Today I’m answering a question raised by July in her comment on yesterday’s article:
My problem has always been the speed at which Italians speak. I’ve found a site called Slow News in Italian, but, of course it is not free. Maybe it’s maleducato(-a ?) of me to mention a competitor. Would you think of doing something like this, Daniel?
The reason I’m answering in an article, not as a reply to her comment, is that I think this is an issue that interests everyone, so I’d like to get it to as many of you as possible.
Thanks, July, for raising this interesting issue!
No problem with mentioning other sites, in the spirit of helping other OnlineItalianClub.com users.
In fact, you mentioned Slow News in Italian before, and I took a look at it then.
Would I think of doing something like this?
It’s interesting that you say your problem has “always” been the speed of Italian speech.
Actually, Italians speak no faster than anyone else. The issue is your level of preparedness to DEAL WITH natural speech, by which I mean hear it, extract some meaning, and reply appropriately.
I assume that your ‘hearing’ is fine. The problem then is your ‘listening’.
Listening, in a foreign language, as in your mother tongue, is a complex process which involves knowledge and experience of phonology, grammar and lexis, as well as general and cultural knowledge, and an ability to interpret from context
For example, what would you make of
“They sat down on the bank to eat their picnic”
“The bank collapsed under the weight of its bad debts”?
If you think about what each sentence brings to mind, you’ll appreciate that there’s a lot more to ‘listening’ than just ‘hearing’.
The speed of normal speech is certainly AN issue, but is not normally THE issue.
Unless you are super, super advanced in Italian, you will always be not understanding something.
I’ve lived here for 15 years and run a language school, yet it happens to me every day.
TV programmes, normal speech at our family dinner table, conversations with colleagues or clients. What I ‘hear’ in Italian is a bit like listening to a radio program in a storm – lots of crackling, static, readjusting the dial, and then moments when it just disappears completely.
Does it faze me that I can’t always understand what my (Italian) teenage kids say to each other over dinner?
Not so much any more. If you live in a permanent storm, you get used to it, and soon the static becomes normal. People used to listen to music on crackly radios. The brain just fills in the gaps.
Most students’ objective is to reach a point at which using the foreign language is no longer (as) difficult or stressful, but feels normal. Or almost normal. Or less abnormal. Or simply tolerable.
So, in the short-medium term, an Italian course or self-study program needs to be as much about “getting used to” normal speech as about “understanding” it.
And about developing what are called “listening strategies”, but basically mean “an ability to guess intelligently and to ask when you think you missed something really important”.
If you understand everything you hear when you’re practicing your listening, you’re wasting your time.
You need to PUSH YOURSELF to improve. As you listen, you need to be learning to work things out, to handle the stress. Or you’re not learning as much as you could.
If it’s an exam, you need to be sweating with fear. For what would be the point of taking an exam you already knew you would pass?
If you get stressed, or give up, every time you hear something ‘fast’ that you don’t completely understand, you’ll be missing out on many, many learning opportunities.
(And you’ll be permanently depressed!)
A teacher who slows her speech in class to ‘help’ students, is a teacher who does not understand language-learning.
From Day 1, students need to learn to handle speech at normal speeds, and learn it fast, otherwise they become isolated (others are dealing with the situation better) and anxious and hung up about their listening ‘problem’.
Beginner teachers are often the cause of this sort of situation, they make things worse not better by trying too hard to help.
Experienced teachers know that it is the content of what they say, and the context, that matter. Not the speed. Everything they say is carefully controlled, relevant, and so understandable by the class.
So anxiety goes down, trust goes up, and learning happens.
For the same reason, language text books and exams (in French and English too) almost always present speech at normal speeds. Not slowed down.
OK, end of lecture!
So what steps can you take to improve your ability to manage normal-speed Italian listening situations?
Well, do exactly as I’m outlining in this series (or trying to):
– practice little and often
– build up ‘level’ by ‘level’
– test yourself at fixed intervals to measure your progress and motivate yourself
– increase your exposure to authentic, complex materials gradually as you improve
I’ll leave you with an analogy.
