Sunday, March 15, 2015

La bella lingua, Part I

In this series of posts I'm going to talk about what I love about              
Italian, explain how it has enriched my life in a number of ways (some         
completely unforeseen), and give my take on how to go about learning the       
language. I don't plan to do it in any particular order, reserving the         
right to ramble aimlessly from one topic to another.                           
To begin, I'll suppose you're interested in learning some Italian. By          
this I mean interested in learning more than just a few travel-oriented        
phrases; I assume that you might want to be able to carry on a                 
simple conversation. How to get started?                                       
If at all possible you should take a class (or private lessons), even if       
it's just one hour a week. ``Teach your self Italian'' books, audio,           
etc. are all well and good, but a class is much better. If you live in a       
big city or a university town, the odds are very high that such                
instruction is available. In the Seattle area, for instance, there are         
many possibilities. For the last few years I've been taking lessons at         
Percorso Italiano, a wonderful little school (classes are held in the          
home of one of the instructors) five minutes from the                          
university. Earlier in my Italian education I took three quarters worth        
of evening classes with ``Three Things Italian'', run from an                  
instructor's home in South Lake Union. Various colleges in the area,           
including especially the University of Washington and Bellevue Community       
College, are other possible resources.                                         
The obvious advantage of taking a class is the social aspect; you get to       
meet and talk Italian with all kinds of interesting people. For me it's        
been a very rewarding experience getting to know Elisabetta and Roberta, the   
co-founders of Percorso Italiano, and even their families (in fact we're       
having them over for dinner next Sunday, as a thank you for their
  incredible kindness during the worst days of my chemo).                        
On a more practical level, it's important to have an instructor who can        
answer your questions and correct your pronunciation on the spot. This         
brings me to my first nitty-gritty language topic: speech and                  
pronunciation. The first thing you have to accept--with any foreign            
language--is that you're going to have an accent. You're going to sound        
funny to a native speaker, and will inadvertently say funny (sometimes         
hilarious and/or embarassing) things. As English speakers we are               
accustomed to hearing all manner of foreign accents, and we smile at the       
funny expressions non-native speakers come up with. Well, now the shoe         
is on the other foot, so get over it! You can't hold back out of fear of       
making mistakes or ``sounding funny''. On the contrary, speaking a             
foreign language is like acting on the stage: speak up more; go                
overboard; exaggerate; think of yourself as an actor. (These are all           
things that I'm very bad at even in English, so for me it takes a real effort.)
For example, the ``r'' sound in Italian is a rolled r, similar to              
Spanish. It is very different from the throaty English r (which English        
learners often find difficult). But there's really nothing difficult           
about rolling an ``r''. You just have to make the effort; exaggerate it        
if necessary. Better to roll too much than too little! It's one of the         
Italian sounds that I love. Another, perhaps my favorite, is the doubled       
consonant. In English there is rarely any difference in pronunciation          
when a consonant is doubled. For example there is little or no                 
difference in the way most people pronounce the ``b'' sounds in Abby and       
Abigail. But in Italian, ``Abby'' would be pronounced ``Ab-by'', with a        
distinct b in each syllable; an actual Italian example would be the word       
``abbastanza'' (``enough''), which is absolutely not pronounced
 a-bastanza but ab-bastanza. In rare instances one sees this phenomenon         
in English, in words such as ``unnecessary'', where the ``n'' (but not         
the ``s'') is distinctly doubled. Notice, by the way, that if one fails        
to double the consonant here it even risks misunderstanding:                   
``u-necessary'' sounds like ``a necessary...''                                 
In Italian such pronunciation errors are potentially embarassing. Two          
notorious examples are ``anno'' (``year'') and ``penne'' (a type of            
pasta). The words ``ano'' and ``pene'' refer respectively to an item of        
anatomy and an item of male anatomy, where your first guess as to the          
items in question will be correct. So if you're talking about the pasta        
you had last year and don't double those consonants, you could end up          
saying some very peculiar things indeed.                                       
In any case, I love the rhythm that the doubled consonants add to the          
spoken language. And if it's a doubled ``r'' as in ``vorrei'' (``I would       
like''), so much the better! Then you have license to roll away to your        
heart's content. The important thing is to make the effort. When in            
Italy, you'll find that most Italians are very appreciative that you're        
at least trying to speak their language, and I think also appreciate           
that you're making an effort at halfway decent pronunciation. And be           
creative, like the French mathematician who, while trying to describe in       
English an animal he'd seen, came up with ``I don't know what you call         
zem but zay look like Bambi''.                                                 
The best news is that Italian is almost one hundred percent phonetic. In       
that sense it is easier than French, and at the opposite extreme from          
English. With rare exceptions, if you hear a word spoken you can write         
it down, and if you see a word written you can pronounce it. There are
 virtually no silent letters, for example.                                      
To be continued...Ciao for now!     

1 comment:

  1. This post reminded me of some research I read while writing my doctoral document in diction. The researchers were testing the idea of a "language ego," a construct which would explain why some speakers of a second language are resistant to acquiring an authentic accent. Basically, we feel like we're losing a part of ourselves when we speak in another accent.

    What was interesting was the methodology of these researchers! Here's a link to view the paper:

    (You may need to copy and paste that link for it to work.)