One of the perils of being a teacher is assuming that what’s obvious to me is obvious to everyone else too. After all, I’ve taught this and written about it so many times, how could you all not already know it?
And yet I’m constantly reminded that people DON’T KNOW.
For example, with the furore over whether or not you should look up the words you don’t know in a dictionary when you’re reading in Italian.
The short answer is “No, of course you shouldn’t!” and the reasons why are legion and should hardly need explaining. Here are a random few:
– it disrupts, so makes less efficient and slower, your reading
– the word might not be important anyway
– even if it is important, you may not remember it (given that your attention is on the reading)
– you don’t get to use a dictionary in most exams testing reading skills, so why do it when you’re practicing?
– the dictionary might be wrong or misleading, and so hinder rather than help
But I can say this stuff until I’m blue in the face and forget that people are thinking to themselves:
“But if I don’t look up the meaning in my Italian/English dictionary, how will I KNOW what the new word means?”
Perhaps it’s been a while since I explained that part, so I’ll do it today.
First of all ‘know’ is a misleading term (as is ‘means’…) In reality, words and expressions can have many meanings/uses, perhaps with varying grammatical forms, too.
Think of the English verb ‘take off’ for example – if a Boeing 747 does it, then it’s intransitive and means one thing, whereas if you do it to your panties before hurling them enthusiastically at your favourite pop star (or language teacher), then it’s transitive and refers to a totally different action.
Yes, you could look up the term and ‘study’ the various uses before you encountered them in text or speech, but that’s not how people actually behave. In real life, we figure things out from context:
“My flight XXXXX XXX at 09.20 and lands at 11.55. Will you come get me at the airport?”
That has nothing whatsover to do with panties.
How do I know? Well, assuming you know at least some of the words in a sentence (‘lands’, ‘airport’), you should have a chance of figuring out what’s going on. For instance:
“John XXXXXXX Sylvia’s XXXX so she reported him for sexual harassment.”
If you don’t know EXACTLY what John did to Sylvia, you do know that he transgressed in some way, at least in her eyes.
And that’s typical of how much we understand EVEN IN OUR OWN LANGUAGE. Understanding is often partial – a lot of stuff is not said or specified.
How much do you comprehend of what your lawyer or tax accountant tells you? What about when your husand is telling you about his team’s sporting triumph, or your wife is detailing the complexities of her hobby project?
You probably get the gist, that’s all. But it’s enough. If you had to, if it was important enough to you, you might be able to figure out the details. Or even Google them. But you probably wouldn’t bother.
Context is fundamental, then. But another way to ‘know’ what a word ‘means’ is through the amazing power of ‘reference’.
Daniel explained something.
What he said made sense.
It was a revelation.
The terms in bold in the second and third example sentences ‘refer’ to the term in bold in the first sentence.
You don’t actually know what I said, but through the amazing power of reference you know that ‘it’, ‘what I said’ made sense.
Think of reference as meaning threading through the text – it can go backwards, forwards or sideways, a little like one of those trails a slimy slug leaves behind. It’s easy to see that the critter has been chomping on your lettuces!
Here’s an example I use with students when trying to explain why they don’t need to ‘know’ a word to ‘understand’ it.
“It was him, and he was after me! I could see a bulge in his jacket as he approached. Without thinking, I picked the ‘Family Value’ salami from my supermarket trolley and swung it at his head with all the force I could muster. The cured meat connected with his temple with a satisfying thunk, knocking him into an aisle display of fette biscottate, which scattered, cushioning his fall. With a metallic clatter his 9mm automatic landed on the floor at my feet. I bent to pick it up and examine it. It was a Glock 19, my lucky day! I dropped the bent-out-of-shape salami and fled the store with my newly-acquired weapon.”
See how the terms in bold refer to the same thing? As well as ‘reference’, they’re also (sort of) synonyms. There’s also a web of other predictable relationships of meaning.
For example, we know what the bulge is probably caused by, so there something is being suggested rather than stated.
A ‘9mm automatic’ is clearly a description of a type of pistol – to know that, you don’t actually need to research that ‘9mm’ is the dimension of the bore and that the pistol is ‘automatic’ because when one shot is fired the pressure from the gas released by the explosion automatically chambers the next round.
We also get ‘meaning’ from what something is clearly NOT. In this case you can be sure the firearm isn’t a shotgun, assault weapon or hunting rifle because it was being carried under the guy’s arm inside his jacket and was not otherwise visible.
Besides what something probably is and is not, a lot of information is just guessed at or ignored: ‘Glock’ is the manufacturer’s name and ’19’ presumably the model, but who really cares?
So we have synonyms, guessing and reference to help us. There’s also the relationship between the things or people mentioned in the text: ‘Weapon’ is a much more generic term than either ‘Glock 19’ or ‘Family Value’ salami, but by the end of the scene we’re a 100% sure which of the two we’re leaving the supermarket with on this particular occasion.
Were you to read the above scene in Italian, or another language you don’t ‘understand’ as well as you know English, it’s all those factors, plus sheer common sense, that allow you to piece together the text.
Knowing in advance all the terms you’ll see is not normal or required.
Let’s talk about ‘Le avventure di Pinocchio‘ for a moment, which I and some other club members read in the original recently.
Now you may assume that, given that I’ve lived in Italy for twenty years, this would be easy for me, that I would know all of the words that you don’t, and that, anyway, it’s a children’s book, so how hard can it be?