Let’s say you wanted to drive in a Formula 1 motor-racing event say here in Italy, at Imola.
Imagine, the fastest, most skilful motor-race in the world!
Who could resist the chance to take part??
OK, so apart from needing to be very, very rich… what sort of preparation would you need so as not to be a danger to yourself and to others?
Well, obviously, you’d need to develop the technical skills to actually drive the car (Formula 1 cars are very different from your usual ride.)
And some knowledge of racing strategy and tactics would be essential.
You’d also want to get in shape, as motor-racing is physically grueling.
You’d probably expect to start with a short course in racing techniques, then maybe compete in a few beginners’ races, only stepping up to the more powerful, exciting cars and events when you’d proved yourself capable of winning at lower ‘levels’.
With pots and pots of cash, plenty of time, and the right attitude, you might one day drive at Imola. Who knows? You, July, could be champion of the world!
But thinking back over the work that you will have put in to prepare yourself for the fantastic day when you finally step onto the podium and spray the crowd with spumante, here’s a question for you:
Just how much did racing “slowly” figure in your training schedule?”
P.S. I LOVE a good argument, and it’s Friday.
All the other things I have to do are much more boring than this. So leave a comment on this article.
Totally agree with your argument. I understand the problem put forth by July. I have had similar problems in the past. Another aspect of listening to any language is also the dialect and the accent of the speakers. Though the listening exercises have speakers with clear speech but when watching movies or news items, its a nightmare. I try to build around the few words that I had understood. Sometimes it works, sometimes I’m way of mark.
Hi there, Gomati!
Thanks for contributing.
Interesting what you way about movies.
Yesterday I was talking to an Italian woman learning English, who said exactly the same about American movies. I made the point that native speakers of English don’t always find dialects and slang expressions easy either… Sometimes that’s the point in a film. The director wants to show us who the character is, and what and how they speak is a way to do that. She agreed that it isn’t always easy for Italians to understand Italian dialects, either.
But it’s all part of the richness of language and culture, which of course is also changing constantly.
Sounds like you’ve got the right approach, though!
Jayne Dowd says
I loved this response it was so brilliantly written. It too has made me think and I totally agree.
I now, have more time to study and read and perhaps write now only in English though, as I completely destroyed my ligament in my knee skiing
Perfect! Your knee is destroyed, so you’ll be able to learn Italian much faster!!!
(Thanks for the kind feedback on the article.)
Stefanie Newman says
Italians may not speak any faster than others, but the way that syllables allide, the musicality and fluidity, certainly give the sensation of rapid speech. If you find an Italian willing to imitate English, he speaks with very hard ‘r’ sounds and not very fast. I try to learn Italian word clusters and the more I listen the more my ear predocts each successive word. It’s a
lot like the skills we acquire learning to read. But it’s definitely a process !
Italians famously complain that English speakers “eat their words”, Stefanie.
Any competent teacher of English as a Foreign Language could point out to you a whole range of ways that your ‘clear’, ‘normal speed’ English functions in exactly the way you say that Italian does – words slur together, phonemes and whole syllables are elided or change their sounds because of the need to connect with other words, and so on.
Also just like you, Italians insist that the way they speak to each other is clear and easy to understand. Which of course it is, when you’re used to it.
Learning word clusters is a good idea, I agree. And as you say, the process of learning to read and the process of learning to listen are similar in some respects and require some of the same skills.
Well you had better go and do those other boring things because you will get no argument from me. That was an excellent post and is just what I needed to shake me up with my squeamishness at full throttle Italian. In a similar vein I find the same with my attempts to read big chunks of Italian – I might only get one third or a half at best – but at least I get the gist. Two years ago I got nothing but a word here and there.
You make so much sense and I enjoy your blog so much.
Thank you for your time and wisdom.
Now you had better go and do your boring tasks 😉 while I go and listen to some more Italian at normal breakneck speed.
