Many years ago, when I could barely speak Italian at all, I signed up for a part-time MBA course (taught in Italian – I was the only foreign student) at our local business school.
The first module in the two-year course was on ‘la strategia’ (n.b. ‘abstract’ nouns in Italian have a ‘the’, unlike in English – ‘il mare’, ‘la religione’, ‘fai l’amore non la guerra’ – it’s a common cause of mistakes.)
I recall at the time being vague about exactly what strategy was, though twenty years on it’s much clearer. Time does that.
Assuming you’re unfamiliar with the term, here’s a definition I ripped off from the Internet:
1. Branca dell’arte militare che regola e coordina le varie operazioni belliche in vista dello scopo finale della guerra: s. terrestre, navale, aeronautica; alta s.; in senso più ampio, l’arte o la scienza che ha per scopo l’utilizzazione del potenziale bellico di un paese nel modo più efficace e produttivo ai fini della vittoria.
2. La condotta di una determinata azione di guerra, spec. in quanto definisca i particolari criteri di opportunità del comandante. “la s. di Annibale alla battaglia di Canne”
Insomma, “che regola e coordina le varie operazioni belliche in vista dello scopo finale della guerra” – strategy is that which governs the various military operations in accordance with the war’s final objective (that’s a very loose translation.)
One of the MBA professors gave an example, which I haven’t forgotten, unlike most of the rest of the two years’ worth of explanations.
Think of the war in Vietnam, he suggested. Your country has been flooded with heavily armed foreigners, equipped with powerful weapons, modern means of transport, and seemingly unlimited resources. They’re determined to impose their choice of government on you, and seem unbothered by the cost to your side, or theirs for that matter. At least for the moment.
You have some sacks of rice, a reasonable array of low tech weaponry, and a ready supply of energetic young people who can be persuaded (or forced) into battle, no matter how hopeless the odds. And there’ll always be more where those came from.
Your objective? Well, to win the war, obviously. But beyond that? HOW do you win the war? You have a choice of TACTICS (the particular individual actions or technologies you decide to employ – laying landmines for the invaders to tread on, say. Or shooting at passing platoons from the safety of the jungle) and, more importantly for our purposes, of STRATEGIES.
You could, for instance, muster all your forces for one overwhelming assault, win or lose! Or perhaps you’d go for a campaign of urban ‘terrorism’ – blowing up bars where enemy soldiers gather, for example, with the aim of neutralising the invader’s technological advantages.
Careful though, what we need is a winning STRATEGY – not a tactic. What we’re looking for is a ‘route map’, an ‘approach’ or ‘plan’ that we can follow, until the long-term desired outcome is achieved.
It can be difficult to tell a strategy from a tactic, we found out on our course. In business, cutting prices is a tactic, but with what long-term aim? When will you know that you’ve ‘won’? Walmart already did. Invariably, more thinking is required…
So back to Vietnam, late ‘sixties, early ‘seventies (I saw some of this on TV as a toddler…) What was the winning strategy? For it was, in the end, a successful one.
Wait it out.
Plan ahead, so you know you’ll still be fighting when the other side has got fed up with the whole endeavour.
No need to win every battle. No need to win the war today, or tomorrow. No need to spare your troops, given that new soldiers of both genders are being born every day.
Think long term, and know that if you stay in the game, IF you stay in the game, you have an excellent chance of ‘winning’.
Beh, anyway. Overnight, we got a negative review from a ‘Free Trial Lesson Offer’ student on our shop website.
Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE negative reviews! The more the merrier, wheel them on, please say something gruesome about our free offer, or the widely-admired teacher who spent half an hour of his time (at my expense) trying to interact with you.
Really, negative reviews make all the five star ones look much more credible (and perhaps demonstrate that we’re not gaming the system by deleting anything critical? I hope so.)
Nevertheless, I was not happy. I blame the teacher side of me, which CAN’T STAND people failing to achieve what they clearly would like to do and are surely capable of.
IT DRIVES ME MAD. I walk around the house muttering under my breath in sheer frustration.
I shall permit myself the liberty of copying and pasting below the offending review. Anonymously, out of genuine sympathy for the reviewer:
My class was disappointing through no fault of the tutor who was well prepared, kind and friendly.
My disappointment was my inability to speak. It was like there was no connection between my brain and my mouth. Even though I have been studying, listening and reading Italian for more than a year when it came to simple introductions I became tongue tied, so much so that Alberto began at the beginning teaching me masculine and feminine nouns. I found it all very upsetting and didn’t feel encouraged to repeat the experience.
I feel for you, lady, I really do. Here’s my reply:
If you’ve never spoken Italian before, it seems unsurprising that you would have difficulty the first time, however much you’ve studied, however much you’ve practiced listening. Speaking is a skill in itself and requires a sort of ‘muscle memory’, not just a theoretical knowledge.
I’ve had similar experiences myself in first lessons with a new language, or one I haven’t spoken for decades. It can be upsetting, especially if the teacher (perhaps reasonbly) assumes that because you can’t get a single coherent word out, you must be a beginner.
After a half-dozen sessions, though, things always begin to loosen up, and gradulally I become able to speak at a level more appropriate to my ‘real’ knowledge of the language. Of course, that presupposes a willingness to ‘repeat the experience’.
To which I would now add – this exact same thing happened to me recently, when I began with French conversation lessons, after nearly four decades of not having spoken the language. Naturally, then, I couldn’t utter a word. To which situation, the (inexperienced) teacher reacted by pulling out beginners’ lessons. Oh dear…
I attempted several times to explain that I just needed speaking practice, preferably starting off with really basic stuff (beginners’ lessons are fine for that), with the aim of ‘defrosting’ the French I had forty years back. After a handful of lessons, I told her directly (in Italian this time) what I wanted. Speaking! Not beginners’ grammar and vocabulary!
