Language Learning and Hello Talk

My Italian language learning has become obsessional. The better I get, the more I enjoy it. And the more I enjoy it, the more I do.

I don’t learn new things easily. I am impatient and I never learn for fun. I am practical. Everything I learn I expect to be able to use, and not when I am proficient, but from day one.  And so Italian became a part of my daily life quite literally from the first day through social media, family tree research, and trying to write my own blogs – oh and scriptwriting. I needed Italian to be able to do some of these things. So it was inevitable that its practical implications would be immediate and it was to my benefit to get good at it.

I’m now at an intermediate level apparently. Things which a month ago I could hardly comprehend, and was constantly making mistakes with, are now making sense – sentence structures, tenses. The more I learn, the more I remember. My word recall is getting better. I’m editing my scripts with Italian notes. I write my shopping list in Italian, I spend more time talking to myself and listening and reading and writing in Italian than in English. This is currently as close as I can get to full immersion. You can choose how much you want to do, and I choose to do it all. Because stopping means forgetting.

A lull in my learning, when I feel like I will never get the hang on it, usually signals a  breakthrough and a realisation that something I couldn’t get my head around, suddenly makes sense. Taking the odd online test to check my progress is helpful but I don’t worry about them too much. I took one last week, which is why I now consider myself intermediate. My obsession with grammar and reading seems to have been paying off – these were my best scores. My vocabulary, which wasn’t, I think is more down to my lack of confidence with speaking, more than anything else. When I’m put in a real life situations, I’m a rabbit caught in the headlights, which is ridiculous because I can chat away to myself all day confidently, if not proficiently. But as soon as I’m in real conversation my mind goes blank. And then I anticipate it. So I’m already setting myself up for a fall.

I still haven’t found the environment where listening and talking is easy. Language exchange groups have their place, but I find them very artificial environments. I felt more comfortable in Venice, alone and having to use my skills in real day to day situations with non English speakers, rather than sat in a pub with 30 other people all trying to improve their skills at the same time. Youtube is proving to be my best method for listening. The various scenarios, both classroom and ‘out and about’, and the option to utilise subtitles or go it alone is very helpful.

And although being corrected is useful for avoiding continuous mistakes, it damages my confidence if it happens too often. In Venice, people understood me and if they found out how long I had been learning Italian they seemed to be impressed which is a great confidence booster. Noone corrects you because they are just relieved they don’t have to use English unless they volunteer to. On Hello Talk or at exchange groups I am constantly reminded of my errors, put on the spot and scruitinised, on a sentence by sentence basis. People are looking for problems rather than just allowing you to communicate as best you can. And that’s very wearing. I already have Duolingo for that. It kills my confidence to keep trying because then I start expecting to be wrong. So I’ve ditched Hello Talk for now.

This is just one of many reasons why I am really excited to be returning to Venice again in September. Full immersion with people who just let you get on with it. I had such a great time there in May and it was the one thing that gave me the confidence to start speaking. Because I was there, doing it, and I was getting by on my half rate Italian which proved I was learning something. Not that many people in Venice are confident English speakers, despite the huge number of English speaking tourists, and I think I got by better on my half rate Italian than using English in many of the places I visited.  And I’m thankful for that.


Lingua Italiano Parte 2

I am not a natural when it comes to learning new skills. If I am really interested in something it’s relatively easy to pick it up and retain the information but there are some things I am just not that great at. Languages is one of them. I admire anyone who can speak a second language. So my bucket list task this year, to learn Italian, is not an easy ride.

Duolingo got me hooked, Tom Weila helped explain the problem areas I couldn’t master, and now I’ve found Italianoautomatico to fill in even more gaps. To top it up I have Google Translate which does get me out of scrapes especially when I am trying to build sentences in real time, and I have a fantastic app on my phone called Vidalingua which is great for on the go. I use this a lot when I need to find words Duolingo hasn’t taught me yet. Of which thre are many!

