A club member who’s currently studying at our Italian school in Bologna stopped for a chat yesterday. Her Italian was really good, and she was clearly keen to practice, so we spoke in Italian, while I was frantically leaving through old folders, looking for something we’d lost and now urgently needed.
I apologised for seeming distracted and promised I was listening and could chat at the same time as searching for the missing document.
I explained that we were trying to sell the company’s car, which the school has owned for fifteen years. But the sale has been held up because we couldn’t lay our hands on the crucial ‘certificato di proprietà’, proving the company’s ownership.
The lady asked something about the company, but mistook the term, using ‘compagnia’, an understandable error.
‘Compagnia’ I explained does mean ‘company’, but in the sense of ‘companionship’, so what you might hope to find with a group of friends, or in a busy pub.
The school is an ‘azienda’, though legally it’s a ‘società’, specifically a ‘società a responsabilità limitata’ (abbreviated as S.r.l.), a ‘limited responsibility society’.
N.b. It’s ‘responsAbilità’ in italiano, responsIbility in English, like ‘indEpendence’ and ‘indIpendenza’ – similar, but different!
Also note that languages (italiano), days of the week, and so on aren’t capitalised in Italian, while they are in English.
Once you start noticing similarities/differences, you’ll find thousands of them.
There are lots of words for ‘company’ in Italian, the student observed, while I searched. Ditta, for instance.
Indeed, I nodded, though I’d translate ‘ditta’ as ‘firm’, so more a synonym of ‘business’ than ‘company’.
While ‘società’ carries information about the organisation’s legal form, in the same way as ‘company’ or ‘corporation’ in the USA.
And ‘azienda’ can mean either ‘business’ or ‘company/corporation’, but without comment on the legal form. If you see what I mean.
So anyway, I asked, what have you been doing in class today? Relative pronouns, came the answer, and they were difficult!
Which suprised me, because I used to teach English relative pronouns to Italians, and they always found it hard. What’s simple in Italian is, in this case at least, more complicated in English.
‘Who’ and ‘which’ used to refer back (a person who, a thing which) both translate as ‘che’ in Italian. What could be easier?
And yet English speakers learning Italian will insist on saying ‘una persona chi’.
That’s called a ‘transfer error’, so an error that stems from using your native tongue as a reference when structuring what you want to say in your new language.
They’re very, very common, and very hard to fix!
I spent years, actually decades, pointing out typical transfer errors to my Italian students learning English, and other than having a generally depressing effect on my professional morale, and on my students’ self confidence, it made little difference.
No matter, I’m convinced that if a student can learn to notice the differences between the new language and their native tongue, that knowledge can help speed things up.
The trouble is that the strategy of ‘transferring’ from your own language into the language you’re learning, even if it results in error, works well enough in real time to move the conversation on (compared to sitting there pondering what would be correct, so saying nothing,,,)
The result is that the speaker notices only the success of the interaction, not any quizzical looks driven by confusing ‘company’ and ‘society’, for instance.
And so is condemned to repeat the error, perhaps for ever!
An example takes us back to relative pronouns, specifically ‘who’ and ‘chi’, which we learn are the equivalents in English and Italian, though of course they’re not.
As mentioned, ‘who’ is a relative pronoun in English, but ‘chi’ isn’t, the correct translation being ‘che’.
Both ‘who’ and ‘chi’ are used in questions, it’s true: Who wants a beer? Chi vuole una birra?
But ‘chi’ is also a subject pronoun, which ‘who’ isn’t: ‘Chi non supera l’esame deve rifarlo’ needs some other way to refer to refer to the subject, perhaps ‘Whoever’ or ‘Anyone who’.
Italians speaking English say things like ‘Who is waiting to see the doctor, please take a number and sit down over there.’
Now you know why. Fascinating, isn’t it?
So what do you think? Is it easier to remember the similarities or the differences, between your language and the language or languages you’re learning?
I’d argue that where we think that things are the same or similar, they often aren’t quite, or aren’t always, or actually aren’t at all, given the frequency of ‘transfer errors’.
While where things are different – company = società, for instance – they can be quite easy to notice, and to fix in your memory.
How to set about noticing and appreciating the differences (and similarities)?
Have a wild guess what I’m about to suggest…
Not with a dictionary or a grammar book, for sure. And certainly not by starting with what you want to say in your native tongue and translating it word for word, structure for structure, into the language you’re learning.
