Today’s free grammar exercise offers a useful review of prepositions, one of those minefields in which you are most likely to foul up when trying to actually speak Italian.
The problems with prepositions (and with many other grammar areas) stem from the differences between Italian and the student’s own language, and from something called a ‘transfer strategy’.
Let me explain.
As learners, our knowledge of Italian is imperfect, to a greater or lesser degree.
When we’re just starting out, and first try to join words together to express our thoughts, we’re uncertain (or at a complete loss) about many of the grammatical and lexical components of what we’d ideally like to say.
Some react to this by refusing to say anything at all. Unless they’re absolutely sure, they’d prefer to avoid embarrassing mistakes.
But as a ‘communication strategy’, keeping schtum has its limitations.
Not saying anything might be an effective way to avoid making mistakes, but isn’t a great help when it comes to ordering a meal or making new friends.
But here’s the point: assuming you’re unsure about some (or all) elements of what you’re trying to say in Italian, what CAN help you get that sentence together in a reasonable time, so as not to bore everyone to death?
Don’t know which preposition to use? Well, you could pick one you think MIGHT be correct…
But that still involves thinking it through, making a decision, and so will inevitably slow things down.
‘If in doubt, think about the grammar a little, then pick one’ IS the correct approach in the classroom, when a teacher is asking you so as to check that you’ve understood the lesson.
But if you’re not in the classroom? Well, it’s much less appropriate for a passionate conversation over the grappa and limoncello.
Effective speakers of foreign languages know that accuracy is not everything.
In the ‘you speak, I speak, you reply, I argue back’ game of tennis that is conversation, being an effective participant means speed and intelligibility beat grammatical perfection.
But how to achieve the edge needed to ace conversations in Italian?
The solution is to employ a ‘transfer strategy’, which is rapid to use, requires no thought at all, and works (at least some of the time…).
Instead of agonizing over your choice of preposition or whatever, you simply use the nearest equivalent from your own mother tongue.
Lacking a better option, you ‘transfer’ (borrow) the required grammatical structure from your native language.
What do I want to order? It depends… umm… (which preposition? Oh, sod it…) ON… how long the pizza is going to take. I’m in a hurry!
You’ll probably recognize this behavior in yourself, I certainly do, and my Italian students employ it all the time when they’re speaking English.
I say (or used to) ‘dipende su’, they all say ‘depends from’.
Using a transfer strategy is so effective IN TERMS OF COMMUNICATION that conversations inevitably proceed more smoothly and, in time, your confidence will increase.
Which is excellent when you’re just starting out with a language – the more you speak, the more people will speak to you.
Your choice of strategy helps you create a virtuous circle in which you improve your fluency, develop listening skills, expand your knowledge of vocabulary, and consolidate those elements of grammar that you have studied so far.
A win-win situation, and as I said, typical of effective foreign language learners.
But there’s a drawback: it took me about 10 years to work out that, in Italian, people say ‘dipende da’ not ‘dipende su’.
Nobody ever told me I was getting it wrong!
Did that particularly matter?
Not to me. But had I valued accuracy in speech and writing more, it would have been an issue.
The problem is that the feedback I got from ‘successful’ conversations was invariably positive. And people tended not to point out what they (and I) saw as small mistakes.
If I’d wanted to speak Italian correctly as well as fluently, I’d have needed someone more expert than myself to listen very carefully and point out where I was going wrong with my prepositions and so on.
Which brings us back to today’s grammar exercise, which was written by an experienced Italian teacher and is designed to raise your awareness of the typical errors you may be making.
(If you look carefully, you’ll find it includes the example I used above.)
Don’t forget next week’s offer on online lessons!
Talking of getting feedback and help from an expert, don’t forget that next week we’ll be running a promotion on online Italian lessons.
For those who can afford it, regular one-to-one meetings online with an experienced native-speaker Italian teacher are an excellent way to gain confidence speaking Italian AND to work on accuracy.
To prove the point, we’ll be running a special offer next week so that more of our members around the world can give this style of learning a try.
(Full details of the offer will be in Monday’s e-mail!)