I don’t have a mass of time, as I have a French lesson starting in 90 minutes, and I currently don’t speak a word of the language. I understand it fairly well, as I studied it at school and listen to the radio in French, but I can’t actually say anything. More about that below. But first…
La storia di Roma, Episodio 14. L’imperatore Augusto (27 a.C.- 14 d.C.)
It seems we’re in for a period of consolidation and relative calm in ancient Rome. Judging from the dates in the link above, said Augusto (the name is explained in the text) must have been pretty safe in his job. Perhaps it was Rome’s golden era? Who knows, I guess we’ll find out, as there are still 16 episodes to go.
N.b. If you haven’t been bothering with these, free reading/listening practice is always valuable. You get the audio, the text which functions as a tapescript, and the occasional link to further resources. At zero cost. They’re all linked to from our History page, if you fancy checking out what you’ve been missing.
And yes, the level is pretty hard. Probably a B2 or C1 overall, so for a lot of club members it’ll be a challenge. But remember, there’s no rule that says you have to understand everything you read and listen to. In fact the opposite: Daniel’s rule is that understanding will come, eventually, AS A RESULT of engaging with written and spoken texts. The more you read/listen, the quicker you’ll reach the point where you actually can start to follow.
Which brings me back to my French. So maybe a couple of years ago I treated myself to a subscription to ‘Le Monde’, and have hapazardly been reading the headlines, and occasionally an article or two since then. French is similar to Italian, and I studied it at school, so I figured that it should be relatively easy to activate what I once knew and build on it. And, more or less, it was. I found reading French much harder than reading Italian, obviously, but no harder than reading Swedish, which I’ve studied from zero as an adult, and actually much easier than Turkish (a language that I know quite well to speak, but have difficulty reading or writing), or Spanish, which I’ve only started recently.
So I added a listening component. I have two French radio apps on my phone and have been trying to get into the habit of using them. And in fact I have, and the result is more or less the same as with the reading – harder than Italian, easier than Spanish, much the same as Swedish or Turkish. French radio has become my go-to soundtrack for when I’m doing customer service work or other routine tasks. I particularly like Radio France’s Franceinfo, which has lots of discussions and regular repeats of the day’s news.
So far so good. I was growing confident, but knew that, while reading and listening are all very well, there would come a point at which I would want to actually speak. Listening is fundamental to conversation, but you need to be able to reply! So I dived in with a few online lessons (today will be my third).
And guess what?
I can’t speak a word.
I can follow most of what the teacher says, so am able to interact fairly effectively, even just with ‘oui’ and ‘non’ and ‘mais’ and ‘tres bien!’ But actually forming sentences or questions? My mind’s a blank.
Bear in mind we’re talking about a language that I do, in theory, know some of, perhaps to B1 level, except for the speaking, obviously. My poor online teacher is very confused. She thinks I’m a total beginner, and tried to teach me ‘Bonjour’, ‘Bon soir’ etc. And yet I’m telling her I can understand.
Actually, I’d say this was a pretty common situation for club members too, with their Italian. Loads of people around the world have done Italian evening classes and so on and, after a few years, reached intermediate level or better. Yet they’ve often done little actual speaking (Italian teachers do like to hold the floor…) and so, when it comes to ‘performing live’, they don’t feel ready.
I’m just an extreme version of that with my French, the opposite with the other languages, which I’ve practiced more. I can either speak better than expected, or not at all.
Time mostly. And practice, of course. If you can afford it, get one-to-one lessons. Or a conversation group – you could even form one youself if you know other people in the same position.
If you go for the lessons, tell the teacher you want to SPEAK, but don’t be surprised if they insist on teaching you grammar, correcting your errors, and so on, anything but actually interacting with you in a natural way. Actually, it’s HARD to ‘teach’ someone to speak. Teachers know how to ‘explain’ things, but not how to actually defrost what’s in your skull so it leaks down and seeps out of your mouth.