Thanks for joining in, Kerry. As you can see, I’m still putting off the evil day.
Nice to hear you feel you’re making progress, with your reading too. The approach is the same, as are the difficulties.
Have a good day!
You are spot on Daniel but, oh, it makes us feel so much better if we can blame the Italians for speaking too fast…. To add to Gomati’s comment about dialects etc, its not only a problem with a foreign language. Americans often have big trouble with Australian English whereas the converse is not true because: we get so many American shows on Australian TV. That confirms your point Daniel, it’s a matter of getting used to “the storm.”
I’d say it’s also likely that people have trouble with dialects and accents even in their own country.
Some accents from the north of England can be very difficult for me to make out, for example.
Then there are difficulties created by jargon. If you’re not a police officer, you might have no idea at all what the conversations on the police radio frequencies were about – all those numerical codes. And most normal people would find what language teachers say to each other to be quite incomprehensible.
Every trade has it’s own words and expressions, as do ethnic groups, age groups, and even hobbyists. There’s a huge vocabulary related to websites and blogging too.
Insomma, life is complicated, but by the time we are adults, we’re usually quite used to it. At least where our mother tongue is concerned.
John Thomson says
I am glad you have made no reference to the Scottish accent Daniel
If Italian is described as a musical language the the Scottish accent has the same music only played on the bagpipes
“ah ay eh aw” = “I ate it all”
“sees a haf n a haf n haf” = “please give me a double whisky (= a half gill measure) and a half pint of a mixture of light and heavy beer”
If you ask for that in any pub in Scotland the barman will give you the appropriate
How does that grab you Caterella?
BTW I have posted my CILS livello A1, I hope O have passed
Cheers / Slange
Do they speak English in Scotland?
John Thomson says
More to the point, can they understand Scottish in England !
I took, as did many others, the best thing that came out off Scotland, namely, the road to England.
One fellow, who had been in England for many years, went back to Scotland and he visited his old Grandmother
Old grandmother – “man John you have never lost your accent”
Fellow – “no gran, I only speak to the heid yins (the higher echelons of society)”
John A.K.A Jock
July Rice says
Thank you, Daniel, for your knowledgeable advice, honesty, and time taken out to respond so fully. Also thank you Kelly and Gomati for your imput. Is it true that some people have a natural ability to acquire a language faster than others?
Another great topic for a post, July.
But the short answer, in my opinion, is “no”.
Most people learn what you would expect them to learn given the input their brains get, and the time they spend.
In more than twenty years as a language teacher, I’ve met very, very few people who I would describe as exceptional in a way that wasn’t explained by their being exceptional circumstances.
On the other hand, there are PLENTY of people who don’t ever learn. But it’s almost never for lack of ability. The problems arise from lack of motivation, or opportunity (as they say in crime movies). A few just insist on doing all the wrong things and won’t listen to advice…
So, your chances are no worse than anyone else’s. If you keep at it long enough, and avoid catastrophic errors of judgement (say, insisting on memorising the grammar book before you start practicing your listening), then you’ll get there in the end.
I have had this problem with the speed of delivery (especially with the females) and thought I would never improve. I was recently reflecting on the latest encounter with our consuoceri, and realised that I am now starting to hear some of the structures that they use and instances of the appropriate use of the congiuntivo and imperfetto (areas I’ve always struggled with!). This feels like a major break through and has given me a real boost to my confidence.
I think relaxing during the conversation is part of the secret, and that sometimes it’s possible to listen too intently. Maybe there is also a passive element going on in my learning, when I’m not directly involved in the conversation.
Another difficulty I find is that I start mentally preparing my answer before they have finished speaking and this obviously affects my concentration on the rest of their dialogue. I try now to launch into a reply before I really know how I am going to express myself (otherwise too much delay results in missing my cue!). This can be scary, but as it’s within the family I’m learning not to worry. If I’m making a lot of mistakes even when I prepare, I might as well just go for it!
