Tuesday, March 24, 2015

La bella lingua, Part II

Before continuing my essay on Italian, I have to say that Sunday night's       
dinner party was a smashing success! (This was with my Italian teachers,       
their families, and the Browns.) The Browns got here first, and Kaia was       
very excited about it. ``When will the Italians get here? Do they live         
far away?'' She was dressed in one of her signature outfits, in this           
instance including her fancy ``Anna'' (from ``Frozen'') boots and her          
blueberry sunhat. Both she and Finley gave quite an enthusiastic               
reception to Elisabetta, Roberta and co. when they arrived, waving from        
the window and bouncing about like two little nuts as                          
usual. Elisabetta's youngest, Matteo, is almost six (and completely            
bilingual), and Kaia and Matteo had a ball playing together. Matteo was a      
bit shy at first but Kaia is such a little socialite that he soon got          
into the spirit of the Nutty Nut Show. At one point he looked at Finley        
and said ``That girl is crazy!'' At the time Finley was absorbed in            
extracting every last molecule of icecream from his dessert plate, but         
he returned the look as if to say ``yeah, tell me about it''.                  
And although straying rather far from the Italian theme, I have to             
report the following exchange with Kaia. I had put on Kaia's sunhat            
(Grandpa is known to be a bit nutty himself now and again).                    
Grandpa: Kaia, what do you think of my hat?                                    
Kaia (after a moment's consideration): I have another one at home that         
would make you look handsomer.                                                 
Anyway, Wendy made a fabuluos pasta and scampi dinner, a fair bit of           
wine was consumed and a great time was had by all.                          
Now, on to La bella lingua, part II.                                           
There are two key ingredients for learning Italian (these apply to other
  languages as well, or at least to European languages, which are the only       
kind I'm familiar with). The first is to make a systematic study of the        
grammar, to the extent that time permits. Without a conceptual                 
framework, you'll be perpetually lost. The second is to read books and         
listen to audiobooks in Italian. It constantly surprises me that so few        
Italian students do this. Movies can help, but audiobooks are much             
better for a number of reasons.                                                
I'll start with the books and audiobooks, and return to the grammar next       
time. In order to develop an adequate vocabulary, you need                     
repetition. Repetition, repetition, repetition. But how are you going to       
get it, other than by moving to Italy for a couple of years? Typical           
language ``tapes'' (or new-fangled modern equivalents) are much too            
boring to repeat for very long. Textbooks usually include brief excerpts       
from Italian novels, but it's hard to get very involved in an                  
excerpt. So read a novel! Listen to a novel! It's fun, and the listening       
is ideal for those who (like me) spend a lot of time commuting by car. I       
used to get frustrated with 45-minute commute times each way, but now it       
rarely bothers me; I just listen to my audiobooks.                             
You have to start slowly, of course, and in the beginning things will          
progress very slowly indeed. Be patient. Start with illustrated                
children's books, or comics. Start with something simple that you've           
already read in English, or at least already know the story. My standard       
in any language is to start with the Tintin books, because they are            
comics and I already know them by heart. Then you can venture into             
actual novels, where again it's best to start with something you're            
already familiar with in English. For example, the Italian translations        
of the Harry Potter books and of The Wizard of Oz are wonderful, and           
available as highly entertaining audiobooks (well, only the first two          
Potter books, alas). Pinocchio is another good choice, and again there         
is an excellent audiobook. I hasten to add that none of these will be          
easy at first. After a 10-week Italian course I had to listen to each          
chapter of the Harry Potter audiobooks multiple times to get the gist of 
 it. Reading the book at the same time helps. And slowly but surely             
you'll improve. With the audiobooks, even when you understand less than        
half the words, your ear is getting tuned to the cadence of the                
By the way, if you have a teacher he/she will probably want you to read        
books by Italian authors. This is all well and good, but the fact is           
that translations from English or other languages are often easier,            
because they tend to have fewer idioms and don't require familiarity           
with Italian culture or local dialects. The Wizard of Oz is easier than        
Pinocchio, for example.                                                        
By the time I'd finished all seven Harry Potter books, I felt ready to         
move on to more difficult fare. As always, much of my reading is purely        
for pleasure, including for instance some entertaining contemporary            
detective mysteries by Marco Malvaldi. On the more serious side, I've          
been learning a lot about Italian history in the era of fascism and            
World War II (roughly 1920-1945), taking a particular interest in the          
stories of women who joined the resistance during the war. Renata              
Vigan\`o wrote numerous short stories and a novel (``Agnes va a                
morire'', or ``Agnes goes to die'') based on her experiences. Ada              
Gobetti kept a diary, later published as ``Diario partigiano''. One can        
also find online a short autobiography of Anita Malavasi. All of these         
remarkable women had to contend not only with the fascists and the             
Nazis, but also with the particular brand of sexism that is so deeply          
embedded in Italian culture.                                                   
Of course there are many more writings by male authors of the era, among       
whom I've found Pratolini, Silone and Carlo Levi to be especially              
good. There is also Primo Levi's ``Se questo e` un uomo'' (``If this is        
a man''), if you can bear to read a first-person account of surviving a        
year in Auschwitz. Pratolini's novels generally involve the pre-war            
fascist years, and although there is tragedy they are also very                
positive. All of his writing (at least that I've seen) takes place in
his beloved hometown, Firenze, about which he writes so nostagically           
that you start getting nostalgic about it yourself. My favorite is actually    
a delightful short story ``Lo sgombero'', best translated non-literally        
as ``The eviction'', about a boy and his grandmother getting evicted           
from their apartment in Firenze to make room for the 1920's equivalent         
of yuppies moving in from Torino. Pratolini's love of his home town and        
sympathy for its people is touching, as is his sympathetic portrayal of        
the grandmother--who is clearly based on his own grandmother, and              
despite being quintessentially Italian is immediately recognizable as a        
familiar grandma archetype.  (In fact I think the story is autobiographical.)                                                
But here's the thing that totally surprised me: Through Italian, I've          
suddenly acquired a new interest in literature, and not just Italian           
literature but literature in general. Reading novels translated into           
Italian adds to their interest and also makes me read more slowly (which       
is a good thing, at least for me, as I seem to appreciate the writing          
more). Even better is having an audiobook, as the actor-reader can help        
bring the story to life. I've recently listened to Flaubert's ``Madame         
Bovary'' and Bronte's ``Wuthering Heights'', for example. I doubt I            
would ever have read them in English. Currently I'm on the fifth and           
last volume of Hugo's Les Miserables. Sixty hours in audiobook format!         
(But some of this can be skipped, as Hugo periodically gives long              
history lessons having little or nothing to do with the plot. I'm much         
more interested in the fate of Valjean and Cosette than in Hugo's              
recounting of the Battle of Waterloo, for instance.) The reader, Moro          
Silo, is fantastic. In my Italian lessons I'm telling an abbreviated           
version of the story to Elisabetta, who seems to be enjoying it as much as I   
do. It's a great exercise, as there is much difficult vocabulary and it        
forces me to do most of the talking.                                           
In any case, it's a lot of fun. Instead of dreading my commute, I look         
forward to the next installment of ``I miserabili''!               

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