Anita emailed with a question:
“With two grandkids in the language-learning, language-exploding stage, I’m puzzled by one thing. They pick out nouns and then verbs from the babble of language around them. But when I listen to Italian, what I hear are the conjunctions, prepositions & other connectives (the quindis, perós, perchés, & the various “…unques”, for example) along with a few phrases (like mi dispiace, che successe which recur frequently). The nouns & verbs are much harder for me to separate out. Could this be because I’m not actually immersed or taking formal lessons & therefore no one is there to point at things while they say them as we do with toddlers? Or is it because these parts of speech often come first in a sentence or phrase and, as well, are often somewhat accented by speakers?”
If I understood correctly, Anita has noticed that toddlers communicate by ‘telegraphing’ their intentions and desires with the words they’ve picked up: ‘gelato’ = icecream, I want one, ‘giù’ = put me down, I’d rather walk, “aiuto” = I want to do what you’re doing, play with the pizza dough.
Their limited range of nouns, verbs, prepositions get well used, and when you’re used to the way your ‘animaletto’ employs them, can be communicatively-effective.
But that’s only IF you’re used to the way your child or grandchild uses their language resources. With a lot of guessing, and willingness to understand, I can figure out what Roomie is getting at some of the time. My wife, who’s had more toddler exposure, understands more. But neither of us always knows what she’s on about.
If the context doesn’t make it obvious to us (she may be remembering something she did at kindergarten, for example), then her language resources can be very limiting. She’s used to that, but it can be frustrating for us. I usually just reply something like “That’s lovely, darling”, which might or might not stem the flow, though regretting that I’ve missed something.
Turning to Anita’s own experience, she hears the connecting words and words that have distinctive sounds, perhaps multi-syllable words, or as she suggests, words that are emphasised by the speaker. So she’s getting bits of the ‘scaffolding’, but not all the verbs and nouns that fill out the message to make meaningful speech.
Could this be because she’s not actually immersed or taking formal lessons & therefore no one is there to point at things while they say them as we do with toddlers?
Well yes, and no.
If she was getting plenty of listening practice (she’s talking about listening, so probably does better when she reads, because it’s not ‘real time’), then it’s likely that within a few weeks she’d be performing much better and wouldn’t therefore need to hypothise why she can’t understand.
That’s particularly true if the listening materials she was using to practice with were graded (see our ‘easy readers‘) or came with text support, as in at EasyItalianNews.com. On the Advice page of the latter website, I wrote the following, which virtually everyone ignores, as if I too am a babbling toddler:
How to use EasyItalianNews.com
If you have a low level in Italian and don’t read or listen much, this is what I recommend you do to build good habits:
- Listen the first time while following the text. Don’t pause the audio. Your aim is to get to the end, that’s all.
- Now do that again. Try and concentrate more this time, but if you don’t understand something (or everything!) that’s fine. It’s doing you good anyway. Be cool.
- The third (and final) time, try listening WITHOUT the text. You should have some memory of the content, or at least the general topics. The pictures and known information (names of people and places, for example) will help you orientate yourself. Listen and don’t worry about not-understanding. In a way, that’s the point. To get used to that feeling. It’ll stand you in good stead one day…
- Now stop. Go do something else. Drinking beer is fun.
- Do the same with the next edition of EasyItalianNews.com. Currently we publish each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Make a note in your diary. Or, if you’d like to get each edition via email (it’s free), fill in the form in the sidebar of the site and it’ll be sent to you as soon as it is published.
Obvious variations on the above include:
If you can read the texts with little difficulty but want to work on your listening, then start by just listening, without the transcript. When you’ve squeezed as much out of the audio as you can, listen WITH the transcript (it helps a lot!)
Follow that advice for a few months and your listening comprehension ability will SOAR, I promise.
But people don’t. They obsess with looking up words in the dictionary, translating the texts into their own language, and some even have their browser translate the whole thing into English, so they can read the English version while listening to the Italian original and so receive ABSOLUTELY NO BENEFIT WHATSOEVER.
Our poor brick wall, my poor head.
But that brings me to the ‘no’ part of my answer. Could it be that Anita’s problem is that she’s not taking lessons ‘therefore no one is there to point at things while they say them as we do with toddlers?’
Beh, rely on a teacher to point out every word you need to know and you’ll be a very, very long time learning your chosen foreign language.
E poi, how on earth will the teacher know what it is that you particularly, as an indvidual, need to learn, so as to be equipped for conversation and listening comprehension?
My Italian/Swedish/Turkish/French vocabulary includes words like taxes, VAT, marketing, accountant, mailing list, promotion, ebook, article and so on.
Your foreign language lexical resources are likely to be different, and will reflect your own situation, needs and interests.
