I have to be quick, as I already spent way too long answering emails from club members and commenting in the mini-book club!
So I thought that today, to save time, I’d try and catch two pigeons with one bean, as Italians say.
(The equivalent English expression also has a pair of birds but no ‘fava’. Beyond that, I offer no further clues!)
Anyway, a club member from Australia wrote:
“I was wondering if I am trying too hard, trying to do toooooo many things? I feel that nothing is going in! Moreover, I am reading the full version of Pinocchio and unlike some posts, there are many words there that are foreign to me and that I do not understand! This has deflated me also! I am reading your easy read and I’m fine with that BUT its only A2!!! I’m about a B1/2 and doing C2 grammar!!!”
To which I absolutely forgot to reply that, actually, your reading ability, especially with texts containing archaic or unfamiliar content, like the Pinocchio original, is potentially quite different from your ‘grammatical’ level.
I read way ahead of my ‘official’ level in all the languages I’m learning except Turkish, in which I can barely read at all, as it’s ‘back-to-front’, though I have few problems listening – go figure!
So it’s really quite unsurprising that you might find reading much harder, or easier. But it shouldn’t be too much trouble to bring your reading (or listening) level up to the level of your theoretical knowledge of the language. It just takes practice.
And there’s the rub, you see. Because to practice, you need a.) not to get demotivated and quit, and b.) to be basically practising the ‘right’ way.
So the lady above, earlier in her email, mentioned that she was ignoring new words in the text, etc. just as I advised (always do what the teacher says, kiddies!) So far, so good, then.
But that she feels “that nothing is going in!”
Oh dear…, red lights flashing, sirens wail. Demotivation alert!
I hypothesise (guess, really) that the reason most people FAIL TO LEARN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE, is just that. Because they get demotivated. It is, after all, a huge, long-term task. So, like dieting, or trying to cut your credit card debt, the risk of failure is ever-present.
The solution is to have appropriate feedback mechanisms in place. Ragazzi, ‘learning’ is hard enough, but it goes a lot easier if you ‘learn how to learn’!
Here’s my emailed reply:
Yes you might be trying to do too much, but more importantly, you’re not MEASURING, so even if you are making fantastic progress, you wouldn’t know it. Learning a language is a very long process, and while it doesn’t get any harder as you go along, it never seems finished. So the feeling of not getting anywhere is a constant one UNLESS you pre-empt it by deciding that you will evaluate your progress according to X or Y.
At a ‘macro’ level, keeping an eye on the CEFR checklists helps ( https://rm.coe.int/CoERMPublicCommonSearchServices/DisplayDCTMContent?documentId=090000168045bb52 ), but mostly in terms of prioritising and planning, rather than measuring day-to-day successes.
We’re all familiar with the idea of writing down lists of new words, remembering them, and testing ourselves a few days later – from school, probably. That’s clearly useful IF the words are of value, otherwise a complete waste of time.
With regard to measuring ‘skills’ (reading/listening/reading/writing) though, few people have any idea how to proceed, and so do indeed complain that they’re ‘not making any progress’.
Two simple approaches to, say, measuring your progress with ‘Pinocchio’ in the original would be:
1.) Measure how long (in minutes) it takes you to read each chapter. Note it down. There are thirty-six chapters in the original. I’d bet anything that your reading gets quicker and that your ‘evidience’ will show that.
2.) Make up a ‘difficulty’ scale, where 0 = ‘piece of cake!’ and 5 = ‘couldn’t understand a word and now want to die…’ Then, as above, give yourself a totally subjective rating at the end of each of the 36 chapters. Write it down someplace, like when you record your children’s height by having them stand against a wall and making a pencil mark at the top of their heads. Again, I bet you’ll soon see that you really are making progress.
A final word – at a tactical level (individual actions, events, objectives) it helps a lot to think about why you’re doing something, how you should do it, how you will define success, so NOT thinking of what you are doing as ‘learning Italian’ but thinking of it as ‘improving your reading skills’, or ‘doing 30 minutes of speaking practice with a native speaker’. Bricklayers lay bricks neatly and quickly – the construction project as a whole is someone else’s concern.
So that’s the motivation aspect dealt with. Find some way, objective or subjective, to measure your progress, and always look back to see, wow, how far you’ve come… rather than ahead to see, um… how far there still is to go. Gulp!
Besides the motivational aspect, there’s also plenty of tweaking that could be done with the ‘how’ some of you guys are going about learning Italian.
Call me arrogant – amazingly, people do – but I’ve been teaching English as a foreign language, and learning the languages of the people I was teaching, for more than thirty years now.
So that makes me OLD and arrogant, I suppose.
Hence, I would hold that I have a fair idea of what works and what might, potentially, be – how shall we say? – a less-well-optimised approach.
I preface the below comment that I posted in our Mini-Book Club this morning, with an acknowledgement that you are all entirely free to do things exactly as you please.
But also, a reminder, that you’re getting this sort of advice from an experienced professional entirely free of charge. So why not at least give what I say some thought?
Here’s my comment – it’s aimed at refuting the notion that reading aloud (language teachers around the world just puked their breakfast) is helpful to developing reading or listening skills.
(You can read all the comments, and add your own if you disagree with me, here: https://onlineitalianclub.com/mini-book-club-le-avventure-di-pinocchio/ )
Minou writes: “Reading out loud to oneself: Daniel – here’s another way to view it for us beginners. I too read aloud to myself – like a youngster learning to read. i love the sound of la lingua and i can practice pronunciation – specialmente quelle belle rrrolling rrrs! It adds to my enjoyment of the reading”
Now back to what Pam wrote:
“just like a child learning…you hear the sound of the language and work out how the words work together. The sentences seem to make more sense….Thinkofenglishwithoutgaps……..that’s how a new language sounds to beginners (or at least my experience seems to be) so reading aloud is finding the gaps and listening to the rhythm of the language and making sense of it.”
Well actually, Pam… Children learning to read absolutely DO NOT do that, except in films, where the director needs some device to show the viewers that, wow, the child is reading! Or if their parents force them to do that, in which case they’ll likely be put off reading forever after. In real life, kids (and adults) either read quickly to find out what happens next or, if they encounter difficulty, they quit and find something that they’d prefer to do instead.
Christine writes: “I’m with Minou and Christine ‘re reading aloud, yes just like a child learning…you hear the sound of the language and work out how the words work together. The sentences seem to make more sense….Thinkofenglishwithoutgaps……..that’s how a new language sounds to beginners (or at least my experience seems to be) so reading aloud is finding the gaps and listening to the rhythm of the language and making sense of it.”
OK, SO IT SEEMS MY ROLE AROUND HERE IS TO DISAGREE WITH EVERYONE, ALL OF THE TIME! (I’ll stop shouting now,)
But seriously, ladies, when you’re deciding how best to do something, even without having a specialist or professional knowledge of the methodology (teachers often do, though not always, learners often don’t, but get on fine anyway), it really helps to talk about one goal at a time. If you are doing two things at the same time (i.e. reading for pleasure and reading to learn new words) then in fact you have two different goals and there is the risk, not certainty, that your chosen approach will be a compromise, so not as efficient as it would be if you had just the one goal.
Typically when we teach ‘reading as a skill’, we NEVER do it by reading aloud. There are lots of excellent didactic reasons, but I’ll come back to that. What we normally ask students to do is to read first for general understanding (and verify that with broad comprehension questions), then read again for specific details (testing understanding with much more specific questions), and only then, IF time, focusing on unknown aspects of the text, which could be vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation or some cultural aspect.
That’s the general approach that a pro classroom lanaguage teacher would use, and that’s what I usually do myself when I am reading in the languages I’m learning. I read for general understanding, then stop.
“Thinkofenglishwithoutgaps……..that’s how a new language sounds to beginners”
No, that’s how all languages sound, all of the time, to everyone. It’s just that when we are beginners we have zero ability to decode the stream of phonemes. Languages sound ‘joined up’ if you listen carefully, but actually we don’t ‘listen’ to what we hear – when I want to remind myself of what you said, I replay the ‘already processed’ version from my memory banks.