And do you know what she said? To her boss, mind you, in that I own the company employing her. Also to a colleague with over thirty years experience…
I paraphrase: “It’s the teacher’s job to decide the lesson content and objectives, not the student’s.”
If you get a teacher who thinks that way, sack them without further ado, and get another. Better still, tell me, or Lucia – our teaching manager – and one of us will SORT IT OUT.
French teacher #deux is great, knows that I want to just chat, and respects that. Lessons are fun, and after just a few half-hour sessions, my French is defrosting very nicely, exactly as I had hoped. There’s still lots of umming and ahhing, of course, but most of the thirty-minutes is actual, more-or-less French.
Many, many people wrote to me after Monday’s article ‘New “How to” series: your suggestions, please!‘. My apologies for not having replied (yet) to everyone, but it’s quite a big job sorting out the mass of suggestions, cries for help, and so on.
Alan commented overnight (comments, like negative reviews, are always welcome):
Perhaps some ideas on how to structure your learning.
I always have trouble with this, always asking myself “what do i do next and for how long?”. Maybe reading or listening or writing or speaking or verb tables, nouns, prepositions or ?????? etc, etc, and sentence building i find very difficult.
Sounds like a ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ situation, Allan, wouldn’t you say?
“This is a tree. That’s a tree. Oh wow, there’s another tree over there!”
“What are all these trees doing here?” (Scratches head.)
What you need, mate, is a STRATEGY. That’s to say, a sort of long term ‘plan’ that will guide you from here to your destination.
It could be something as simple as ‘take a course every year’ or ‘follow the book, then the next book, then the next book’, or it could be something more Daniel-like, such as immersing yourself in the media of the country where the language you’re learning is spoken, while chatting weekly with personable native-speakers.
Whatever. But before you define a strategy, you need to understand what your OBJECTIVE is, this because the strategy is supposed to lead there. Suppose your objectives is ‘win the war’. Well, what does ‘winning the war’ look like for you, Alan?
Perhaps your objective is ‘passing an Italian exam at level X’, or ‘feeling confident when having Italian conversations with native speakers’, or ‘reading Italian literature in the original’. It could be any of these things, or any of many other things, or multiple things.
But one thing an objective usually ISN’T is ‘vague’ or ‘undefined’, at least, not if it’s a helpful one. How useful, for example, is ‘learn Italian’, as an objective? In the sense that it helps you choose a strategy, which will, in turn, inform the day-to-day tactical decisions? Not much help at all, is the answer.
Whereas “I’m A2. I want to be B2. In six months” is a much more useful goal. Any competent teacher (and many learners) could take that ‘output’ definition and show you how to plan out a stategy and tactics to get there.
Woods are dark and dangerous. There may conceal wolves, or unhinged children in crimson hoods.
So it’s important to know when there’s a big bunch of trees massed together somewhere on your route, or that you have, wittingly or unwittingly, wandered into one.
Beware! That charming forest abode might house the witch from ‘Hansel and Gretel’. You wouldn’t want to end up in her oven, would you?
In language learning, DETAILS (the trees) are mostly trivial, if for no other reason than that there are so many of them. You don’t walk through a forest examining each tree, do you?
You’ll never master ‘every’ element of the language (really), but in any case, once you’ve learnt at least some of it, you should be an experienced-enough traveller to figure out the things you really need for yourself as (or ideally, before) they pounce out at you.
It’s for this reason, and others, that your OBJECTIVE, and so your ‘direction’, your ‘route-planning’, your choice of ‘means of transport’ (method, approach) matters.
If you don’t know what you’re doing with your langauge-learning (yet), read this article for an overview of the process: How to learn Italian (or any language)
Then, think about what you want to achieve. Be as specific about the ‘goal’ (not the methods of reaching it) as you can.
And only THEN, decide what to do next – what materials, techniques, tactics you’ll employ to facilitate progress towards where you want to be.
Final comment: if you have the right strategy and the right tactic, why quit when things don’t work out so well, the first time you go into battle?
Doing hard things is, um, hard. And sometimes you’ll feel bad when things don’t go as you’d hoped.
It takes time to ‘learn’ a language (here defined as reaching a level at which you feel confident interacting with native speakers, and can get the gist of a newspaper article.)
Lots of it.
A venerdì, allora.
Online Lesson Prices Increasing Soon!
Remember back in the summer, when we had to start charging British V.A.T. (Value Added Tax) on our online Italian lessons?
VAT is 20% (the Italian equivalent, IVA, is 22%) so, at the time we started paying it, we were forced to increase our prices. First by just a half of the tax, but warning that we would raise prices a second time later in the year. Well, that moment is imminent.
The (undiscounted) 10 x 30-minute lessons price, which is currently £165 will be raised to £180. Shortly. The other prices (1 x 30 min. lesson / 5 x 30 min. lessons) won’t change, as our ‘margin’ was sufficient to cover the tax already.
So if you need lesson credits, one option you have is to buy now, and so save the extra £15 (£1.50 per lesson.)
OR you could wait until the January Sale (which starts after Christmas) and buy with a 20% discount, so paying £144 for ten 30-minute lessons, which is less than the currently-advertised price of £165 and a fifth less than the new price of £180.
By the way, we called a heating engineer on Monday. A problem with our gas boiler meant we had no hot water and so couldn’t take showers.
The guy was in our house for, maybe 30 minutes? His bill came to €140 + IVA at 22%, which he generously rounded down eighty euro cents to €170.
Ever thought you were in the wrong job?
Have you listened to Tuesday’s FREE bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news, yet?
Subscribe (also FREE) and read/listen to each thrice-weekly bulletin. With the result that, in much less time than it took to win the Vietnam war, your Italian will become hugely better.