Toddlers pick up ‘su’ (up = pick me up) and ‘giù’ (down = put me down and leave me in peace, FFS) over the course of several years.
It’s remarkable when they start telegraphing meaning, delightful even. But the novelty soon wears off and parents remain frustrated for several more years, even several more decades. My adult kids can speak, both English and Italian, but it’s rare I get much sense out of them.
It takes TIME for children to go from burbling happily to being able to explain in detail what the problem is with eating carrots, why they don’t want to go to school today, or where it hurts. And the more complex the communicative challenge is, the less likely they are to use speech in a way that an adult would.
Why are you crying?
“Bua!” replies the toddler, if she can be bothered, or maybe just cries louder, which is less easily ignored.
“My wisdom tooth is infected, the anti-inflammatories aren’t up to the job, and to be honest, I’m just totally fed up with it! Pass the scotch, will you?” explains Anita.
Except she can’t, yet, because she hasn’t learnt the Italian words for wisdom tooth, ibuprofen, or fed up (scotch is the same.)
How do, or should, adult learners get to the point at which they have the resources to interact, to speak, to understand what others are saying?
A course, a course book, an app and/or a teacher will certainly get you the basics, but those basics will be the usual stuff: numbers, colours, animals, routine verbs, and so on.
If you’re in a rush to say something more relevant to your situation (“The accountant messed up our VAT return so now I have to pay a penalty!”) then having a teacher, or sympathetic native speaker who isn’t a teacher, can be a big help.
I commonly used phrases such as “Come si dice VAT in italiano?” (it’s IVA, actually, the ‘I’ standing for ‘imposta’, something that is ‘imposed’, so a tax), both in Italian, on the rare occasions when I need a word or phrases I don’t already own, but also in Swedish, Turkish, French and Spanish.
In fact, no conversation with a native speaker would be complete without me asking something similar, as my other languages have plenty more gaps and I get much less practice speaking them.
But to profit from this more active, ‘adult not toddler’ approach to learning, which incidentally is much, much faster (it’s a myth that kids pick up language quickly – Roomie’s been at it 25 months and can still only say ‘bua’ when something hurts – bet you could learn to do better much more quicly), you do actually need to be interacting, rather than just, say, listening to your ‘teacher’ giving grammar explanations.
If you want to learn to speak Italian, you have to speak. If you want to learn to understand Italian, you have to listen.
Which reminds me of some other idiot who wanted to do conversation lessons but insisted that she wouldn’t speak about anything personal or waste time listening to chat from the teacher.
Language is for communication, and once you figure that out, you’ll be on your way! Learn how to ask your teacher, or conversation partner, if they had a good weekend, learn to hear the response, show an interest, dammit, and wait for your own turn to speak.
Language practice stems from FORMING RELATIONSHIPS in which the language you’re acquiring is the accepted lingua franca. Work on building the relationship, IN the language, and let the conjugations go hang.
But what if you have no money, or opportunity, to practice speaking?
Then you can, at least, focus on the listening part. The internet is full of things to listen to. So maybe one day someone will speak to you, and you’ll at least understand much of what they say, so can nod, shake your head, or smile beatifically in response.
And a really, really good way to pick up vocabulary is by READING.
As noted in Monday’s article, a lot of Italian words are similar to English words, or can be guessed. So if you’re ‘just reading’, not even looking up words in the dictionary, and certainly not making lists to memorise, you will still be learning.
Actually I learnt Italian only by reading, initially ‘easy readers’, then ‘gialli’ (detective novels), then text books on an MBA course, then running a business.
Despite living in Italy, I spoke English at home (for the kids), and at work (I was an English teacher), so was very slow and late to develop Italian speaking and listening skills.
In fact now, with Roomie who is monolingual, it’s the first time in a quarter of a century living in Italy that I’ve actually spoken Italian on a daily basis. Stefi says I’m more fluent, though refrains from adding ‘but no more accurate’, as she knows I don’t give a fig.
So Anita, go immerse yourself in Italian – spoken texts, written texts – and take every chance you get to speak, making sure you know the phrases you need to ask for help (“Cosa vuole dire IVA?” “E’ un’imposta.” “Ah, mille grazie!”)
Oh, and one final tip.
Like a thieving magpie, steal any words that sound like they’ll be invaluable. The ones you see/hear all the time.
You might even find some in this article.
Don’t forget to read/listen to Tuesday’s FREE bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news.
EasyItalianNews.com publishes three FREE editions a week, each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, throughout the year!
Subscribers get them via email, as soon as they come out, so why not subscribe, which is also FREE? Just add your email address here, and look out for the ‘please confirm’ email (if you don’t see it, check your spam/junk folder carefully!)