A comment/question from Mary came in overnight:
“Why do you discourage reading aloud?”
I love it when club members and students ask questions because 1.) it goes right to an issue that they might need help with, and 2.) it saves me the effort of thinking of something useful to write or teach.
Though this particular question reminds me of the rather pathetic
“Why don’t you love me?”
which invites a similarly unkind range of answers, from “Because you’re a loser” to “I just don’t, and erm, can’t you just go get yourself a life?”
We could take two tracks to answering Mary’s question, the first being the teacher’s and student’s faithful friend, the concept of ‘opportunity cost’.
In short, that means that by choosing X the cost to you is not doing Y. X might be more beneficial to you than Y, but assuming Y also has some benefit, the cost to you of choosing X is what you forgoe by not being able to do Y at the same time. See?
Whenever a teacher, or self-study student, makes a decision regarding what to spend time on (speaking practice, reading aloud, preparing for an exam, whatever…) they should, ideally, be happy that, given their current situation, they’ve made the BEST choice, or as close to it as is practicable in the circumstances.
People think of ‘teaching’ as synonymous to ‘explaining’ but it really isn’t. It’s much more akin to ‘choosing for’, and anytime I find myself ‘explaining’ I ALWAYS remind myself that if my class wasn’t sat there listening to me drone on they could be doing Y instead (speaking, for example) had I made a different choice on their behalf.
So am I absolutely sure that my grammar ‘explanation’ will be of more benefit that whatever else we could be doing?? Often not, but there’s the factor that students expect and like grammar explanations, even if the time spent on them might, objectively, be wasted (i.e. if a follow up test showed no improvement..)
With me so far? Every study decision comes at a cost of other study options. You’re presumably fine with the idea of not doing anything that’s demonstrably pointless or unpalatably unpleasant, so the trick is to identify the stuff that will work better for you than the other alternatives, then do those things. While making sure to occasionally review the decisons you’ve made and ensure that they’re still valid – your needs might have changed, for example, or other options might have emerged.
For example, I like Duolingo, as a way of beginning with a new language. But have often found myself feeling, after having used it for a few weeks or months, that I’ve reached a point when doing something else (usually speaking, reading, listening) would be more appropriate for me. DL, being intentionally addictive, is pyschologically very difficult to combine with other study activities. So at that point I usually quit, even when I have been enjoying it, in favour of activities which have become more appropriate for the new me.
OK, so that’s explanation track one – opportunity cost. I discourage reading aloud because there are other, more obvious things you could be doing, which would, in my opinion, likely benefit you more.
Track 2 covers the details, which means setting up the usual great reasons why you’d read aloud, and then dismissing them as unmitigated nonsense.
To improve your pronunciation? Italian is basically a phonetic language, which means you don’t have to travel very far down the road at all to derive no further benefit from reading it aloud, assuming that your purpose is to identify syllables/words that you need practice saying (the very few exceptions to the write-it-phonetically rule.)
Note that we’re talking about YOU learning Italian. My hypothesis is you can already actually read, right? At least in English, which is much harder! If you were six, or Japanese, then my advice would likely NOT be the same.
E poi, muscle memory, elucidating every syllable, and all the other idiocy you read about on the internet.
I suppose if you were teaching yourself to be a read-alouder, then absolutely you should practice reading aloud. But you’re not, are you? You’re preparing for actual speech, which is supposed to be ‘real time’ (and therefore not elucidated clearly by definition), is ‘inaccurate’ (native speaker speech is imperfect, too), and most importantly, relies for a positive outcome on success at LISTENING.
Which brings us back to track 1 and opportunity cost. For while you’re trying to speak like the lady on RAI, you’re ignoring the need to be immersing yourself in a range of typical Italian accents and speech styles, as well as the absolutely VITAL task of building listening skills (i.e. extracting the gist meaning as best you can from rapid native speaker speech.)
This theme is beginning to bore me, so I’ll conclude with the admission that I do actually use ‘reading aloud’ sometimes in my class teaching, just not for the purposes you might suppose. It’s a good way of giving everyone a ‘turn’ for example (but at the cost of doing other things, remember). Which is handy for kids, who do like to show off to the teacher and are anyway totally used to having their time wasted with largely pointless methodologies, due to their daily state-school experience.
With a class of low-level adult learners of ENGLISH, especially a class of Italians or any group that shares a mother tongue, then having the class take turns to read an article aloud is a great way of identifying and giving feedback on their common pronunciation problems. Careful guys, ‘horse’ pronounced with a ‘z’ sounds to me rather like ‘whores’. And yes, that’s spelled with a ‘w’, very good, Giuseppe!
But English is not at all a phonetically-written language, whereas Italian reliably is. With Italian, you don’t need ‘reading aloud’ nearly as much as you need to get familiar with the way that common verbs conjugate, acclimatise yourself to Italians’ slapdash approach to tenses, and in particular, as I never tire of reminding you, practice listening.
Here’s a way to double check that your methodological choices are appropriate:
- What’s my objective? How will I know that that I’m progressing towards it as a result of THIS ACTIVITY? What do I have to do to MEASURE that? And do the measurements that I have made show that I am progressing? Is that rate of progress in line with what a reasonable person could expect?
- What other options might help me get where I want to be, faster perhaps? How sure am I that those other options would not be a better use of my time??? Have I tried them? Have I measured the results? Have I compared the alternatives?
And if that leaves you scratching your head and looking around for a handy language teacher, bear in mind that this degree of analysis and coherence is not a given, even for a professional.
