Starting to learn Italian is exciting, but it can also be terrifying when you suddenly find yourself unable to understand anything or express yourself. And disorientating, as you realise that the new language works in strange and mysterious ways. Sometimes even humiliating, when you make mistakes in front of others.
That was certainly how I felt when I began studying Italian over 15 years ago, but I guess I’d forgtotten, until these negative emotions came rushing painfully back to me as I browsed through the “beginner” level of our Italian Workout! e-book/audio series.
Not too many pages from the start of the book, I came across this text:
Me call Daniele, have 25 years and live at Bologna, a beautiful city italian. Work how teacher of italian to foreigners. Have studied to the University of Padova and then to the University of Bologna. Speak italian, english, spanish and a little of german. In free time me pleases to go at the cinema, to cook, to read and to play the guitar. And you how you call? Where live? What are the your hobbies?
Actually, the original was in Italian, but as I read it, I couldn’t help but think how confusing it must be for students who are not used to the way that grammatical ideas are expressed differently in other languages.
So I translated the Italian text into English as literally as I could to highlight some of these differences.
Take a closer look at some of my “deliberate mistakes”:
“I have 25 years”
“A city italian”
“a little of german”
“go at the cinema”
“the your hobbies”
(You’ll find the original text from our e-book at the bottom of the article.)
Not surprisingly, Italians learning English make mistakes like these all the time. English speakers learning Italian SHOULD speak like this (in Italian), but usually forget to.
In short, most people screw it up, most of the time. It’s not just you and me.
So, let’s talk about errors. Your mother or teacher (or both) probably told you that they’re bad, right?
Errors can arise for lots of reasons, but the most obvious one is simply the many differences between your language and the language you’re trying to learn.
Naturally, if you don’t know exactly how to say something in Italian, you’ll base what you say on how you would say it in your own language. Sometimes that’ll be good enough, correct, or at least understandable. Other times, it won’t.
Applied linguists call this a “transfer strategy”, by which they mean that “transfering” from your own language is a technique that people use to get by when speaking another language. The theory goes something like this:
– most (all?) learners have an imperfect knowledge of the language they’re studying
– therefore, to express their thoughts, when they don’t know the correct form, they must make a choice
– choices involve thinking, time and mental energy, so are costly, and slow down interactions
– the most obvious, and so fastest, choice to make when you’re busy trying to communicate is to “transfer” what you don’t know how to say in Italian, basing it on what you would say in your own language.
You probably ‘transfer’ all the time. And that’s cool. Most of the time this strategy works fine. Good enough IS usually good enough. You’ll make errors, but you’ll be communicating, and so you’ll be getting practice in coding and decoding meanings, and feedback when you don’t manage it so well.
In modern language-learning theory, it’s OK, even necessary, to make mistakes. In fact, the more, the better. Trust me, I’m an expert at making mistakes. Do it ALL the time.
As making mistakes is integral to speaking a foreign language at most levels of competence, and as speaking and listening more generally means learning more, arguably, the more mistakes you make, the more you will learn. Q.E.D.
Or put more simply, when you try to speak or write in Italian, people will reply. You’ll then hear or read that reply, with greater or lesser success, and reply in turn. It’s a virtuous circle, and one over which you’ll have at least partial control, and from which you’ll be getting lots of contextual clues to help you understand and absorb the new language.
But let’s not chuck the old fashioned ways out the window, at least not completely.
Think Latin classes in years gone by, when the “grammar-translation” method would have been the only practical approach, native Latin speakers being hard to find.
In the old days, you would have translated texts from the foreign language you were trying to learn into your own language. Probably classical texts. By doing so you noticed, or were taught, the grammatical differences, and of course the lexis. Eventually, you’d probably learn to read the language to some degree, but probably not ever speak it.
Obviously, grammar-translation would not be the ideal way to develop the skills of making small-talk in a bar, or chatting up girls, but it did/does work very well for understanding the way that languages expresse concepts differently, which is a useful thing to know…
Most learners work out sooner or later that a practical approach to learning a foreign language is to study the grammar and lexis of a language in the more analytical, old-fashioned way, while at the same time trying to get as much practice speaking and listening as possible, WITHOUT worrying too much about making mistakes.
Not worry about making mistakes? But what about behaviourist learning theories, Pavlov’s dogs, and so on?
There were (still are) plenty of language-learning methods based on psychological theories which suggested that learners should be trained with a system of feedback to say things correctly, and to avoid errors at all costs because of the risk that the “wrong” utterances will be learnt “by mistake”.
Just as a puppy learns, when you punish it, that it’s not OK to wet your carpet, you the learner must learn that’s it’s not OK to forget the “congiuntivo”, or whatever, if for no other reason than that some other dumbo in your class might hear you saying it wrong and then, HE’LL be doing it too, and.. oh my God, now everyone’s doing it!
Accordingly the role of the teacher is to model the correct form, praise correct speech, and discourage mistakes. Perhaps by hitting you with a ruler, or something.
So those are behaviorist theories. But you can forget them, because they’re bullshit.
What I say is “love your mistakes”. Your mistakes are like GOLD (though not like ‘gold dust’, right?)
Each mistake you make, is a personalised, fast-track to you understanding and using Italian better. Especially if you have someone there to hear them and gently make you aware of them (Skype Italian lessons, anyone?) The MORE, the MERRIER.
But what if you don’t make mistakes?
Well then, you’re just not trying hard enough! Get out there and screw things up a bit, or you’re never going to master the language. Making mistakes is an essential part of learning, so embrace it!
Agree? Disagree? (It’s allowed). Leave a comment!
P.S. Here’s the original text from Italian Workout! A1. These e-book/audio packages are available in 5 levels in our shop.
Mi chiamo Daniele, ho 25 anni e vivo a Bologna, una bella città italiana. Lavoro come insegnante di italiano a stranieri. Ho studiato all’Università di Padova e poi all’Università di Bologna. Parlo italiano, inglese, spagnolo e un po’ di tedesco. Nel tempo libero mi piace andare al cinema, cucinare, leggere e suonare la chitarra. E tu come ti chiami? Dove vivi? Quali sono i tuoi hobbies?