But of course the main problem is that I live in Manchester which is not known for its ‘lingua italiano’. So I’ve converted all my home pages on my laptop to Italian and and I have Italian Radio and news channels playing at work.  The only way to truly learn a language is to live with it and in it. And from here that is not easy. So it’s all remote at the moment.  By surrounding myself in it, thinking it, saying it and listening to it, it’s like a slow drip feed.

Come May I will know how well I am doing. I’m off to Venezia for one week. Of course Venetian is a dialect all of its own, even a language of its own, so I know I am going to hit many stumbling blocks that week. Using the language in a real setting will be my first major challenge and I am excited for the challenge and terrified of getting it oh so very wrong and looking like an idiot. I just hope I’m up to the task.

Ho a molto lungo viaggio in anticipo di me!


How Do You Say…

I have been trying to find the Italian word for great-great-great-grandfather. The closest I can get is bisnonno which is great grandfather. Someone suggested that ‘bis-bisnonno’ was great great grandfather and therefore it would be ‘bis-bis-bisnonno’ but I’m not sure that sounds right.  I’ve resorted to ‘antenati’ – ancestors.

In most of my ‘scritto Italiano’ I have reverted to more obvious phrases such as ‘storia famiglia’ and ‘genealogico’. I’m sure that Italian genealogists have a whole raft of words that fit far better. You are welcome to enlighten me anytime you see fit.

As I work my way through my Italian lessons, it is becoming obvious that the use of language is more generalised. In English words are very specific. It’s a difficult mindset to get out of. Some sentences can only be truly understood in context, so in the confines of an online lesson they are open to conjecture causing endless confusion amongst ‘early learners’, myself included. The very helpful Duolingo discussion sections are testament to this.

In English there is a word for everything and sentence construction is always in the order in which it is said. ‘The’ means ‘the’. In Italian I so far have 7 words for ‘the’. We don’t bother with masculine or feminine. So it’s not simply about learning words, it’s about an entirely new structure and in fact a whole new way of communicating. I find it very difficult but I am very very English with no foreign language exposure and I have a relatively large vocabulary so I am used to specifics.

So, for instance, in Italian ‘proprio’, ‘veramente’ and ‘davvero’ all mean ‘really’ depending on the context. But ‘proprio’ also means ‘own’. ‘Particolamente’ seems fairly obvious except that it also means ‘especially’. And whilst there are many words that are very similar to their English counterparts – ‘perfetto’, ‘momento’, ‘generosità’ – ‘caldo’ means ‘hot’ not ‘cold’, ‘aggiunge’ means ‘add’ (which took me forever to remember) and ‘meraviglioso’ means ‘wonderful’ and has its variations such as meglio – best.

Add to this mish-mash that sentences are not constructed as they are in English and that there are lots of things you say in English (particularly idioms) which just can’t be said in Italian (because they don’t exist) and for someone like me it adds to an already confusing pot of learning problems. And don’t get me started on rolling my r’s (which I cannot do) to sound authentic, or shortened words like don’t, can’t or won’t.

My online counterparts, who are French and Spanish, get it. Because English seems to be the only language that doesn’t work like the rest of Europe. If I ever get to over 30% on Duolingo it will be a miracle. And this despite my 57 day streak.

However there are some quite advanced sections I find really easy. I’ve grasped ‘mente’ as a word appendage from day 1. And I THINK I have good pronunciation. But I won’t know that until I have to inflict it on someone else. At the moment I am too scared to try. I roll endless Youtube videos and Radio24 programmes to make sure I’m getting it. I can read whole passages of text that I might not understand but with an Italian accent because once you know how letters sound you can say pretty much anything even if you don’t know what it means.

Add to this that my preferred dialect will be Venetian (for obvious reasons and because I largely translate old Venetian in my family history research) and I’m almost back to square one. Did you know Venice is trying to get Venetian recognised as its own language? There are many spelling variations. Now try doing that in 200 year old documents and you’ll see how much I love challenges. All I can say is ‘thanks Tita’ – I blame this entirely on you.