You would be assuming wrongly. I’ve had no formal education in Italian, possess no qualifications in the language (reference again) and have figured things out, as far as I have managed to do so, through trial and error, and a lot of reading. These days, though, I mainly read other languages that interest me more. Also, ‘Pinocchio’ contains plenty of unfamilar, often archaic terms.
What I do have on my side is confidence, experience, and the certain knowledge that stopping to look up every term that is unfamiliar to me would not help but would, in fact, hinder my progress with the story.
Let’s take a look at Chapter XXXI for an example:
Finalmente il carro arrivò: e arrivò senza fare il più piccolo rumore, perchè le sue ruote erano fasciate di stoppa e di cenci.
Lo tiravano dodici pariglie di ciuchini, tutti della medesima grandezza, ma di diverso pelame.
Alcuni erano bigi, altri bianchi, altri brizzolati a uso pepe e sale, e altri rigati a grandi strisce gialle e turchine.
The terms in italic I didn’t know, but didn’t care about. The cart arrived without making a noise because its wheels were ‘wrapped’, ‘bandaged’ something like that with X and Y (presumably materials you would wrap wooden wheels in if you wanted to kidnap foolish children at night undisturbed.)
The cart was pulled by 12 pairs of ciuchini, all the same size but with different colored ‘hides’, ‘skins’?
Now, I’d have to guess what a ‘ciuchino’ is but it’s clearly some sort of draft animal – a little horse, or ox, or mule, or donkey, something like that.
Later in the text, on p.219 there’s a picture, which my version didn’t have. The word ‘ciuchino’ comes up again and again in that section though:
— Ehi, signor omino, — gridò allora Pinocchio al padrone del carro — sapete che cosa c’è di nuovo? Questo ciuchino piange.
— Lascialo piangere: riderà quando sarà sposo!
Pinocchio is riding one of the animals (as the cart is full of other boys escaping from the world of teachers and schools to the promised land of marvels), and said beast of burden whispers to the puppet that he will soon regret leaving his home because something terrible is going to happen to him.
Hey driver, this ‘ciuchino’ is crying, shouts Pinocchio, alarmed. Let him cry, the driver responds.
A chapter or two later we find out just why it’s a bad idea to drop your studies in order to dance and play all day in a magic land far away: overnight Pinocchio grows a pair of animal ears, big and bushy like a ‘ciuchino’s’, and even a tail!
I still don’t know whether the word means donkey, mule or something else. But it doesn’t MATTER. Pinocchio turns into one, which leads us on to the next chapter, in which he is sold to a circus as a performing animal.
Not stopping to check the word meant that I was able to read more quickly and, importantly, build those mental muscles that I use for figuring such things out.
The more you read, the more you are likely to learn, because knowing at least something about the world (the fact that villains carry pistols under their arms) enables you to understand other things too (9mm, automatic, Glock, firearm, arm, weapon).
If you don’t read, you won’t benefit from this process. It’s the same with listening. Of course, if you know nothing at all of a language and switch on a radio program, you’d understand little. But not nothing, and certainly more than if you didn’t listen at all.
In employing these marvellous mental processes, the dictionary is not your friend but a distraction.
Kung fu masters don’t need Glock 19s as they are themselves lethal weapons.
And your brain is a kung fu master, I can assure you – so much more efficient and effective than a dictionary!
Or at least it would be, if you’d get out of its way and ensure it got sufficient practice at figuring things out…
‘Uno, nessuno e centomila’ – 25% off this week!
Don’t forget this week’s new, B2-level (upper-intermediate) ‘easy Italian reader’ ebook, the second in our series of simplified versions of classic Italian literature.
Uno, nessuno e centomila (One, No One and One Hundred Thousand) by Nobel Prize winner Luigi Pirandello is the story of a privileged young man who one day realises that the way others perceive him is not the way he has always seen himself, which is perhaps a feeling that many of us have had at one time or another. Unlike most of us, though, Moscarda (the young man) decides to do something about it…
Of course, there’s a free sample chapter (.pdf) to help you get an idea of the type, length and format of the material, and so decide whether it will be suitable for you at your current level in Italian.
To further encourage you to buy a copy, this week we have the special launch price of just £5.99 (from next Monday it’ll shoot up to £7.99.)
But if the level is too hard or easy for you? Then select something more appropriate from the online shop’s Catalog page, which shows all of our ebooks for learning Italian (and other languages), sorted by type and level, from the easiest to the hardest.
Don’t forget the Mini-Book Club!
Also not to forget, assuming you’ll be reading the new story with us, is the new ‘Mini-Book Club’ page on the club website.
It’s a place where club members can share thoughts and support each other while we’re all reading the story – either the original version, which is available free online if you search for it, or our ‘easy reader’ version (get it for only £5.99 this week!)
Click this link and scroll down to see the initial comments from club members and to find out how we’re getting on with the text. I’m on p.40 already!
It’s completely free to participate in the ‘Mini-Book Club’ – if you’d like to join the discussion, you’ll be asked for your email address, but it won’t be published.
Tuesday’s bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news was published yesterday and is absolutely free to read and listen to. So why not do so?
Subscribing is also free. You’ll receive each thrice-weekly bulletin directly into your email inbox and so not have to remember to visit the ‘easy news’ website.