Call it a feature, call it a bug, but humans tend to stick with what they know, even when (lately it’s seemed to be more ‘especially when’) the evidence suggests that they are wrong.
Teachers are no different to anyone else in that respect.
And here’s a final reminder about this week’s discounted ebook, ‘Il Medioevo‘, our ebook version of a thirty-part series of articles with online audio, which walks a curious student of Italian through a neglected period of history, from the end of the Roman empire in 476 CE to the fall of Constantinople, nearly a thousand years later in 1453 CE.
While the articles that make up this ebook are available for free at https://onlineitalianclub.com/history/, this version of the material (.pdf, .mobi Kindle-compatible, .epub versions available) is easily printable and/or readable on an ebook reader, such as the Kindle.
- .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
- 30 CHAPTERS to read and listen to!
- Suitable for students at intermediate level or above
- Download your Free Sample Chapters (.pdf)
Buy ‘Il Medioevo ‘, just £5.99 this week! | Free Sample Chapters (.pdf) | Catalog
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Our Autum Sale starts on Monday, which means 20% off EVERYTHING in our online shop! Watch this space for deetails.
But in the meantime? Don’t forget Thursday’s bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news, which you can read/listen to for FREE!
Robert Hillier says
What an excellent set of pointers on to how to learn a language (or anything else, probably). Or how to teach anything – wish I’d twigged this for myself, both as learner and teacher. I suppose I knew this implicitly but to have it laid out explicitly is so helpful. Well done and thanks! (And good luck with your continuing recovery.)
What kind feedback, Robert. Thank you!
Ok. But what about whether reading aloud is more useful than just reading? Let’s say I have an article to read for later discussion, about say Leonardo or pasta or “gli italiani”.
Do I gain anything by reading it aloud?
It seems to me that as an English speaker I find speaking Italian more physically demanding and more energetic. Those pesky pure vowels and strong consonants make my mouth tired and while I may start well I often drift into English style mumbling. So maybe reading aloud is keep fit for la Bocca and let’s me practice speaking alla italiana?
Also if I read a word aloud I have to process at some level all the syllables. Reading silently I can scan for the root meaning, often pretty obvious, without noticing how they actually unpack the whole word.
And also one of the reasons for studying Italian is that it is such fun to ham up. In conversation I’m usually struggling just to keep up, so reading aloud is my opportunity to enjoy those wonderful rrrrrr’s and six syllable words.
To save time, Mary (è quasi l’ora dell’aperitivo), my comments IN CAPS against your text below:
Ok. But what about whether reading aloud is more useful than just reading? DEFINITIVELY LESS USEFUL, I’D SAY. Let’s say I have an article to read for later discussion, about say Leonardo or pasta or “gli italiani”.
Do I gain anything by reading it aloud? NO, YOU LOSE, BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT ACTUALLY ‘READING’ IN THE WAY YOU KNOW HOW TO DO SO WELL, THEREFORE MISSING MUCH THAT YOU COULD HAVE GAINED HAD YOU ACTUALLY BEEN PAYING ATTENTION RATHER THAN MESSING AROUND WITH YOUR TONGUE…
It seems to me that as an English speaker I find speaking Italian more physically demanding and more energetic. THERE’S NO EVIDENCE THAT THIS SHOULD BE THE CASE, AND IN FACT THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO SPEAK ITALIAN, MANY ACCENTS. Those pesky pure vowels and strong consonants make my mouth tired and while I may start well I often drift into English style mumbling. ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT SPEAKING OR READING ALOUD? IF SPEAKING, MAYBE GIVE YOUR MOUTH A BREAK AND LISTEN A LITTLE MORE? So maybe reading aloud is keep fit for la Bocca and let’s me practice speaking alla italiana? READING ALOUD IS NOT SPEAKING, ANY MORE THAN SINGING OR CHANTING OR PRAYING IS SPEAKING.
Also if I read a word aloud I have to process at some level all the syllables. WELL YES, THAT’S TRUE. WHEREAS IN SPEAKING YOU ACTUALLY DON’T HAVE TO DO ANY SUCH THING. HOW MUCH ADDITIONAL PROCESSING GOES ON WHEN YOU SAY ‘BUONGIORNO’, COMPARED TO SAY, ‘GOOD MORNING’. YES, THAT’S RIGHT, NONE. I REST MY CASE. Reading silently I can scan for the root meaning, often pretty obvious, without noticing how they actually unpack the whole word. UNPACKING IS FOR MOVING HOUSE, AND IF YOU’RE SO GREAT AT READING SILENTLY AND UNDERSTANDING OBVIOUS MEANING, MAYBE YOU SHOULD BE TACKING MORE COMPLEX AND/OR AUTHENTIC TEXTS?
And also one of the reasons for studying Italian is that it is such fun to ham up. SOUNDS RATHER OFFENSIVE TO ME. In conversation I’m usually struggling just to keep up YES, THAT’S LIKELY BECAUSE YOUR APPROACH TO SPEAKING IS ALL ARSE OVER TIT, so reading aloud is my opportunity to enjoy those wonderful rrrrrr’s and six syllable words. YOU MEAN YOU CAN’T ACTUALLY DO CONVERSATION EFFECTIVELY SO MAKE ITALIAN NOISES TO YOURSELF AS AN ALTERNATIVE? WHY NOT JUST WORK ON DOING CONVERSATION BETTER, SORRY?”