I’ve been writing a lot about listening and speaking lately. That’s for two reasons:
a.) Everyone wants to be able to SPEAK the language they’re studying
b.) Speaking on it’s own isn’t much use if you can’t actually understand the replies
I take regular online lessons to practice speaking the languages I’m sort of studying (Swedish and Turkish).
And, as you know, the club organises lessons with online Italian teachers, so it’s a question of practising what I preach.
For listening practice, other than interacting with my online teachers, I listen to and watch simplified news broadcasts most weekdays.
And listen to the ‘real’ radio at weekends, and when I’m doing my domestic chores.
But READING is also a big part of my language-learning efforts.
I’ve mentioned previously that I’ve mostly cut out English-language media, which was hard at first, but had the desired effect that I’d be forced to read in other languages.
In my humble opinion, if you’re learning a language but not regularly reading in it, then you’re missing out.
What are the reasons you should be reading each day in Italian, or whatever other language you’re learning?
Here are a few:
I’m assuming you’re the bookish type, familiar with text, and have the skills to appreciate print media, fiction and so on. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this, right? You’d be over at Youtube watching the videos put out by excitable Italian teachers.
But the reading skills you have are not necessarily transferable from your mother tongue to the language you’re learning.
To a great extent, this is because your knowledge of Italian is limited.
You know way fewer words than you do in English, and probably don’t have such a strong command of the grammar.
But the difficulty stems from other factors, too.
You may, for example, have a favorite English-language newspaper app.
If you think back, it probably took you a while to settle on one (or more) sources of news that ‘work’ for you.
Part of that process would have been figuring out where to find things, and what types of articles you most appreciate, and so on.
Finding your way around, so to speak.
You may have a columnist or columists you always read, for example, or habitually look at the breaking news stories, or hang on every development from the White House, or the markets.
That familiarity would have taken you time to develop.
Teenagers rarely read newspapers, have you noticed?
Ask them why.
“It’s difficult” will likely be the response.
Difficult how, exactly?
Difficult as in unfamiliar.
They don’t know who’s worth reading and who isn’t.
They haven’t figured out which sections relate to their own interests and which don’t.
They may simply not be aware of what’s IN a newspaper, perhaps dismissing it out of hand in favour of social media or TV.
Fast-forward a decade and they’ll be bored commuters just like us, picking up the free papers available on the subway platform or bus stop so as to while away a tedious journey.
Back to learning Italian.
You’ll likely find that if you don’t make the EFFORT to develop a reading habit, you never will.
It’ll continue to be something out of reach, something ‘too difficult’, and that’ll remain true no matter how high a level you reach in your new language.
Build familiarity with texts from the very first moment you start learning a language!
Even if it just means looking at the pictures or checking the sports results (numbers are universal, at least.)
It’ll pay off in the medium- to long-term.
2. Comprehensible input
I learnt Italian by reading ‘gialli’ (detective fiction).
It was more than twenty years ago, and we were short of cash.
English-language media and books were both limited in availability and unaffordable, given our other priorities.
And yes, it was difficult.
But I chose novels that I WANTED to read, translations of my favorite authors, legal thrillers and private eyes, mostly.
Knowing already how these stories work, figuring out the probable meaning was feasible.
I often used this example with my students:
He reached inside his jacket, pulled out a large, black XXX and pointed it directly at my head. “Get back!” he commanded.
Now what is that XXX he has in his hand?
Bet you can guess.
Here’s a tip, well two, really.
Always start by reading something that interests you.
For example, if you’re a homeowner, with a home loan that has a variable interest rate, don’t miss the news story about the Fed planning increases in borrowing costs.
And chill about all the parts you don’t understand, which will be legion.
Reading can promote ‘learning’ while not, in itself, being ‘studying’.
Nobody says you have to understand everything, especially at first.
It’s not a test.
The very fact that you are reading at all, is good.
Give yourself a pat on the back (and skip the hard parts!)
3. Cultural knowledge
I touched on this when I was writing about listening.
But honestly, what is the POINT of learning Italian (or Swedish, or Turkish) if you have no idea what’s going on in the community of people who speak that language?
Next time I go to a dinner party in Stockholm (I hope it will be soon, as I had such a good time in June), I’ll be able to amaze my hosts and fellow diners with my soon-to-be intermediate knowledge of their language.
They’ll be appalled at my pronuniation, I dare say.
But when the conversation turns to politics, or immigration, or sport, or cooking, or forest fires, or global-warming, I’ll have something to contribute, having read regularly about all of these topics.
Once they wine starts flowing, it’s WHAT you’re saying that will matter, not how you say it.
Think of an Italian visitor to your country.
She knows nothing of what’s going on, who’s in, who’s out, what’s hot and what’s not.
She can only talk about what’s topical in Italy.
That’ll be interesting for a while, but soon conversation around the dinner table will revert to house prices, the weather, and how to get your kids into the best schools.
Cultural knowledge. You’ll be lost without it.
Here’s a more ‘teachery’ argument.
You can study, for example, the passato prossimo (Italy’s most-used and most-useful past tense) using the standard lists of regular and irregular verbs, plus exercises.
That’s the approach on the club website.
Though, personally, I find it rather a bore.
Instead, you could just read.
Virtually every ‘news’ story (as opposed to a ‘feature’) is going to be chock full of examples of the passato prossimo. And given that it’s obvious that that traffic accident, or that bomb explosion, happened in the past, you shouldn’t have much difficulty in figuring out the tense, should you?
Reading something that you’re already familiar with will help you figure out the meaning.
While at the same time providing a memorable context from which to learn new words and get on speaking terms with grammar that you may hitherto only have studied in the classroom.
Bene, that’s it for now.
Homework: go read something in Italian, even if it’s just the headlines and the captions under the photos.
Though be aware that Italian newspaper apps are both rubbish and overpriced.
I’d suggest getting a subscription (which is what I’ve done for Swedish and French), but honestly?
There’s nothing I’d recommend.
If anyone has suggestions, do leave a comment.
EasyItalianNews.com is good, of course, and has audio too.
And soon we’ll be publishing more easy readers.
A mercoledì, allora!