Suzanne emailed in response to Wednesday’s article, Last night I went to a meeting with a bunch of Italians…, to ask this:
“You must be extremely fluent in Italian to understand the “overview” of Italian legal history, as well as to be to be able to engage with Italians on such a specialized subject. How long did it take to reach this exquisite level of the Italian language?”
Well, thanks, Suzanne, but careful – the words ‘fluent’ and ‘fluency’ are lay terms, used only with caution by language teachers and knowledgeable language learners.
Short answer, though – about a quarter of a century.
The longer answer begins with some questions – what do you mean by ‘fluent’, and by ‘understand’, and by ‘engage’?
Over dinner last night I asked my wife and adult son (not Roomie, who was covered in spinach and munching slices of orange), which languages they were ‘fluent’ in.
Stefi, who is mother tongue Italian/Swedish, but also a qualified English as a Foreign Language teacher (she did a course in London in the ‘nineties, where I was one of the trainers, which is how we met), and has a degree in Japanese Language and Culture, replied ‘Italian, Swedish and English’, and when pushed, added ‘but more fluent in English than Swedish, because I get more practice.’
Interesting, huh? She feels less fluent in her mother tongue Swedish (literally, as it’s her father that’s Italian), than in English, which she learnt at school and through pop culture and traveling.
Also interesting that she didn’t even mention Japanese, in which she has her college degree, despite spending months living with a Japanese family in Japan.
I turned to Tom, my bilingual son, first year college student at an Italian university, studying IT (you may know him as the voice of EasyItalianNews.com ), who predictably replied ‘Italian and English’.
I asked both what counted for them as ‘fluent’, and the gist of their answers was that ‘fluent’ meant feeling confident, not having problems, or if there were problems, not worrying about them, being able to read a language without undue effort, watching TV series in the language as a preference, without the ulterior motive of improving language skills, and so on.
What about making mistakes? Well, yes, of course, they made mistakes, but mostly other people didn’t notice them, or if they noticed, didn’t comment. Making mistakes didn’t mean they didn’t feel ‘fluent’, they agreed.
Note that both were talking about languages they felt totally comfortable in, and not about languages they knew they had less command of (Japanese for Stefi, French for the boy). I didn’t ask, but they surely wouldn’t have described themselves as ‘fluent’ in those, as many club members wouldn’t for Italian.
Note also that their replies were based on their FEELINGS of being AT EASE with understanding and using the languages, and that they could feel more or less ‘fluent’ in different languages, but still ‘fluent’.
Turning to me, then, must I be ‘extremely fluent’, as Suzanne put it, and how long did it take?
As a language-teaching professional, I’d dismiss that first part of the question as ‘too subjective, so unhelpful’.
I may or may not be ‘extremely fluent’ in Italian, but I’m well aware of my limitations, of making frequent mistakes, and of other people’s reactions when they realise they’re speaking to a foreigner.
We run an Italian language school in Italy, and employ four permanent, full-time, Italian teachers, all of whom are too polite to correct my mistakes or to look too puzzled when I phrase something badly or cause confusion with my pronunciation. A permanent contract in Italy is iron-clad, but no one deliberately rubs the boss up the wrong way, either.
Nevertheless, I hope that as competent professionals, if I directly asked them how good my Italian was, they’d answer in an encouraging manner, and then, if pushed, and assured that I wouldn’t be upset, they might hazard a guess using the CEFR descriptors, which you can read here (do yourself a favor and read them!)
The self-assessment checklist has six columns (the ‘levels’) covering two comprehension areas (the first two rows) and three production areas (rows 3-5).
Check out the C2 band, final colum, for ‘listening’, the first row:
“I have no difficulty in understanding any kind of spoken language, whether live or broadcast, even when delivered at fast native speed, provided I have some time to get familiar with the accent.”
It’s not a perfect descriptor, in my opinion, because ‘no difficulty’ is just silly – everyone has difficulty sometimes, in some contexts, for some content, in certain noise conditions. If you have no idea what the topic being talked about is, then even if you have time to get familiar with the accent, you may remain utterly lost, which will limit your ability to make sense of what you’re hearing.
‘Cultural knowledge’ isn’t mentioned (that’s my term, as far as I’m aware), but my other experiences with conversations and texts about Italian law (getting sued, running a business,) will totally impact on my success at following what the meeting was about the other day. Lascia stare the fact that I was the only foreigner, I’d bet that I was in the top 50% when it came to familiarity with how Italian lawyers talk and think.
Scroll down to row three in the same column, this time ‘spoken interaction’, so the part of the meeting when I get to hassle the speaker and appeal to the better nature of the crowd:
“I can take part effortlessly in any conversation or discussion and have a good familiarity with idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms. I can express myself fluently and convey finer shades of meaning precisely. If I do have a problem I can backtrack and restructure around the difficulty so smoothly that other people are hardly aware of it.”