That might work for communicative purposes, to an extent. But ‘transfer errors’, loads of them, will be the inevitable result, rather than a greater depth of understanding of the new language.
A personal example – it took me more than ten years to realise that ‘depends on’ in Italian is ‘dipende da’ (depends from) not ‘dipende su’. When I did, eventually, figure it out, I asked my wife why she’d never said anything. It didn’t seem to matter, she replied.
(n.b. dIpende = dEpends)
So how CAN you really start to ‘know’ what a language is like, how people structure their ideas when communicating in it, how words are used, separately and in combination?
Simple! Reading, reading, lots of reading!
There, bet you knew that was coming.
Listening a lot is also a good way to learn what a language is like, what it should sound like, what people talk about and how. But because of the ‘real time’ nature of speech, it’s much less accessible at beginner and lower levels (though that’s no reason not to do it anyway…)
While reading, and celebrating the differences and similarities you observe, is the obvious way to go. You have time to notice, and reflect if you wish.
Not convinced? Look down to the P.S., where I’m trying to flog an ebook, and check out the second line of dialogue (in italics), the line that starts with Di.
That line has a ‘di chi’ (whose), a ‘chi'(who) and a ‘che’ (that/who), just in a few words, like a grammatical traffic jam (a ‘coda’ in italiano, so ‘queue’ or ‘tail’). But it’s understandable anyway.
There’s no need to analyse everything you read. Anzi, just follow the action, keep turning the pages.
But notice the differences and similarities when they appear. Grow used to seeing them. Become familiar with how things are done in the other language.
Keep at it and, maybe one day, you’ll have two fairly but not entirely distinct language systems in your brain! Or parts of them, at least. It’s improbable that you’ll ever have two ‘complete’ language systems…
With perseverance, and masses of time, you’ll end up being able to switch from one tongue to the other, as you need them. Sometimes effortlessly, sometimes with more difficulty.
Either way, it’s an achievement you’ll be proud of.
P.S. New ‘easy reader’ ebook -25% until Sunday May 14th
Don’t forget this week’s new ‘easy reader’ ebook Quando suonano alla porta which, until Sunday night, is discounted 25% compared to the normal ‘easy reader’ price of £7.99, to just £5.99.
So, what’s this one about?
After an evening of wine and streaming TV series, singleton Stefano is asleep on his couch, surrounded by books and pizza boxes. But at five a.m. the doorbell rings…
“Stefano! Stefano apri, ti prego!”
Di chi è questa voce? Chi è che batte con forza alla porta di casa mia?
“Stefano, sono Laura. Per favore, apri, è un’emergenza!”
- .pdf e-book (+ audio available free online)
- .mobi (Kindle-compatible) and .epub (other ebook readers) available on request at no extra charge – just add a note to the order form or email us
- 8 chapters to read and listen to
- Comprehension questions to check your understanding
- Italian/English glossary of ‘difficult’ terms for the level
- Suitable for students at pre-intermediate level or above
- Download your Free Sample Chapter (.pdf)
Check out the FREE sample chapter (.pdf) before you buy a copy, though. That way, you’ll know whether the level is suitable and that the format works on the device you intend to use it on.
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April Munday says
I struggle with ‘chi’ and ‘che’, but I think it’s more because French is my second language than because English is my first. I’m not in the least bothered by it when I’m reading, but it can still trip me up when I’m speaking or writing. My current strategy is that it’s ‘che’ unless it’s definitely ‘chi’.
Sounds like a good strategy, April. But isn’t Italian basically the same as French in this regard?
April Munday says
Now that I’ve thought about it, it is, so I have no excuse.
Thank you for this and all your other insightful remarks about language learning. Sometimes I become more obsessed by the differences in the mechanics of various languages than in actually learning to communicate in them. I bore my daughter senseless with some startling (to me) way of expressing something in Italian. A shocking admission I know and extremely unhelpful. My only saving grace is that I do love to read and don’t stop to check vocabulary just as long as I get the gist of the plot.
I hope you are feeling much better now and have good drugs to cope with pain & discomfort.
Thanks Isabel. Yes, I’m feeling better, but have had to manage without ‘antidolorifici’, as the stuff they gave us at the hospital (‘Read the instructions in the packet’) turned out to clash with other meds I’m taking, and it was a holiday weekend. A painful one!
I’m on my feet again now, though!
Buon fine settimana.