really think that the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) approach should be adopted and applied to the teaching of all second languages at school. TEFL makes language learning into an enjoyable experience, using a variety of learning modalities to suit different types of learner, and you actually get to speak the language! You play games, listen to music, chat to your classmates and complete tasks together all through the language. It’s similar to how children acquire their first language skills. I know this from training as a TEFL teacher at The Bridge Mills in Galway some years ago. There was so much chatter, fun and enthusiasm in the classroom. When I reflect on my school years, I honestly can’t remember conversing in either French or Irish when I was in class. I remember being asked questions by the teachers, but I can’t recall any of the students interacting using the languages we were trying to learn. We usually studied a piece of text, repeated grammar drills and filled in gaps in our copy books. We did a lot of reading aloud and writing, but practically no natural speaking. Occasionally we were treated to a break-neck speed audio recording of two native speakers with strong accents discussing something like cheese production, and were expected to decipher why exactly Monsieur Dupont didn’t like goats. And mistakes were often treated as some sort of crime against humanity. You wouldn’t scream at a toddler for saying ‘I like eat lunch now’, but it was apparently acceptable to do that to a twelve year old who was at the same level of language acquisition in a foreign tongue. I have a friend who is still traumatised by her experiences of being repeatedly humiliated at the blackboard by a French teacher who wasn’t particularly gifted at imparting her wisdom. We may not all have experienced such cruelty, but we’ve probably all experienced the tedium of rhyming off past, present and future tense verb conjugations in various languages throughout our years of childhood education. And most of us only have a smattering of the target language after that approach, and not very fond memories of the process. Any wonder most of us struggle to remember the few words that were forced into our heads? It’s such a missed opportunity and it cuts us off from a whole world of experiences. It prevents us from really getting to know people who aren’t from other English-speaking nations, unless they’ve done us a massive favour and gone to all the effort to learn English themselves. Yes, English may be the international language of business, but there’s a lot more to the world we live in than business. You can’t eat home-cooked spreadsheets or sing along to the FTSE 100 in the shower. If you’ve always wanted to learn another language you can still do so whenever you want to, in a more enjoyable, effective and faster way than you did at school. It’s a rewarding feeling to do some D.I.Y. or fai-da-te!

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