The trick of it is – and this I know because we’ve been doing conversation classes in English at our school in Bologna for years and years, and I’ve therefore had to train the tutors who interact with our students – to treat it as much as possible like a natural interaction. It should be like chatting to someone you meet on a train, or sitting in the pub moaning about the government. The role of the tutor/teacher is NOT to speak, not to fill the embarassed silences with gabble, but to set up opportunities for the student or students to say something. Which is harder than you’d imagine.
I tell the baby tutors, remember Oprah Winfrey and her famous talk show? All those interesting guests? Well YOU are Oprah, and what does Oprah do? She gets the guests to speak, by asking questions, looking interested, managing the interactions with other guests, and so on. Everyone there has a book or a record to sell, they all have a story to tell, they all need airtime. So the most important part of Oprah’s job? After the initial introductory chat? Is to shut the hell up and make sure her guests get their chance to speak.
As I said, teachers are rubbish at this. At the first grammar mistake, they’ll seize a board pen, rush to the whiteboard and start ‘explaining’ things. With diagrams. And so no one gets to speak except the teacher. It’s much easier to train non-teachers to be conversation tutors, in fact. Consider that, if your teacher ignores your requests to talk more in class. Could be she just has no idea how to faciliate conversation practice, it not being ‘proper teaching’.
Which brings me to yesterday morning, when my wife, who’s currently filling in as an Italian teacher at our school, related that in the second part of Monday’s lesson (the ‘practice’ part) her students had told her that this week they’d like to talk more, to work on becoming more fluent. How should she go about that, she asked, did I have any suggestions?
Why don’t you use the Conversation Prompts on the club website, I asked. Get the students to pick a topic for each day of the week, they can study the questions in advance and look up any words or structures they’re unfamiliar with. Then in the lesson, each person chooses a question from that topic and asks the others. They could do it in pairs, small groups, all of you together, or a mix of those interaction patterns. And you can listen and make notes on typical errors, and give feedback when the conversation runs dry.
So she took a look. Click on the topics and you’ll see the actual conversation prompts, in approximate order of difficulty. And then, for some of the topics, there are recordings of native speakers (mostly my kids) asking each other a few of the questions, and a transcript of what they say and how they say it. Pretty foolproof, I’d have thought.
I forgot to ask her how it went with the class, but in any case, if you’d like to build your fluency, maybe with some friends, with a handy native speaker, or with an online teacher, now you have a place you could start.
Everyone has a story to tell, remember.
The trick is to ask.
And the best conversations involve taking turns.
Aim for you and the other person showing an interest in each other’s stories and opinions. Listening, not just speaking.
A venerdì, allora.
OnlineItalianClub.com | EasyItalianNews.com | EasyReaders.org
Thanks for this, Daniel. I am in a similar position: reading and understanding Italian: pretty good. Speaking, meh! But I find in conversations with native speakers I feel I am boring them, I’m too slow, often incorrect, in short a real pain to listen to. So I’m quite self-conscious which only makes things worse. I envy those intrepid people who jump right in and keep on jabbering even though they know far less Italian than I do.! I think this is probably the biggest impediment to my progress. Steph
Take the Oprah role – ask questions and let the native speakers do the talking. They won’t even notice if you’re not keeping up, as long as you keep encouraging them to speak. In the languages I know less well, I have a reputation for being a good listener…
Lynne F says
Yes thanks Daniel for the good advice Like you Steph I really lacked confidence.to speak. Last year in Italy I promised myself that I would only talk in Italian (except to my husband). For ten days I managed to get us to the places we wanted to go, ate the dishes we thought we had ordered sorted out a few problems and even joked with the waiter. It wasn’t just asking for things I needed or wanted but real conversation with expression. I realised how much I still have to learn but more importantly I realised how much I have improved. if I didn’t know something I used what I did know and some how I was understood.I didn’t understand everything that was said to me but got the gist. The feeling of joy as each day went by. So give it a try the more you do the easier it will become I promise.