Picture the scene: we’re at the kitchen table, at our home in Bologna, it’s five years or so ago. My younger daughter has recently started ‘liceo scientifico’ (scientific high school), having opted for one of the toughest choices in a city full of above-average schools.
She could have gone for ‘liceo classico’, which would have meant less science and maths but having to study Greek and Latin.
Instead, like her mum, she went for the more practical option, perhaps with a view to a future career in science or medicine. She still has to study Latin, though, and is finding it tough.
Over dinner, I’m taking the piss (British English, sorry…)
“Say something in Latin” I nag.
“What?” she wants to know.
“Say ‘A bottle of red wine and some fries, please’, in Latin. That would be useful. I’m sure they teach you that, don’t they?”
“Dad! They didn’t SAY THAT in ancient Rome!”
I was expecting someone around the table to point out that there were no potatoes in ancient Rome (no tomatoes, either, so no fries and no pizza…)
But that’s not the issue.
The fact is that Hannah either wouldn’t or couldn’t say anything in Latin.
Which was unsurprising, given the way she was being taught, through translation and grammar, grammar and translation.
No useful ancient-Roman restuarant tips, then.
“I bet Romans ordered wine in bars. Ask your teacher!” I tell her.
But five years passed and she never did.
Here’s another family scene, this time present day: it’s Christmas Day lunch, in a family-owned restaurant in a chic little town in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.
The restaurant is closed to the public, its owners off doing their own festive events, and my wife’s extended Italian family have use of it for their gathering, just like every year.
Unlike every year, though, some effort has been made with the seating plan. This time I’ve been told to sit with the men, and seats have been arranged so we’re facing each other.
Carlo (my wife’s cousin’s husband) and I have finished off several bottles of wine and are having a good moan about the economy: nepotism, taxes, and the like. Mostly in English because he feels he needs the pratice for his job at a big-pharma multinational.
As I’m pouring more wine, someone calls me from behind, from the adjoining side of the square table arrangement.
It’s my Italian wife’s Swedish mother, who’s seated at one end of a row of aged Italian aunts. Who are all grinning expectantly:
Say something in Swedish, she demands in Swedish.
What do you want me to say? I reply.
It doesn’t matter. Just speak Swedish. For them, she adds, nodding to the rank of her sisters-in-law, who are listening intently.
I thought you were going to tell me off for drinking too much wine, is the only thing I can think of to say in Swedish. She nods, and turns triumpantly to the aunties, who are visibly-impressed.
“I hope I sounded Swedish?” I ask them in Italian, to polite nods. My mother-in-law interjects that in Swedish, just as in Italian, I have an appalling English accent.
And that was the end of that: they go back to chatting amongst themselves in Italian, and I go back to moaning with Carlo about the cost of ‘commercialiste’.
Hannah learned Latin through the study of grammar, cases and verb conjugations, and by translating both from and into the target language.
The study of dead languages is where language-learning methodology originated, hundreds of years back in the first schools, where learning to READ in Latin and Greek was the only way to access the knowledge contained in texts written in those languages (which were often the only texts available.)
Many club readers will have learnt languages in a more modern way, with situations, role-play, listening and speaking practice, and so on.
But older ones amongst you, back in the days before .mp3s, before CDs, even before cassette tapes, and certainly before low-cost airlines and Youtube, would have studied, say French or Spanish, using the same approach/methodology developed for teaching and learning Latin and Ancient Greek.
The ‘mythology’ of language-teaching, by which I mean the collective wisdom handed down from generation to generation, is still heavily-influenced by the ‘old’ ways of doing things. Certainly in Italy.
You have to learn the grammar, and lists of useful words.
A final illustration. Besides writing these articles, and running a thriving Italian language school, we also teach English to Italians, or try to.
Most of our clients are middle-aged or retired, many have been failing to learn English all their lives, and at the heart of their problems, for decades and decades, is the unspoken but ever-present assumption that Italian phrases must have equivalents in English, and vice versa.
When Italians say ‘Vado’, they could mean “I’m going”, “I’m going to go” or “I go”.
