This week I’ve been exchanging emails with one of our online teachers who wants to develop materials (exercises, ebooks) for learners of Italian. One topic that came up was prepositions, which we agreed is a difficult area and relevant to students at all levels. Prepositions are tested in Italian exams right up to the most advanced levels, for a reason.
The teacher initially suggested ‘explaining’ the grammar rules relating to prepositions (in Italian, of course) then following up with a series of exercises which would hopefully have the effect of ‘fixing’ the grammar rules in the students’ heads.
Which sounds like a sensible approach but made me see red and so provoked a rather polemical emailed repsonse.
Turns out, though, that the teacher knew full well that ‘explaining’ ‘rules’ (and ‘exceptions’, there are always loads of those to memorise, too) and then trying to ram them home with exercises didn’t work particularly well. But that’s the way things are done, in Italian education, at least, he told me.
Unfortunately I am only too aware of that.
Further down the email chain we agreed that what was needed were lots of memorable examples rather than a long list of ‘rules’, which calmed things down a little.
At which point I enquired, why ‘explain’ things at all? And why on earth try to do so in Italian? Anyone who has yet to gain confidence reading Italian won’t buy it, right?
Aha! Because that’s the way Italian publishers of grammar books do it, apparently. And that’s the way Italian language schools in Italy teach grammar – in the Italian medium.
There are of course pros and cons of teaching a foreign language in that same language, but language schools around the world do it that way. Why? Because 1.) their classes tend to be multilingual (comprising students who speak different languages as their mother tongue), and/or 2.) the available teacher does not know the students’ mother tongue or mother tongues.
But that’s not always the case. In my own teaching, for example (English to Italians in Italy), my classes are almost always made up only of native Italian speakers, and I’ve lived here long enough to be able to teach English in the Italian medium if I choose to do so.
Mostly I don’t, because it’s obvious that encouraging people to interact IN the language that they’re learning is one of the main benefits of taking a class at all. There’s grammar in books, but hearing the language spoken around you and to you, and responding in it as far as you are able, builds confidence. It’s also fun.
However, with pre-school classes for example, so very young children, where priority number 1 is keeping them happy and safe, it can be perverse not to use their own language, at least as far as is necessary to ensure that safe and happy is the outcome of each lesson.
Ditto with adult classes at HIGH LEVELS, where the students are more than capable of speaking and understanding the language they’re learning. So why would I want to use their own language in my teaching?
That brings us back to grammar ‘rules’, teaching in the medium of the language the students are learning, and my enthusiastic younger colleague.
What if, I enquired, you wrote something about prepositions but specifically for English-speakers (the bulk of club members), focusing on the things that English speakers find problematic, and if necessary contrasting the way that prepositions are used in Italian and English?
For example, Italians speaking English say “It depends from the context” because that’s what it is in their own language (“Dipende dal contesto”). English speakers learning Italian say “Dipende sul contesto”, which is wrong, but that’s the way they’ve been saying it all their lives (“It depends on the context”).
Italian medium grammar books, courses and exercises are aimed at anyone learning Italian, not just at English speakers like me and probably you. But if you’ve ever taken a course in a language school in Italy, such as ours in Bologna, you’ll be familiar (with? of? from?) that sinking feeling that comes when you realise that the French, Spanish and Portuguese speakers are progressing much faster than you are…
The teacher ‘explains’ the rule, maybe with a pretty picture or so, the Spanish girls giggle and look at triva on their smartphones, the elderly Australians mutter and sweat, and the teacher all the while is convinced that her ‘explaining’ will lead to ‘learning’, something that the ensuing exercises and tests clearly show is not the case. Or at least, only the case when what was ‘explained’ was unproblematic in the first place.
O mio dio, these Anglo-Saxons are slow, the teachers tell each other during the coffee break!
Every Italian I know has learnt the rules for why English speakers say “I’ve been to London” one minute but “I went to London” the next minute. The brighter ones can even explain it to you. Confidently. Try them!
But then, when they need to speak or write, they pick one of the forms according to the ‘rule’ they’ve been taught, and half the time it’ll be the wrong one, I swear!
In Italian those two examples, have been to/went to, are the same tense (sono stato/a), which is, of course, the root of the problem. Italians know there’s a difference between “I’ve been to” and “I went to” but their rule-based approach to learning makes it difficult, nigh on impossible, to ‘fix in their head’. They remember the rule, but don’t assimilate the structure of the new language where it varies from their mother tongue, rule or no.
For English speakers learning Italian, you guys just have to absorb the fact that you only need about three tenses to speak Italian and that the best strategy, if speaking and understanding is your actual goal, is to ignore the rest of it.
Had you the perfect teacher, or the perfect piece of ‘teach yourself’ material, you would be able to hone in ONLY on the problematic areas which are different in Italian, and dedicate your time to those.
For instance, Italians say “Abito in questa casa da venti anni”, ‘da’ not ‘per’ you’ll note. But look also at the way the present tense is used, not the present perfect (have lived) as in English. That’s two tricky things to learn from just one example, yet there’s not a rule in sight!
Learning grammar is useful. My Spanish is limited because I haven’t yet been bothered to learn any past forms, while my Swedish is much more extensive because I took the trouble to do so.
But learning grammar ‘rules’ is a waste of time, assuming your immediate objective is to begin to communicate, to build confidence, to inteact. Here are some reasons why:
- grammar ‘rules’ tend not to be as ‘generative’ as you’d expect – that is to say that knowing the rule (present perfect or simple past???) doesn’t always solve the problem. It might. It might not.
- grammar ‘rules’ are specific, often to situations which may not come up very often. The Italian ‘trapassato prossimo‘ is basically the same as the English ‘past perfect’. However satisfying it may be to learn that new tense, you probably won’t use it much. Italians don’t. And they never use the English form when speaking English, even if it is the same as in their own language.
- the most fundamental grammar ‘rules’ are so obvious they’re not worth spending time on anyway (for you, not necessarily for the other students in your class). For example, that nouns generally require an article before them. Well, duh! The problem (for English speakers) is WHICH article. But if you were a Russian speaker, or Turkish, perhaps the ‘use an article before a noun’ ‘rule’ would be useful. And hard to get right, however many times your teacher ‘explained’ it. Because it might not be like that at home.
- whereas the most problematic areas of the language you’re learning, for you, may simply require lots and lots of study, and ideally exposure to the language. The gender of nouns, for example. We don’t care what sex the table or the house is, but Italians do (and so do the French and Spanish students in your class.) The conjugations of verbs, for native-English speakers who don’t already know another Romance language, is a huge obstacle at the first levels. For both these areas, there are ‘rules’, and Italian teachers ‘explain’ them with gusto and passion, but they don’t help much.
Where were we?
So sure, go eat the grammar book, digest each page, and collapse in your favourite armchair to emit satisfied burbs.
But in the time you’ve been doing that, you could have been, for example, getting used to the sounds and smells of the language, building your confidence speaking, listening and reading, finding out what the community of people who use the language you’re learning are talking about right now his minute, and so on.
I can study grammar rules (though I tend not to bother), and I can ‘explain’ grammar rules, which is professionally satisfying and can pay well.
But I never confuse either activity with the process of ‘learning’.
A venerdì, allora.
The new episode in our free series of articles with audio, ‘La storia di Roma‘, is ready: