Monday I invited people to unsubscribe if they didn’t want to receive articles like this one, or to just stop reading until the January Sales are over, so as to avoid me trying to sell them stuff.
Plenty of people did, the system tells me, over four hundred of them, and their data has now been permanently deleted, not that they’ll know that, given they’re not reading this.
Sigh… And now there’s just fifteen thousand of us left. What a shame, huh?
And while I was pottering around the mailing system this morning, before writing this, I could see that over the last month or so, between 37% and 47% of club members actually open these articles.
I guess I should work harder. “There’s always room for improvement”, my mother used to say.
Which reminds me, new member Sandra wrote with a question about a tricky conjunction, and Stefi having gone to the opera that evening, leaving me to entertain Roomie and put her to bed, I attempted to answer Sandra myself.
Bear in mind that I’m not an Italian teacher, have never done an actual Italian course (not even Duolingo), and have precisely zero qualifications in the subject, though I do have O-level French, and an A2 in Swedish (with a super-good score!)
My ‘qualifications’ for owning an Italian language school and for publishing ebooks for language learners, such as they are, stem from being a professional language teacher (English) with thirty-years experience, and from being an on-off, self-taught, language learner over more or less that same arc of time.
Hence I usually refer questions about Italian grammar to the wife, or one of my kids. However, as I said, Tuesday night it was just me and the animal, whose command of Italian is much shakier than mine. Also, Sandra’s question piqued my curiosity. She wanted to know, and I quote,
about finché and its use with non. What is the meaning and purpose of pairing these two in the following sentence?
Ho dormito bene finché non ho sentito un rumore e mi sono svegliato.
In English the sentence seems to mean the opposite using only the word until with no negative associated with it:
I slept well until I heard a noise and woke up.
Is finché always paired with non to mean until?
After a little double-checking, I wrote back:
I can’t answer your ‘is it always’ question, which is not a wise one about any grammar or vocabulary point. And anyway, my Italian native speaker has gone out for the evening.
But you’ve spotted that with this particular item appears different in English and Italian, therefore a common cause of error for English speakers learning Italian and vice versa.
A little research suggests that with the ‘non’, the meaning is ‘until’, whereas without the ‘non’ it would better be translated as ‘as long as’.
Double checking that with Google translate (a useful tool if you want to test your understanding),
I’ll smoke as long as I have cigarettes
Fumerò finché avrò sigarette
I’ll smoke until I’ve finished the cigarettes
Fumerò finché non avrò finito le sigarette
Hope that helps!
To expand on my first point, I used to tell my students (most recently Italians learning English) that asking if something is ‘always’ true is a foolish question, given that it’s ‘almost always’ possible to think of some variation or exception, yet the answer you get from a teacher or passing native speaker might well be ‘yes’, which may be helpful, or may mislead you.
A better question would be something like “How do you use (the item you’re unsure of)?”
For instance, “How do you use ‘take off’?”, which might lead to an answer like, “It’s the opposite of ‘put on’, you do it to your clothes before putting on your pyjamas, see? It’s a transitive verb.”
But you’re in an airport, or watching a political satire, not getting ready for bed, so in this case your expert has made the wrong assumption, which happens a lot, which is why you should avoid the ‘always’ question.
Point two, about Google Translate.
If you’re a Chrome user, as I am, and you type ‘italian english translation’ into the search bar, rather than a specific URL, the Google search results will likely be topped with two boxes, one for Italian and one for English.
Type ‘io’ into the Italian box and ‘I’ will appear in the English box, type ‘io ti amo’ and you’ll see ‘I love you’.
There’s a drop down box on either side (above where you type) with which you can switch languages, which is fun. I got ‘io ti amo’ translated into Swedish, as ‘jag älskar dig’, which I knew already, but have never so far had the opportunity to say.
Translating words from the language you’re learning is not something I usually recommend when reading, listening or speaking, but it can be handy if you’re reading a contract, for instance, and want to be as sure as you can.
Also, I often start my online conversation lessons in Swedish or Turkish with an exchange of Skype chat messages (very useful for getting used to the keyboard layout in the language you’re learning, where to find all the accented characters, etc.), so if my conversation partner types something I can’t figure out, I’ll copy and paste the word, or the whole phrase, into the Google box so as to be able to keep up.
What Google Translate is really good at though, is doing things the other way around, if you see what I mean. Switch the order of the language boxes by clicking on the arrow icon between them, so now we have English on the left and Italian on the right, and type in ‘i love you’ (the result we previously got when we were checking the meaning of ‘io ti amo’, remember?)
And lo, this time the translation offered is not ‘Io ti amo’ (which NO ONE SAYS) but ‘Ti voglio bene’, which is grammatically different and a completely different verb. Wow, thanks Google.
Note that in Italian you don’t need to use the subject pronoun, ‘Io’, not in this case and not usually, unless you’re emphasizing. The subject pronoun is generally redundant (meaning unnecessary) because the verb ending shows the subject, see? It’s ‘voglio’, so it must be me that’s doing it to you, so to speak.
English verbs don’t conjugate much, so the subject pronoun is essential to the meaning. Therefore English speakers learning Italian hugely over-use subject pronouns, while Italians speaking English find it hard to remember to use them at all, despite knowing, in their heads if not in their hearts, that in English subject pronouns are necessary.
But anyway, I was on about what a good research tool Google Translate can be, in the sense that if you have something you want to work out, such as Sandra’s examples above, you can type in the Italian original, any variations that you want to experiment with (keeping or deleting the ‘non’), or do it the other way around and type in your understanding of what the meaning is in English, then look to see what Google suggests is the correct translation:
I love you > Ti voglio bene
Try it with my cigarette examples, which I wrote myself, then double-checked. Or make up your own.
N.b. This is not just a vocabulary thing, but is teriffic for playing with grammar differences, such as the different tense structures in Italian and English.
Type in ‘I’ve been there’ and ‘I went there’ for instance, and see how Google handles it (pretty well in my opinion). Try it with ‘I did’ and ‘I have done’ though, and the result isn’t so satisfying…
There are lots of English tenses that have no Italian equivalent, but the meaning gets communicated in Italian anyway, one way or another. For instance, “I’ve been living in Italy since 1998” which gets you “Vivo in Italia dal 1998”, as there’s no Italian version of the English Present Perfect Progressive. Italians just use the present.
But guess what? The Present Simple in English ‘almost always’ has a general meaning, which means English-speaking learners of Italian find it hard to accept that Italians use it for all sorts of things, including this combination of perfect and progressive aspects. English speakers are constantly looking for the ‘correct’ Italian tense, and resist the idea that there often isn’t one.
Beh, I could write about this stuff all day, but I don’t have all day, so I’ll just end by suggesting that while Google Translate may or may not appeal to you when reading or writing, it’s a huge lot of fun to play with, and a useful way to explore a language you’re learning, to find out how users of that language might go about expressing things, and to identify differences in the way things are done between your native tongue and the language you’re learning.
Oh, and obviously, you could just type your question into normal Google using words. “What’s the difference between finché and finché non?” turns up lots of results, but lose the English part (so Google doesn’t filter out results IN Italian) and type something like “finché o finché non?” to see if Italians are asking themselves the same question. They usually are!
A venerdì, allora.
Don’t forget, our Italian school in Bologna has its ‘best discount of the year’ promotion this week. It’s for group language courses at the actual school (not online, not individual), of any length, starting in 2023.
Pay a small deposit by the end of Christmas Day and save 20% on the whole cost of your course, which is pretty good, take it from me.
You don’t even have to decide the dates. Just pay the deposit before the promotion ends, then let Stefi know when you’ll be coming when you’ve finalised your plans.
Full details of the promotion are here.
Have you read/listened to Tuesday’s bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news?
It’s FREE, so what’s to lose?