I started to learn Italy in my 50’s and find that confidence comes very slowly – a hang up from language learning in a very formal grammar school setting where “having a go” was not the done thing. One thing is for sure – no progress will be made by not continuing to try, so there is really no alternative!
Thanks for all you tips Daniel.
You’re welcome, Chris. Thanks for joining in, it’s good to read about your experiences.
What you say makes a lot of sense, too. Not worrying, just going for it. Yes, that’s the way to build your confidence, and experience in using the language.
Some would say that a glass or two of wine facilitate the process…
I’d like to disagree both with your dismissing “Slow News in Italian” (free as a weekly podcast in the Australian itunes store) and with your analogy about learning to drive F1 cars. I’m teaching my 16 year old to drive at the moment, and my recommendation is not to put your foot on the accelerator and go for it (maybe that’s how it works in Italy, and it IS how Ayrton Senna learned to drive, in go-karting). “Slow NEws…” (also in French, same news!) is a way of easily getting exposed to what I consider the equivalent of “Good evening… this is the BBC”. That is certainly not how people from the docklands of Liverpool spoke when I lived there (and I wished they carried their own subtitles, the first few weeks) but learning to ride a bike with trainer wheels is helpful, so long as you take them off as soon as possible and plunge in.
Welcome, Stephen. Thanks for joining in, and for disagreeing! Someone had to.
As a cyclist, I heartily approve of you teaching your son to drive in a controlled and responsible way.
But, like many Italians, I think you might be confusing ‘driving’ with ‘racing’.
My analogy was about learning to ‘race’ (the topic was ‘speed’ in listening, remember?). Your approach to teaching your son to drive is designed precisely to teach him NOT to race, at least on on the highways.
I’d argued, that your approach to listening, while helpful as a language learning tool (for example for consolidating your grammar, learning new vocabularly, becoming familiar with pronunciation), won’t give you the ‘racing’ skills necessary to understand normal spoken Italian (with accent and dialect variations).
The Liverpool example is a good one, but for making my case rather than yours.
In the past, all over the world, English language teachers used nice, slow, clear examples to teach their students to speak and understand English.
As long as the students remained in the classroom, they felt a great sense of progress. They could understand!
But invariably, on arrival at London airport, or Liverpool docks, the first conversation they were involved in was UTTERLY INCOMPREHENSIBLE!
In the early days of my career, I heard this complaint thousands of times: “I arrived at London airport and I COULDN’T UNDERSTAND ANYTHING!”
Needless to say, now English langage text books use a range of accents and topics, and have people talking at normal speed.
And, you may have noticed, so does the BBC! When we were young, ‘BBC English’ was all you would hear on air, and was the norm, and something to aspire to.
No longer. You’re as likely to hear a regional UK accent, or American English, or a Pakistani accent.
As it should be, and all good for people learning English.
And the theoretical opposite of what the ‘slow site’ is doing.
I rest my case!
John Thomson says
I am with Stephen on this point but I am also with Daniel!
Daniel says I am trying to over analyse everything, true and I should be aiming to get the ‘gist’ of spoken Italian, again true but sometimes I can guess so few words that the ‘gist’ is not apparent
Why am I having problems comprehending the spoken word
1 my ears are old
2 Italians do speak fast, correction, my perception is that Italians speak fast
3 My vocabulary is not as good as I thought = ‘gomma’ means gum as well as tyre I had a problem with the thought of a tyre being stuck to the ceiling in one of the OLIC listening exercises
4 unfamiliar verb declensions “lesse” is 3rd person singular of the passato remoto of the verb “leggere”
5 good smattering of eliding
what did you say ? cosa hai detto? / no problem
what did he say ? cosa ha detto ? all I can hear is “cosa detto / I translate this to “what said”
6 loss of ‘s’ as a leading character quite often
sfortunatamente clearly different from fortunatamente
sbrigati sounds like brigati
This all sounds pretty negative, it is not meant to, I AM MAKING PROGRESS thanks to Daniel’s approach to comprehension of the spoken word, supported by the response to his recent articles
In the words of the song “vinceremo”
Well done Daniel
P.S. Everton 2 Norwich 0
Paul Mee says
Thank you Daniel I have been trying so hard to find things where the Italian is slower,but thanks to your article I can appreciate your reasoning,I am over 70 now & I took lessons a few years ago & since then I have been trying on my own to become more fluent,so now its back to the grindstone!,as my Italian tutor said frequently,even the dumbest Italian can learn to speak Italian so dont say you cant learn it!