So naturally, they assume that if they say “I go” in English, the listener will make the effort to decide from contextual clues whether they actually mean “I’m going” or “I’m going to go”, just as Italians do.
Italians use flexible grammar forms and the listener does the work to figure out what is intended.
You probably have the opposite problem.
You’d like to say “I went to Rome” but you can only find grammar that you assume means “I’ve been to Rome” and are frustrated as to where the other form has hidden itself or why no one seems to give a fig as to the obvious difference.
Native-English speakers use specific grammar forms, so the speaker needs to choose a form which conveys, as precisely as possible, what is intended.
Anyway, after more than twenty years of trying to get across that English is structured differently from Italian, and failing, falling student numbers (Italians are old, the bright ones emmigrate, and the remainder have few children) finally forced the issue.
We decided to scratch most of our formal English classes and offer instead mini-conversation groups, hosted by young native-speakers, most of whom are not ‘real’ teachers at all, but were willing to work for peanuts.
It was the most popular thing we ever tried!
People turn up regularly for 45 minutes of conversation practise, making new friends, interacting with each other and with the native-speaker ‘tutor’ in English.
There’s no homework, no lesson plan, no syllabus, and (I am at pains to point out when selling the ‘course’) the ‘tutor’ is not a teacher, so please don’t expect or ask for grammar explanations.
Participants feel more confident: they’ve proved to themselves that they can get by in English, that there’s nothing to be anxious about.
It turns out that just speaking, on any/every topic under the sun, over and over again, is what sells.
It doesn’t make us any money, of course. And the students probably go on making exactly the same grammar bloopers as before. Nothing seems to fix that. The languages are just different…
But everyone loves doing conversation, and so keep coming back. Which is satisfying.
Back to my Swedish mother-in-law for a moment.
No one is organising Swedish conversation groups in Bologna (wonder why?) so I had to find online teachers.
And online Swedish teachers, it turns out, were no more competent or interesting that the sort you may remember from your school days.
They kept on with the boring grammar stuff, and seemingly had no interest in encouraging me to speak.
They ‘explained’ things instead, in English, obviously, as I would have no chance of ‘understanding’, otherwise.
Whenever I hear the word ‘explain’, my hackles rise.
I burned through one teacher after another until I came across a guy selling online lessons who genuinely had no clue whatsoever about teaching Swedish.
Which was perfect!
Our lessons were an hour (it’s too long, 30 mins is better) and I’d got a fantastic discount by buying forty of them at once.
So we talked, and talked, and talked. About every topic that interested us – work, family, politics, the weather, the places we lived, China, etc.
Then I bought another forty hours-worth of lessons.
Once I’d got to a hundred hours of Swedish conversation, I stopped counting, but shortly after fell out with the ‘teacher’ about something.
So now instead I do just 30 minutes of online conversation practice each week with a club member. It’s not really enough…
I’m probably up to about 130 hours in total and will have spent perhaps a couple of thousand euros, spread over several years.
Here’s an extract from the ever-useful Council of Europe Self-Assessment Grid:
Spoken Interaction: I can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible. I can take an active part in discussion in familiar contexts, accounting for and sustaining my views
Spoken Production: I can present clear, detailed descriptions on a wide range of subjects related to my field of interest. I can explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
That’s the B2 (fourth out of six) level descriptor. I’m not quite there yet (a little ragged-around-the-edges, gramatically) but it gives you the general idea.
Practise speaking and listening, avoid getting distracted by low-frequency grammar (passato remoto etc.) and words you’ll never use, and be tolerant of the fact that Italian is different from your native-tongue.
Keep at it for a year or two.
You’ll get to where you can actually have a conversation in Italian.
Don’t forget the January Sale, will you?
Below you’ll find a coupon code which will save you 20% on everything in our online shop.
Including (purely by way of example) one-to-one online lessons with a native-speaker teacher.
- The ‘January Sale’ ends on Jan 5th 2020,
- Use coupon code january_sale_2020_save_20% as often as you wish until then
- The coupon code won’t work with other coupon codes – choose one!
- But it IS good on multipacks of ebooks or online lessons, which are already discounted for quantity!
- The next offer won’t be until the spring, so stock up now!
Here’s that coupon code again: