Today I’m answering a question raised by July in her comment on yesterday’s article:
My problem has always been the speed at which Italians speak. I’ve found a site called Slow News in Italian, but, of course it is not free. Maybe it’s maleducato(-a ?) of me to mention a competitor. Would you think of doing something like this, Daniel?
The reason I’m answering in an article, not as a reply to her comment, is that I think this is an issue that interests everyone, so I’d like to get it to as many of you as possible.
Thanks, July, for raising this interesting issue!
No problem with mentioning other sites, in the spirit of helping other OnlineItalianClub.com users.
In fact, you mentioned Slow News in Italian before, and I took a look at it then.
Would I think of doing something like this?
It’s interesting that you say your problem has “always” been the speed of Italian speech.
Actually, Italians speak no faster than anyone else. The issue is your level of preparedness to DEAL WITH natural speech, by which I mean hear it, extract some meaning, and reply appropriately.
I assume that your ‘hearing’ is fine. The problem then is your ‘listening’.
Listening, in a foreign language, as in your mother tongue, is a complex process which involves knowledge and experience of phonology, grammar and lexis, as well as general and cultural knowledge, and an ability to interpret from context
For example, what would you make of
“They sat down on the bank to eat their picnic”
“The bank collapsed under the weight of its bad debts”?
If you think about what each sentence brings to mind, you’ll appreciate that there’s a lot more to ‘listening’ than just ‘hearing’.
The speed of normal speech is certainly AN issue, but is not normally THE issue.
Unless you are super, super advanced in Italian, you will always be not understanding something.
I’ve lived here for 15 years and run a language school, yet it happens to me every day.
TV programmes, normal speech at our family dinner table, conversations with colleagues or clients. What I ‘hear’ in Italian is a bit like listening to a radio program in a storm – lots of crackling, static, readjusting the dial, and then moments when it just disappears completely.
Does it faze me that I can’t always understand what my (Italian) teenage kids say to each other over dinner?
Not so much any more. If you live in a permanent storm, you get used to it, and soon the static becomes normal. People used to listen to music on crackly radios. The brain just fills in the gaps.
Most students’ objective is to reach a point at which using the foreign language is no longer (as) difficult or stressful, but feels normal. Or almost normal. Or less abnormal. Or simply tolerable.
So, in the short-medium term, an Italian course or self-study program needs to be as much about “getting used to” normal speech as about “understanding” it.
And about developing what are called “listening strategies”, but basically mean “an ability to guess intelligently and to ask when you think you missed something really important”.
If you understand everything you hear when you’re practicing your listening, you’re wasting your time.
You need to PUSH YOURSELF to improve. As you listen, you need to be learning to work things out, to handle the stress. Or you’re not learning as much as you could.
If it’s an exam, you need to be sweating with fear. For what would be the point of taking an exam you already knew you would pass?
If you get stressed, or give up, every time you hear something ‘fast’ that you don’t completely understand, you’ll be missing out on many, many learning opportunities.
(And you’ll be permanently depressed!)
A teacher who slows her speech in class to ‘help’ students, is a teacher who does not understand language-learning.
From Day 1, students need to learn to handle speech at normal speeds, and learn it fast, otherwise they become isolated (others are dealing with the situation better) and anxious and hung up about their listening ‘problem’.
Beginner teachers are often the cause of this sort of situation, they make things worse not better by trying too hard to help.
Experienced teachers know that it is the content of what they say, and the context, that matter. Not the speed. Everything they say is carefully controlled, relevant, and so understandable by the class.
So anxiety goes down, trust goes up, and learning happens.
For the same reason, language text books and exams (in French and English too) almost always present speech at normal speeds. Not slowed down.
OK, end of lecture!
So what steps can you take to improve your ability to manage normal-speed Italian listening situations?
Well, do exactly as I’m outlining in this series (or trying to):
– practice little and often
– build up ‘level’ by ‘level’
– test yourself at fixed intervals to measure your progress and motivate yourself
– increase your exposure to authentic, complex materials gradually as you improve
I’ll leave you with an analogy.
Let’s say you wanted to drive in a Formula 1 motor-racing event say here in Italy, at Imola.
Imagine, the fastest, most skilful motor-race in the world!
Who could resist the chance to take part??
OK, so apart from needing to be very, very rich… what sort of preparation would you need so as not to be a danger to yourself and to others?
Well, obviously, you’d need to develop the technical skills to actually drive the car (Formula 1 cars are very different from your usual ride.)
And some knowledge of racing strategy and tactics would be essential.
You’d also want to get in shape, as motor-racing is physically grueling.
You’d probably expect to start with a short course in racing techniques, then maybe compete in a few beginners’ races, only stepping up to the more powerful, exciting cars and events when you’d proved yourself capable of winning at lower ‘levels’.
With pots and pots of cash, plenty of time, and the right attitude, you might one day drive at Imola. Who knows? You, July, could be champion of the world!
But thinking back over the work that you will have put in to prepare yourself for the fantastic day when you finally step onto the podium and spray the crowd with spumante, here’s a question for you:
Just how much did racing “slowly” figure in your training schedule?”
P.S. I LOVE a good argument, and it’s Friday.
All the other things I have to do are much more boring than this. So leave a comment on this article.