Yesterday evening I was teaching two Italian guys in their forties about prepositions, or rather about why they’ve managed to not learn how prepositions are different in Italian and English, despite thirty years of trying.
No one taught them the ‘rules’, they explained.
Nonsense, I replied. How would that help? There are thousands, probably tens of thousands of different uses of English prepositions, given that if you change the associated verb, noun or adjective the ‘combined meaning’ will be different.
That’s entirely the point of language, I explained. That its components permit a nearly infinite number of combinations, which in turn allows us to commmunicate a vast range of different things, with often very subtle differences of meaning. Frightened of, frightened about, frightened by, for example. That’s three rules to learn, just for one adjective!
When we say ‘rules’, we agreed, we mean some conditional assertion (this is true if.. except when…) which describes how natives speakers use language.
The idea being that if you, the students, can understand/remember the rule, you’ll then have a guide to how to operate the particular component of the new language code. Right?
But as I said, that’s nonsense. Because what you really need is not an instruction book for English prepositions but to know where the use of prepositions in Italian and English differ.
You already have an instruction book for prepositions in your head, I told them. Fortunately, it was ‘written’ for Italian, as that’s the language you use all the time. Meno male.
When you use English, naturally you refer to the instruction book in your head. And sometimes that works fine, and sometimes it doesn’t: when English is different.
For example, I went on, I spent my first ten years of speaking Italian saying ‘dipende su’, because in English it’s ‘depends on’.
It didn’t matter much, because people understood me anyway, or if they didn’t it wasn’t the fault of the preposition.
Until finally, I twigged! And started saying ‘dipende da’ instead of ‘dipende su’.
I could have progressed much, much quicker if I’d had, not an instruction manual for all Italian prepositions in all situations, but a quick list of the main differences between your Italian system and my English system.
I held up our course book, an international bestseller, developed over several decades by the publishing offshoot of a famous British university.
It was open to chapter 3B, Prepositions, the page showing explanations and exercises.
Sorry, but there’s no such list in this book.
Why? Because it’s produced not specifically for Italians but for people learning English all over the world.
You may, or may not, find your particular ‘instruction manual’ issues in these exercises, but it’s certainly not going to fix everything, right now, this evening.
The point of this lesson is to make you aware of why you haven’t already ‘acquired’ this element of English to your (and my) satisfaction.
So that you’ll be more aware going forward and thus, when you notice a difference, you have more chance of your brain taking it on board and adding it to your ‘instruction manual’. See?
So how about, I asked, if, as we work through the explantions, examples, and exercises in the book, I make a few notes on the board about differences we identify.
We’ll translate stuff, see if it’s the same, if it is we’ll ignore it, and if it isn’t, we’ll have an ‘ah!’ moment and note it down for future reference.
Got a pen? Got your note book?
That was what we came up with.
And yes, I know, my board work’s terrible, and worse since the stroke, so I’ll highlight the main bits for you, starting on the right-hand side…
Different dependent prepositions
(Where the verb or adjective combines with a preposition in both English and Italian, but different ones, like my example in the text above…)
good/bad at > in
depend on > da
interested in > per? a?
worried about > per
laugh at > di
Italians use a dependent preposition, English speakers don’t
ask > chiedere a
tell > raccontare a
(Not the one you’d expect…)
by bike > in bicicletta
through the door > dalla porta (only ghosts go ‘attraverso la porta’ my students told me)
go to a place > could be ‘in’ or ‘a’, ask an Italian teacher to explain the difference…
(Done deliberately to confuse learners!)
in front of > davanti (not ‘di fronte a’, which means ‘opposite’)
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
The differences above are basically just variations, and they’re pretty easy to learn once you notice them, or someone tells you and you can be bothered to make a mental note, as I mostly couldn’t.
But there are some things which are more ‘conceptual’, in the sense that for you guys a preposition’s basic meaning includes A and B, whereas for us it’s A but NOT B.
If you see what I mean.
From the exercises, the students came up with phrases like:
“He came in the room.”
“The mouse jumped on the table.”
The ‘elephant in the room’ for Italian speakers learning English, and vice versa, is that our English ‘instruction book’ suggests we combine prepositions of PLACE and with a preposition of MOVEMENT to communicate moving to or from the place. For example: get into bed, fall out of love.
Whereas the Italian ‘instruction book’ has ‘simple’ prepositions that allow both the place and movement meanings.
If the above examples in italics had been created using our English ‘instruction book’, they would have used ‘into’ and ‘onto’, rather than ‘in’ and ‘on’.
Was this covered specifically in our book?
Of course not.
Does all this really matter?
That’s for you to decide.
N.b. Why not create your own list as you’re reading in Italian?
When you see a preposition, ask yourself what it would be in English. When you find a difference, write it down. Italian example, English translation. Basta così.
No need to go crazy about this, but an hour or two invested now might pay back with increased accuracy in the future. No one actually likes making mistakes, after all (though there’s a strong argument to suggest that the more mistakes you’re willing to tolerate, the better you’ll learn to communicate…)
Don’t read in Italian?
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Check out the Free Sample Chapter (.pdf) before you do, though.
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Sono Barbara, una delle insegnanti di Online Italian Club, e sono italiana. I find this article very helpful, especially the part about combining prepositions in English. I have to confess that I can use them (sometimes) but I don’t know why. I just learnt some of them by imitation (the more I come across them, the more I have the chance to memorize them). While I’m teaching Italian, I find it fascinating to compare our personal ‘instruction books’, the ones between my students and me. Most of them are English speakers, which make me focus mainly on the differences between English and Italian. Among them, there’s one which promptly became my favourite (it was mentioned in Daniel’s board too). “Chiedere qualcosa a qualcuno” which could be translated with “Asking someone for something”, if I am not wrong. The use of prepositions is completely the opposite between the two languages and this is pretty amazing, don’t you think? 🙂
Amazing for you and I, Barbara, as we make our living teaching languages. Very irksome for everyone else, I’d say…
Val L says
I’m not a teacher but I’m absolutely fascinated by languages and how they work. I love this kind of observation.
Grazie Daniel. Molto utile. Just need to learn and remember.
Georgina McManners says
Grazie Daniel, your energies and enthusiasms are really refreshing and motivating. even when I’m nearly comatose at the end of the day.
It was the beginning of the day for me, Georgina!
Val L says
So helpful, and a really clear way of tackling what can be a confusing subject. I remember being very confused early on learning Italian by the fact that each preposition could be translated by several different English prepositions – because I was trying to translate word by word instead of by idea. I especially love the comment that “only ghosts go ‘attraverso la porta’!” My own Italian teacher also recommended that we students make a list like this, though I didn’t get time then – as well as being really used, as Barbara mentioned, it’s also fascinating so I’m definitely going to make my own list next time I focus on my Italian. Thanks for sharing this.