People have lots of daft ideas about language learning, what they should and shouldn’t do, why that will or won’t help, and so on. Two of the most misunderstood areas are reading and listening in/to your foreign language. The other is pronunciation.
I could list the the daft ideas people have about reading here (listening and pronunciation must wait for another day) as I’ve surely heard them all, over the decades.
But then I’d spend the rest of the day arguing with people who know they’re right and I’m wrong, and frankly, still with post-op pain, I can’t be bothered.
However, I will try to SHOW you how to do it, if you’ll concede me a few minutes of your time.
First, though, I’d emphasise one widely-misunderstood point, regarding WHY you should read in Italian or whatever language you’re learning.
It’s NOT to translate into English.
It’s NOT to analyse the grammar or the vocabulary.
What it IS, is ‘exposure’ to the language you’re learning. Just that.
What you read and listen to provides the fertile ground in which the seeds of your understanding of your new language can grow.
The more exposure, the more context, the more everything else will (eventually) make sense.
The benefits of this text, or this thing you’re listening to, are not to be expected here and now, necessarily (though reading/listening can be fun and motivating.)
But the time you spend will supercharge your learning, and make everything else you do easier.
BUT HOW IS IT POSSIBLE TO READ IF I HAVEN’T STUDIED ALL THE GRAMMAR, you lament. AND WITHOUT A DICTIONARY? Woe is me.
Suppose you see a text, a narrative, a detective story maybe, that’s written in a mix of the historic past and the recent past tenses, neither of which you have yet studied.
You give it a go anyway. Detective Rossi gets a call. A husky female voice asks for help. There’s the sound of a window breaking, a scream, and the line goes dead. You turn the page and…
How could you make any progress with a text that is written in tenses that you haven’t studied?
Because you know how detective stories go.
Because you know that the verb tenses you’re seeing are NOT the present, which is the only one you’ve studied (so by definition must be…?)
And because the text is sprinkled with words you know, such as telefono, whisky, cigarette.
The ‘why’ is about exposure. The more you read, the more exposure you’ll get, and the more things will make sense.
Suppose that you find yourself in a class of beginners and, as well as following the lessons and doing the homework, you seek out beginner-level reading and listening material and do as much of that as you have time for.
You would be getting MORE Italian than the other students in your class are, right?
Keep that up, an hour or two extra each week, and don’t you think that’s going to turbo-charge your learning?
Sure it will. The only exceptional students I saw in thirty-plus years of teaching English were the ones, usualy rebellious teenagers, who couldn’t get enough TV series and Harry Potter, stuff that hadn’t yet been made available in their own languages.
How come your kid’s so amazingly good, I’d ask the mom, who would explain that she’d no idea – no special lessons, no native speaker friends or foreign father – in fact the kid was not very interested at school and always had her head in a book/was always watching TV.
There’s a direct, causative relationship between meaningful input and learning. Get interested enough in something that you can only get in another language and, like magic, you’ll begin learning the foreign language.
We see the same effect a lot with teenage boys and online video gaming. Italian kids who’d never show any interest in English normally, using it for hours each evening, when they’re supposed to be doing homework, to fight virtual wars. Videos games these days are online, and players might be teamed up with other players from anywhere. English is the lingua franca for cursing opponents, planing tactics with team mates, and eavesdropping on opponents.
Conclusion? If you want to learn a language easily and quickly, find texts (written and audio) that interest you and consume them. Practice speaking, too, obviously.
But back to the ‘how’.
We’re going to practice with a story at low intermediate level, the first chapter, written for learners like you. Don’t worry if you’re just starting out with Italian, because what I want you to do is…
IGNORE ALL THE STUFF YOU DON’T KNOW
Just focus on the action, and on any actual speech.
Anything that smacks of ‘back story’ – I am this sort of person, I do this, I like that – you don’t have to worry about.
Read it, but don’t worry about it.
Because your objective is not to analyse, remember, but to get exposure.
What you need to be aiming for is to follow the NARRATIVE.
What will happen next, perhaps not until the next chapter.
Your success is measured by turning the page. Done with Chapter 1, on to Chapter 2.
In Chapter 2, you’ll have some expectation about what’s going on. So see if you were right, just that.
And on to Chapter 3.
Remember, this is not a test!
You don’t have to, and ABSOLUTELY SHOULD NOT, understand every word you read, nor look up words in the dictionary.
Read to the end.
Read it a second time, if you wish.
Then on to Chapter 2.
Ready to give that a go?
Here’s a little bit of help…
The text starts with ‘backstory’, which introduces the narrator, gives an idea of what sort of person he or she is, his/her habits, and so on.
Does it matter? Probably not. Or not yet. Or not very much.
SKIP IT ALL
Focus on the action, if there is any. And on any actual speech.
The text below is Chapter 1 of ‘Quando suonano alla porta‘ (don’t fret if you don’t understand the title – it’s normal), by Roberto Gamberini, a talented writer and occasional Italian teacher at our school in Bologna.
The level is supposed to be A2/B1, though the ‘level’ of a text is personal to you, really. It’s about what you can or can’t handle. Which depends on why and how you’re doing it. See?
Capitolo 1. Un suono alla porta
La notte non vado mai a dormire presto. Dopo cena bevo qualche bicchiere, di solito di vino. Mi sdraio sul divano e accendo Netflix: qualche serie nuova da guardare c’è sempre. Mi piacciono soprattutto le serie leggere, quelle con una trama semplice, pochi personaggi che parlano molto e ripetono sempre le stesse cose. Non amo le serie o i film complessi, non mi piacciono i thriller (perché poi non dormo), e nemmeno le commedie romantiche (perché mi ricordano che sono single da troppi anni).
Non mi piace leggere: devo concentrarmi troppo, la testa deve essere attiva, gli occhi attenti, e io invece voglio solo rilassarmi, il telecomando nella mano sinistra (sono mancino) e un calice di vino nella destra.
Dopo qualche ora di TV, di solito prendo sonno. Un sonno leggero, agitato, nervoso.
Spesso dormo sul divano. Non ho voglia di alzarmi, lavarmi i denti e andare a letto. Preferisco chiudere gli occhi, ancora con il telecomando in mano e la TV accesa. A volte riesco a dormire così fino al mattino. Altre volte mi sveglio nel cuore della notte (il divano non è poi così comodo), mi alzo, bevo un bicchier d’acqua, spengo la TV e vado a letto.
E sono proprio addormentato sul mio divano grigio quando un suono fastidioso mi fa aprire gli occhi. Guardo l’orologio: le 5 del mattino. È troppo presto per la sveglia, e la TV è spenta. Da dove viene questo suono?
Richiudo gli occhi, forse sto sognando.
No. Non sto sognando. Il rumore continua.
“Stefano! Stefano apri, ti prego!”
Di chi è questa voce? Chi è che batte con forza alla porta di casa mia?
“Stefano, sono Laura. Per favore, apri, è un’emergenza!”
Quick sense check:
– what’s the name of the narrator?
– who’s the other speaker?
– where is the other speaker?
Simple as that really. Now on to Chapter 2 to FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.
Remember fertile ground?
The quest to discover ‘what happens next’ provides the ‘meaningful’, which keeps you reading, and so results in fertile ground.
IF I’m in the mood, I’ll give you Chapter 2 on Friday. Impatient club members can find free sample chapters of hundreds of similar ‘easy readers’, at twelve different half-levels, on the catalog of our ebooks shop.
‘Quando suonano alla porta‘ by Roberto Gamberini will be published next week, post-operative fuss permitting.
Have you read Tuesday’s bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news?
Subscribing is FREE. Subscribers receive each thrice-weekly bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news via email, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. The idea is to help you build the habit of reading in and listening to Italian.