First of all, thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. The first time, it has to be ‘approved’, an anti-spam measure, but if you join us here again anything you write is published automatically.
I’m happy you feel encouraged! Important though to have realistic expectations. Anyone can learn to speak and understand any language, in my opinion, but Italians learnt Italian by being exposed to it maybe 100 hours each week for years (all their waking time, basically).
If you can replicate that, you can certainly expect native-speaker-like fluency. But most of us will settle for less, and put in much less to achieve it.
Which is why I say, ‘Get used to not understanding’. It’s an almost inevitable part of the outcome for 99% of people studying a foreign language.
Once you get your head around the idea that ‘winning the game’ involves learning to manage uncertainty, to guess, to tolerate ambiguity and difficulty, but to COMMUNICATE ANYWAY, well, the rest is easy!
Hope that helps.
July Rice says
Bon di – as they say here in Torino – maybe a Piedmont dialect greeting – a bit of French thrown in? Or is this salutation used in other areas of Italy, I wonder. If not, what would be some of the other regional greetings?
I appreciated the concept of listening to language, as opposed to merely hearing language; the former active, and the latter passive – pigra too – and I am guilty, as charged, but promise myself to sit up and listen!
I have a question, Daniel. Is a middle aged language learner hampered due to a middle aged brain, i.e., does a middle aged dog have extra difficulty learning new tricks? What is your experience with this issue?
They say ‘Buon di’ in Bologna, too. Not sure of the spelling, though, as I’ve only heard it.
Your question is another good one, July. I’ve made a note of it, and intend to devote a whole article to it sometime soon.
Keep ’em coming. One of the hardest parts of writing is deciding what to write about, so your curiosity about language-learning is a huge help!!
This was a REALLY important post and discussion for me, as I am another one of those learners who has often wished I could “turn down” the speed. What really stood out for me, Daniel, was your comment that even as a fluent Italian speaker/listener, there are still times you don’t understand spoken Italian!! In my head I know this to be true but it’s hard to accept. I so much wish I could remember learning language as a child, when I’m quite sure we all had the same experience.
As to resources, I agree they are hard to find. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Italy radio is a nice way to be “surrounded” by the language. I sometimes watch “Verdetto Finale” and, if it’s a lucky day, I can understand parts of it. Also, there are some good materials from the language program associated with the “five colleges” in New England; here’s the url: http://langmedia.fivecolleges.edu/collection/lm_italy/it_index.html
thanks – Nancy
Nice to hear from you again, Nancy.
For an idea of what being a child, and having a much more ‘limited’ understanding of language, is like…
…try watching a good kids’ movie, with a young child (grandchildren are handy for this experiment.)
‘Shrek’ comes to mind, but any good quality movie for kids will do as well.
You’ll notice that your little one is entranced all the way through. But also that YOU enjoy the movie, after all it’s full of subtleties aimed at accompanying adults. Jokes, cultural references, even sexual inunendos. Stuff that just goes over the childrens’ heads, and isn’t in any way essential to the plot, but that adds a whole level of rich meaning.
Using a foreign language is like that. At first you are are child (a baby, even Shrek is just noise). Then you start to be able to follow what’s going on, in a very crude sense. As you get more practiced (and familiar with the conventions used to communicate meaning) you pick up more and more.
Will you ever ‘understand’ everything?
Beh, if you enjoy the movie, the question is irrelevant really, no matter what age you are.