You can easily verify that, for example by using homophones (words which sound the same but have different meanings and spellings) – You told me “I no lots of words in English”, someone else asks me what you said and I reply “She knows lots of words in English”.
‘See what happened there? (Because you couldn’t have HEARD it – ‘no’ and ‘know’ are homophones). My brain ‘fixed’ what you told me, based on my understanding of the rules of language and the probablities regarding what you intended to communicate. What I then remember ‘hearing’ is the edited version.
Another example: ‘a /red/ newspaper’ (= read) but ‘a /red/ apple’ (= the color). The // contain the phonemic symbols, which are identitical, even though the spelling differs. If I dictated those two expressions, you’d write them down correctly. But if I just dictated, the one word /red/, you would write whichever came into your head first, then probably swear blind that what you wrote was correct, even though you actually have no way of knowing that.
Italian has few homophones, so those examples are specifc to English, but the process of taking a stream of phonemes and turning it into understandable ‘chunks’ of meaning is one that takes time to acquire in a new language, and the best way to promote that new ability is with lots of LISTENING practice, ideally with materials that are appropriate to your level.
Only-in-text-do-we-use-gaps-to-delineate-words-or-grammatical-components, and then not consistently within a language – in English, some compound words are separate, some are hyphenated, some are joined together – it’s a spelling convention, and the pronunciation does not reflect whether or not there’s a gap. And different languages have differing approaches – German/Swedish etc. have, what seem to an English native-speaker, impossibly long compound nouns.
Gaps between words, whether to leave them or not, are WRITING conventions. As such, they’re important to reading, of course they are. But they’re unlikely to be of any value to improving your listening comprehension or speaking skills.
In my opinion, using a written text to teach yourself to speak or listen more effectively is a less valid use of your time than, say, listening to an audio task designed specifically for that purpose, or actually speaking.
And reading aloud, while it involves the use of your tongue, is basically NOT speaking, which involves many sub-skills, not just prounciation (which itself has many components.) Compare what (random example) President Trump sounds like when he’s reading a speech from a teleprompter written for him by someone else, and when he’s speaking off the cuff, as he clearly prefers to do. Really, there’s absolutely no comparison. It’s not just that he sounds different, it’s an entirely different act, and more (or less) effective as a consequence.
Ditto with how actors always sound meaningful and charismatic in films (oh wow, I’d love to go for a beer with him/her) but can seem rather banal on talkshows when they’re not reading someone else’s words.
Do whatever you want, but if you aim to make the most progress in the least time, it helps to define WHY you are doing something and to choose an approach that facilitates that thing only. If it appears that you have two objectives (I am learning to read AND learning to pronounce words more confidently), then it is at least possible that you would be getting better results by focusing on those things at different times (no reason you can’t do one thing first, then the other, using the same material…)
Bene, end of today’s lecture.
1.) Thanks to everyone who bought a copy of our ‘easy reader’ ebook version of ‘Le avventure di Pinocchio‘. The offer has now ended, but it’s still available (just at the ‘normal’ easy reader ebook price of £7.99). Or view our Catalogue to examine everything we have for learning Italian (and other languages), organised by type and level.
2. ) EasyItalianNews.com is FREE to read/listen to.
You want to understand Italian, so… um… why not read and listen to it? Oh, I know! It’s because you thought that learning long lists of archaic or rarely-used words and expressions would help you with your listening skills and so make it easier to understand what Italians say on your next holiday here.
Though Italians do talk devilishly fast, don’t they? And with their words all joined up (the technical term is ‘connected’, with features such as ‘linking’, ‘elision’ and ‘intrusion’), like a fast-flowing river of sound!
Oh mio dio, I’ll never understand that. I know, I won’t even try! Now, where’s that grammar book got to?
3.) And of course, there’s simply loads of FREE listening practice on the club website: https://onlineitalianclub.com/index-of-italian-listening-comprehension-exercises/ . And yes, some of it doesn’t have accompanying transcripts. So you have to listen.
A venerdì, allora.