Finally the part that everyone knows! The one with Caesar crossing the Rubicorn, “the dice is cast!”, becoming ‘imperator’, his holiday romance with Cleo, and gory end: “Tu quoque, Brute, fili mi!” (“Anche tu, o Bruto, figlio mio!”)
Many thanks, by the way, to the more than a hundred club members who wrote supportive and encouraging emails or comments in response to Monday’s article, “With regret I am thinking of cancelling my subscription to your club”. A number of people actually did unsubscribe, but as a lady, from California I believe, reassured me, they were probably not a good a vibrational match.
Many thanks also to Gordon, now a former Club member, for the most abusive email I have ever received (republished with his permission as a comment – you’ll see it if you look for it, but I’m not going to link to it here because it really is quite unpleasant in parts), and also for the theme of today’s article.
“FACT – It is a cardinal sin not to encourage the use of a dictionary – the basis of learning & understanding any language.”
Well! A cardinal sin, is it? I’ll smack myself on the wrist.
And the use of dictionaries is the basis of learning and understanding any language? My goodness, I wonder how people managed before the advent of printing?
Never mind such idiocy, but let’s go a little deeper, because it’s likely that other club members have misunderstood my position as Gordon clearly has.
Dictionaries are not bad. I occasionally use them. They are an essential tool when translating FROM the language you know less well TO your own language. A real time-saver, well worth the money.
They are much less useful the other way around – translating from your own language into your second tongue, or writing directly in the language you are not yet fully competent in. Less useful because you can never be sure that the term the dictionary suggests is appropriate, that you have used it correctly, and so on. Also because the whole process of searching out exactly the right term is time-consuming.
If I was writing something in Italian, I wouldn’t use a dictionary at all. Either I’d base my text (say a contract or a webpage) on an example written by a native speaker, that I would then adapt accordingly, or I would write it from scratch, but my way. In both cases I would then pass it to an educated native Italian speaker that I trust (that’s the hard part, finding someone competent) to review and even improve my work. And then, always, I would double check the text again, and fix the mistakes that my helper had unwittingly, or wittingly, introduced into it.
Imagine a contract – I know exactly what I want to communicate in order to protect myself from legal action, and so write it that way. Then along comes my wife, fixes the missing congiuntivo, and in doing so totally messes up intent and effect of the text.
There’s a lot more to writing than finding the ‘right word’ in a dictionary, which is of course why so few people are willing to do it.
Where was I?
Other situations in which dictionaries are of no use to you whatsover include anything in real time (speaking and listening), situations in which dictionaries are not permitted at all (most language exams, many exams of other types i.e. Italian driving tests), and um… can’t think of any more.
But you get the point, I’m sure. If you’re going to actually use the language, even imperfectly – and presumably most people will want to do this fairly early on in the language-learning process – then you will need to develop the confidence, and more importantly the ‘communication strategies’ (for example, guessing at the meanings of words you don’t know, explaining things in different ways when you lack the vocabulary or grammar to say them as you would in your own language) to do so WITHOUT your dictionary.
When you’re STUDYING, for instance doing homework exercises your teacher has set you, then of course, of course, of course, you can and even should use a dictionary. The whole point of studying is to learn, right? And even if the exercise has a grammatical focus, the fact that there’s a word you don’t know in the context can throw you right off, which is confusing and demotivating. A good dictionary, assuming you know how to use it and do so sparingly, is a time-saver in such a situation, and getting to know how to employ it effectively is, as any teacher, including myself (and Gordon) will tell you, profitable and important.
But you knew that already.
What most people don’t know is how to do the other stuff – the reading, the listening, the speaking – and do so with their limited, incomplete Italian.
All those difficult words… Woe is me! If I could only stop the conversation for a few minutes and look up what was just said in my trusty friend, I’d be fine!
Except that I didn’t actually HEAR everything that was just said… If only Italians would speak more slowly and clearly!
Or here’s a thought! What if I could just memorise thousands of words BEFORE engaging in conversation? I’d OK then!
It’s all nonsense. Lots and lots of nonsense. Nonsense everywhere. Nonsense from teachers, nonsense from students, nonsense on the Internet, non-stop nonsense.
And yes, as Gordon writes, I do think I know better. That’s because I qualified as a language teacher thirty years ago, then studied evenings and weekends for a higher-level qualification, so as to eventually become a manager of teachers, then a teacher-trainer (which is how I met my wife), then write text books for learners, then open my own school, then found the club, and so on. Language teaching was my life…
Until I discovered language LEARNING, at which point (at club members’ suggestion) I began to teach myself, from scratch, a hard language that I knew absolutely nothing about, employing the techniques that I had been using with my students for decades, and avoiding the errors I had seen them make (and at times encouraged…)
Now you may consider me, as Gordon suggested, to be self-obsessed. But I’m currently doing one-to-one online conversation each week in French (today), Swedish (Thursdays), Turkish, and Spanish (Fridays). I’m not higher than intermediate in any of those languages but I can hold my own in a conversation with greater or lesser degrees of success. And read. And listen to the radio.
And I do this stuff because…?
That way I see the other side of the equation. After thirty years of teaching, I’m now a learner. And it’s precious.
Just THINK! It’s not one word in isolation that’s stopping you understanding a text or a conversation – if it was, then all you would usually have to do is read/listen a little more until the meaning became clear, which it mostly does.
What’s making you insecure/uncertain/isolated from what’s going around you is something else, in fact two something elses:
1.) Your level in the new language. Probably you’re not super-advanced yet, right? Then most of what you read/hear, unless it’s specifically designed for learners at your level, is going to be TOO HARD. That’s so obvious, but needs saying. People are like, “But it’s hard!” and I’m like, “Duh! You didn’t know?” Which brings us to…
2.) You’re inexperienced in reading/listening to what is, after all, a relatively new language for you. The number of hours of reading/listening (speaking too, writing almost certainly) that you’ve actually done in the language you’re learning is minimal, miniscule compared to what you’ve done in your native tongue. So OF COURSE you feel insecure.
It’s not the words (or grammar) you don’t know that’s holding you back, but the simple fact that you haven’t journeyed far enough yet.
And/or that you’ve not prepared appropriately for that journey. Perhaps you’re the “Must pack my ‘congiuntivo’ in case I meet someone I have to speak to formally” traveler, rather than the “Better do loads of listening before I go so it’ll be easier to chat people up in bars” person.
Dictionaries are great, but it’s time to cross the Rubicon.
Find yours, lock it in a drawer, and give the key to someone you trust. Tell them not to return it to you until they hear you speaking and interacting confidently in Italian, or whichever language you’re learning.
A venerdì, allora.