To wrap up here are my tips for learning a language when you aren’t ‘living it’ and when you have no language experience:

Convert all your electronics to your chosen language
Stream current news and radio stations (listen to Radio24 if Italian is your thing)
Get tv and films with the subtitles
Join learning pages on Facebook for people learning your language
Subscribe to social media feeds in your chosen country
Join Duolingo

Learning The Language Of My Ancestors

By the time learning the language of my ancestors became a serious bucket list contender for me, I had already mastered a few basics. I knew my 1 to 10, my greetings and a handful of terms that related to genealogy, predominantly through trying to decipher 150 year old Venetian baptism, marriage and death records.

I wanted to learn Italian as it was used, not as it was taught. ‘A presto’ was one of my favourites in the early days. And simple phrases like ‘Come stai?’ are not unfamiliar to non Italian ears. If you want to find out how it’s really spoken there are some great Youtube channels out there. I recommend Tom Weila. It makes sense and you learn great pronounciation as you go.

Essentially it isn’t just about learning for nostalgic reasons. My genetic connection to Venice is 4 generations removed. Unless I’m planning to move there, how will I use it? It’s about understanding the culture, which helps me realise not only where I come from, but what made them tick.

In my work on Tita Falcieri, everything I see of him in the early days is Italian or in Italy or is based on his culture. Understanding why he does certain things, or says things in a certain way is rooted in his upbringing and his language. If you want to understand your past, why would you not try to understand life from their point of view?

The thing is, I am rubbish at learning things. The reason, I cannot do anything by rote or by sitting in a classroom. I learn by living and breathing the skills. I am a doer, not an academic. I learn by trying out, making mistakes, by correcting those mistakes and by trying again. The reason? I am impatient. I want to implement my new skills from the start and make them productive, not theoretical. I don’t do anything unless it has an immediate practical implication. That’s just the way I am.

I became a designer not by going to university or evening classes, but by buying the tools, getting the books and doing it. 20 years later I decided to refine my skills at university. By then, design was a way of life and learning new skills was simply honing my already clear methods.

I always wanted to be good at music. I’ve learned piano and drums. I was rubbish at both of them because I was never able to use it in day to day life and because by sitting and practicing in a classroom setting, it went in one ear and out the other. Drilling simply does not work for me. The reason, boredom sets in and my mind, which is always thinking of at least four or five things at once anyway, goes off in search of pastures new. If the new skills cannot be applied to something, I simply lose interest.

I have always wanted to learn a language and have always admired anyone who is bilingual. School put me off languages very early on. French was my worst nightmare and I had no interest in France anyway. It was a pointless exercise for me. For me to learn a language I have to live in it. Live with it. Be amongst its culture, its people. Be in the country. To have a reason for wanting to know it. So why it has taken Italian so long to become my focus is beyond me although I have to confess to thinking it for a while. I suppose confidence was an issue and finding the right learning strategy.

This last 6 months or so, transcribing old Venetian documents written by and about my Venetian ancestors has galvanised me into action. I’d always asked for help before. Now I wanted to transcribe them for myself. And now that Venice is back on my list of places I am going to visit every year, I don’t want to be a clueless tourist when I get there, especially since I am going alone. I want to be connected to the city by more than distant DNA. I have to understand it and I can’t unless I know the language.

In an ideal world I would move to Italy, maybe for 6 months and take my business and my writing there and see how I get on. But the practical problems with this are numerous. Instead I have an app on my phone, I have subscribed myself to as many Venice Twitter accounts as I can manage in a day, and I am learning it for myself thanks to Duolingo which fortunately happens to be the learning tool that works best for me.

I downloaded some tapes for the car, but it just goes in one ear and out the other. I need to see the words, to understand the structure, not learn to copy phonetically. Instead I make myself read as much in Italian as I can and look up the rest. Informal word usage is better learned than formal ones. There are nights I go to sleep mentally building sentences in my head.

There’s not much use for Italian here in Manchester which is why I surround myself with it on social media. Thankfully one of the guides at Newstead Abbey is fluent. This will give me a sounding board to bounce my attempts off. Pronounciation is important. Understanding the written word is important. Being able to understand someone talking back to you is very important!

And so between Christmas and New Year it began. So far it is going well. Watch this space. Italian sentences are starting to appear on my Twitter. Ciao!