Bottom-up or top-down, which is your preferred way of doing things?
No, I’m not trying to be smutty, I’m talking about reading in Italian.
Do you start from the bottom, so at the level of individual words and phrases, or even their component parts (suffixes showing conjugations of verbs, gender, plurals of nouns, etc.), then try to figure out meaning from there?
Working at the ‘micro’ level, so to speak, by looking at the thing in as much DETAIL as possible?
Or do you prefer to look at the whole text, take a more bird’s eye view, so a ‘macro’ or ‘top-down’ approach?
By which I mean, go through the whole thing rapidly to see what, if anything, sticks? Then maybe move on, or at least, only go back for a quick extra look at anything that looks really essential?
Insomma, there are two different approaches to reading a text.
And we would be wise to choose one or the other according to what we’re reading and why.
Say I’m in a dispute with a supplier or a bank that wants money from me… I might need to go back and look very carefully at the terms and conditions of the contract I signed, checking to see if they contain the term ‘tacito rinnovo‘. Those are two words that anyone living in Italy eventually learns (sometimes the hard way) to beware of. (If you want to know what I’m on about, click the link and read the definition. Or better still, guess.)
Sometimes, the devil is in the detail!
But often not.
Say, for example, I’m reading a famous novel in the Italian original (for fun, really??) And let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that it’s packed with obscure terms and cultural references that I’m very unlikely to easily understand at first sight, or ever really need again…
If I were reading ‘bottom-up’-style, trying to figure out the whole based on a cumulative understanding of hundreds or thousands of individual components, then arguably I have made an inefficient choice – my decision with regard to how I am reading ensures that I am wasting masses of time and so risking becoming demotivated at my lack of progress.
Make the right decision regarding approach and you increase your chances of succeeding – assuming you define success as reaching the end of the text and getting as much out of it as is reasonable given the amount of time and effort employed.
Take the wrong path, though, and you won’t see the wood for the trees. You’ll get lost in the forest, become frustrated, and quit.
By this point, you are likely already thinking (be honest!) something like:
1.) But what about ALL THE WORDS I DON’T KNOW?
2.) Aren’t I reading precisely in order to learn Italian? In which case, isn’t ignoring the words I don’t know counter-productive?
3.) And anyway, I WANT to look up unknown vocabulary! Why is that so bad?
To which I would reply, in my teacherly manner:
1.) What about them? The world is full of things you don’t know. Get over it.
2.) Reading in Italian will help you in various ways, such as consolidating what you already know, introducing you to items that you don’t know but can guess, and giving you the chance to develop comprehension strategies which will be very useful when employed elsewhere in the future. Ignoring the words you don’t know IS NOT counter-productive, because many of them are, in the scheme of things, not important at all, and so would not justify the time you spent trying to understand them. Furthermore, by refusing to focus on micro elements (the trees) you are much more likely to see the whole (the wood).
3.) It’s not. But adults learn to balance their ‘wants’ – you also want to finish the page, the chapter, tbe story, presumably? And you’d prefer not to take twenty years to do it? And in any case, suppose you looked up, understood, then memorised each and every unknown term (you’d be having a riot, I’m sure), what’s to say any of it would actually enhance your life and/or improve your overall knowledge of Italian MORE than something else you could have been doing IN THE SAME TIME, such as, for example, employing your new-found comprehension skills and confidence to enjoy another book?
I could go on all day about why you SHOULDN’T STOP TO LOOK UP WORDS when doing ‘extensive’ reading (by all means do so when reading a contract…), but I won’t.
Instead, I have a little challenge for you, no matter your level, whether you are almost a beginner or whether you have been learning Italian for decades, as I have.
Chapter 3 of our ‘Riassunto facilitato per studenti di italiano L2’ of Umberto Eco’s ‘Il nome della rosa’ is HERE.
(If you haven’t read Chapters 1 & 2, you can find them on our Literature page. Start with Chapter 1 instead, obviously.)
So, what I want you to do is this:
KNOWING THAT YOU WON’T UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING….
– Read Chapter 3 (or Chapter 1 if you haven’t already done so) through quickly WITHOUT USING A DICTIONARY and without looking at the Glossary further down the page.
– Try the exercise.
– Check your answers to the exercise on the ‘Soluzioni’ page.
– Stop and reflect. On a scale of 1-10, how successful was your reading/understanding? Is that ‘enough’? Why?/Why not?
– Now go back to the text and identify the words you really, really don’t know AT ALL. Ignore the ones you can probably guess (that’s usually good enough). Focus only on the words that you totally don’t know. You can write a list of them, if you like.
– This final part is optional… So you have your mental note, or actual list, of the words from Chapter 3 (or Chapter 1) that went right over your head, that you couldn’t even begin to guess at, right? Now answer this one simple question: how many minutes of your life do you think it would take to check those words and memorise them?
So, you should have something like this:
I found 5/10/20 words that I had no clue about, and I estimate that it would take me 5/10/20 minutes to look them up and write the definitions in my notebook, then maybe another 5/10/20 minutes to memorise them, and maybe the same 5/10/20 minutes tomorrow, just to be sure I don’t forget them.
Bene! So now you have a decision to make. Spend 15/30/60 minutes of your life on those unknown vocabulary items from our text, or…
Hang on a sec!
Before we do the or… My paperback edition of ‘Il nome della rosa’ has five hundred and thirty-three pages. So if I’m going to look up everything I don’t know, say in the first 100 pages (and after that, they’ll be repeated, so nothing further new), then in fact, in total minutes, we’re talking 1500/3000/6000.
Oh wow. And I have the dishes to wash and lunch to prepare…
So the or…
Just turn the page and carry on with the story.
But HOW, Daniel, WILL I LEARN NEW WORDS IF I NEVER LOOK ANYTHING UP?
Most of what you read in Chapter 3 (or Chapter 1) was probably stuff that you sort of understood or could guess, right? Everything except the 5/10/20 ‘really didn’t know’ words in your list.
And the more you read, the more certain you will be about all THOSE words, the ones you sort of understood or could guess.
And the more certain you are about THOSE words, the more you’ll understand what’s going on in the story.
And the more you understand what’s going on in the story, the fewer will be the words on your ‘haven’t the faintest idea’ list.
For example, la lussuria, which is one I guessed wrong, scratched my head over (the monks were on about ‘luxury’?), refused to look up, saw it again, saw it again, saw it again and thought, it seems to be sinful, maybe it’s somehing to do with sex… Could it mean ‘lust’? There doesn’t seem to be any OTHER word being used for carnal desire (and these monks are certainly a lusty bunch…)
I rest my case.
Have a day without a dictionary, see how you get on.
Then come back (maybe months or years later, that’s fine) and tell me I was right. As my wife will confirm, I love it when people tell me that.
A lunedì, allora.
Thursday’s bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news is here. And it’s free to read/listen to.
Colleen Gilbert says
Thank you for this,Daniel! You are giving us permission to enjoy the story without the drudgery of looking up all the words and phrases we do not understand. I am so enjoying listening to the audiolibro on RAI and then listening while reading. It is like being a child again- not understanding everything, but getting a feel for the characters and the story. This is actually FUN.
You got it, Colleen. Some parts are more fun than others, but taken as a whole, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be an enjoyable experience. No need at all to beat yourself up for not knowing every word you read.