Yuk, they used ‘effortlessly’ (says who? compared to what? according to what criteria?), and ‘good’ (so not ‘excellent’ then?), and surely what other people are aware of depends entirely on them? My Italian teachers would, I hope, have a much better awareness of the limitations of my Italian grammar and pronunciation than the non-Italian teacher Italians in the meeting I attended.
Picky criticisms aside, the self-assessment checklist is a much more precise tool then the layperson’s single word descriptor, ‘fluent’, if only because of the six columns and five rows.
For everyone’s information, if I had to take an Italian exam, say to do a university course, then I’d aim for the C1, to be on the safe side and minimise the effort involved in preparing for it.
But I’ve done C2 reading and listening papers in the past (for this website) and run a business in Italy, which involves plenty of C2-level conversations.
So I’d confidently assess myself at that (top) level for at least some of the areas described, DESPITE my evident-to-all accuracy problem. With a bit of remedial grammar study, I’d probably scape a C2 pass.
How long did it take to get there?
Multiple decades of not-studying, is the answer.
If I’d known in 1997 what I know now, I’d have got a large loan and taken six months or a year to learn Italian properly, knowing that it would pay back over time.
But there wasn’t that certainty, we had other priorities, and a full-time language course was not, therefore, an option.
Instead, I taught myself, by reading trashy novels in what very little free time I had over from earning a living and being a father of three toddlers. As you’d expect, it wasn’t a fast process.
For the public record:
I have no qualifications in Italian at all (but ‘O-level’ French, and a Swedex A2 certificate that I’m proud of!)
I’ve never taken a language course, other than as a pupil at school, though I’ve taught and organised many.
I’d rate my language skills as:
Italian – C1/C2 – I live in Italy, which obviously helps
Swedish – B1/B2 – a teaspoonful of self study, hundreds of hours of online conversation
French – B1/B2 – school, then reading and listening in recent years
Turkish – B1 – lived there for three years as a young man, spent a lot of time in bars
Spanish – A2 – reading and listening in preparation for a holiday, which never happened due to the pandemic
As you can see, I didn’t and wouldn’t use the word ‘fluent’.
But, as I put it to my wife and son over the dinner table, what would other people, who didn’t know the language at all, think if they saw you speaking/listening to/reading/writing the language you (more or less) know?
When I see my wife speaking Japanese (very, very rarely), she certainly seems fluent to me.
When my kids come into the kitchen and hear me cursing the absurd propaganda that makes up nearly all the content on Turkish radio, they probably think I understand what I hear, as I often do, at least in part.
Compared to them understanding nothing, it probably seems like I have foreign language superpowers!
Which puts me in mind of the Arthur C. Clarke quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (source).
In a country where everyone seems ‘fluent’ in English, but probably isn’t, for instance Sweden, you might find them to be totally amazed if you speak even a few words of their language (try, it’s fun!)
Always ask yourself: “Compared to what?”
Hope that answers your question, Suzanne!
Don’t forget to read/listen to Thursday’s bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news.
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P.P.S. Half-Price Ebook Offer Ending
Here’s a final reminder about the new addition to our opera series of ‘easy reader’ ebooks, Aida, level B1, which is just £5.99 until Sunday 29th January 2023.
It’s intended to be good reading/listening practice for anyone at or around intermediate level, but is also supposed to prepare you to watch the actual opera, in the orignal.
An original Italian easy reader by Francesca Colombo
Giuseppe Verdi’s musical exploration of love, jealousy, patriotism and divided-loyalties is here simplifed for learners of Italian (with quotes from the actual libretto!)
Aida, daughter of Amonasro, King of Ethiopia, was captured and is now slave to the Egyptian princess, Amneris, who is unaware of her true identity. Both women are princesses, and both have feelings for handsome soldier Radamès. When Aida’s father leads an Ethiopian military expedition against Egypt, Radames takes command of the defence…
Written to celebrate the opening of the Suez canal, Aida was first performed in 1871 and has been a favorite of opera goers ever since!
Why not begin with our ‘easy reader’ ebook before seeking out a recording of the opera on Youtube? It’ll help! Or just use this original Italian reading/listening practice material to add a little variety to your study program.
- .pdf e-book (+ audio available free online)
- .mobi (Kindle-compatible) and .epub (other ebook readers) available on request at no extra charge – just add a note to the order form or email us
- 7 chapters (based on the act structure of the opera) to read and listen to
- Comprehension questions to check your understanding
- Italian/English glossary of ‘difficult’ terms for the level
- Suitable for students at pre-intermediate level or above
- Download your Free Sample Chapter (.pdf)
This being the first week, Aida is 25% discounted, so just £5.99 rather than the usual ‘easy reader’ ebook price of £7.99.
Do check out the FREE sample chapter (.pdf) before you buy a copy, though. That way, you’ll know whether the level is suitable and that the format works on the device you intend to use it on.
Buy Aida just £5.99 | FREE sample chapter (.pdf) | Opera ebooks | Catalog
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