Yesterday evening, my class of Italian adults improving their English were working on the Past Perfect tense.
They ‘had studied’ it before but ‘hadn’t learnt’ it, despite there being an equivalent in Italian, the trapassato prossimo (find a lesson and two exercises under ‘T’ on the club’s grammar page).
In English the tense is used often, not just in narratives (“she had never felt like that about anyone before”) but in reported speech (“he explained that his dog had eaten his homework”) and, confusingly for Italians, in past conditionals (“if you’d paid more attention to this at school, you’d have picked this up as a teenager and wouldn’t need an English course now”).
Confusingly because, while Italians don’t bother much with tenses, the whole idea being rather a turn-off, they are really into conjugating verbs! And Italian verbs can be conjugated into a conditional mood, if you can be bothered, so obviating the need to employ something as simple as ‘had + past participle’ while at the same time providing work for Italian teachers. Win, win!
Ask Italians about this stuff and you can see them mentally scratching their heads, trying to recall half-learnt lessons from middle school. Italians admire anyone that manages to get all their conjugational ducks in a row when speaking or writing, but may admit, if pressed, that it’s not really necessary. Normal speech is much more straightforward.
While grammar-focused lessons are usually popular, as they feel like ‘real’ learning, the highlight of yesterday’s lesson, and very likely the ONLY THING THAT WILL BE REMEMBERED, came during our rather long, and totally unconnected, introductory chat.
I was mentioning how Roomie, who’s teething, had destroyed our TV remote by sucking on it while my wife was distracted, talking to her mom on the phone, but that she‘d put things right by ordering a replacement from Amazon, which arrived the next day.
Isn’t life marvellous, we agreed, at which point someone began to reminisce about the days of VHS (prounounced ‘vu accha esse’ in Italian), then we all remembered going to the Blockbuster (video rental store) on Via Irnerio, which closed years ago, and I explained that I still use VHS in my kiddie classes because you can just pop the tape in and it plays from where we left it the week before, so no messing around with remotes, which I never mastered, having been skint, or lived abroad, or skint and living abroad, during the various technological revolutions.
Which took us back to TV (‘tee vu’), and only TWO of us could remember our families getting their first colour TVs, the other three adults having grown up with them, except for ‘white and black’ movies, obviously, which were always available, and very chic to boot.
Hang on, I intervened – in English we say ‘black and white’, for TV, for movies, for photography, not ‘white and black’.
That fazed them totally!
Why on earth, they wanted to know. How is that possible? How could it be? Why would hundreds of millions of people be so PERVERSE as to say ‘black and white’ instead of the obviously correct ‘white and black’?
I tried to think of a reason why English speakers were right and Italian speakers wrong, or vice versa, but couldn’t.
It’s usage, that’s all.
Well with language, basically everything.
White and black” is usage, the fact that chimpanzees are categorised by Italians in the same group as monkeys, rather than correctly as apes, and yes indeed, they way that verbs conjugate, or don’t, or do when you’re speaking ‘correctly’ but not if you don’t have a broomstick in your rectum.
Wikipedia puts it like this:
The usage of a language is the ways in which its written and spoken variations are routinely employed by its speakers; that is, it refers to “the collective habits of a language’s native speakers”, as opposed to idealized models of how a language works or (should work) in the abstract.
Most modern language teaching aims to impart the basics of usage, so the grammatical, lexical, phonological and other elements that contribute to “the collective habits of a language’s native speakers”, but of course, there’s no single, comprehensive model.
Course book writers and teachers make decisions about what to teach based on a number of factors, including tradition, lack of imagination, how previous lessons have gone, whether they have photocopies left from a previous class, and so on.
They fondly imagine that they prioritise the important parts, the parts that students actually ‘need’, though that’s mostly nonsense, because most syllabuses (please don’t write to correct me, it’s ‘acceptable usage’) are aimed at students of Italian (or English) whose mother tongues might begin with any letter of the alphabet, from American to Welsh.
As any English native speaker who has taken an Italian course in Italy can observe, classmates from Spanish or Portuguese-speaking countries learn much faster and apparently effortlessly.
The ease, or difficulty, of learning Italian, or any language, depends in large part on what your mother tongue is, and on what other languages you might know, something which is not written in any course book that I’m familiar with, nor understood by most language teachers.
One-size-fits-all is convenient for publishers and teachers, who in any case cannot reasonably be expected to be familiar with all their students’ mother tongues. I’m pretty good at understanding what Italians find hard about English, but this afternoon I’m teaching a group of Chinese teenagers, so will be adrift. See?
What students actually get, then, tends to be a synthesis of a whole range of things that may or may not actually be what they need.
If they’re lucky, most of the teaching points will be usage-based, frequently-used, and learnable.
If not, they’ll be bombarded with explanations, which may in themselves be understandable and logical, but will have no direct impact on their ability to speak and understand the language they’re learning.
Hence my usual advice, which is to prioritise skills – reading, listening, speaking, in particular.
Get down and dirty with the language and absorb how other people are using it. You don’t have to ‘understand’, you don’t need permission, you’re not doing anything ‘wrong’.
People don’t learn to cook from books, do they? Or at least, not primarily.
Aim to soak up how people greet each other in the language you’re learning, the sounds, rhythms and ‘music’ (intonational aspects) of their speech, the most common expressions, and yes, the grammatical elements that you hear again and again, which can therefore be picked up easily, or if just too alien for someone with your mother tongue to get their heads around any time soon, consigned to a pile of things that can be worried about later.
Yesterday I was chatting to an Italian teacher who is excited to be visiting Israel for a month, and has been learning some Hebrew.
She’s finding it ‘really hard’, it’s so different, it’s like, oh wow!
Verb stems, no conjugations, and in reading, you have to just understand things from the context, because there are no vowels!
(I’m not sure any of that is true of Hebrew, but you get the idea. It’s very different from Italian!)
Indeed, I said, that’s basically how our students (except the ones from Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries, and the French) feel about Italian.
I certainly did! There are no subject pronouns! Things are male or female? You can’t say anything without knowing how to conjugate verbs. And they use the present tense for EVERYTHING!
Be aware, your teacher many have no idea how hard this is for you.
Her ‘explanations’, the ‘priorities’, what she tells you is ‘correct’, so ‘important’, might not be what you need.
Learn to notice the usage, and you’ll be able to chart your own learning journey.
Have you listened to Tuesday’s bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news, yet?
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