robinturner: Giving a tutorial, c. 2000 (tutorial)
[personal profile] robinturner
I recently returned from a trip to Rome. We'd actually been planning on going to Paris but changed our minds for reasons I can't quite remember, which meant I suddenly stopped learning French to see how much Italian I could learn in two weeks. The answer to that question was of course “Not a lot” but also perhaps “More than you'd think for two weeks.” I learnt a little Italian while we were in Deruta for a month for Nalan's ceramics course, but that was 2005 and I'd since forgotten almost everything, so this was an experiment in learning pretty much from scratch. This time I tried three learning methods, the main one being Duolingo, which is cheesily but entertainingly gamified and flies in the face of modern communicative pedagogy. Ignoring the current wisdom that you need to learn language in context with realistic examples, Duolingo relies heavily on translation and seems to generate sentences randomly. My favourites include “Je suis une abeille” from my French course and “Ho un serpente nello stivale” from a recent Italian lesson. Duolingo thus seems as useful a preparation for visiting a foreign country as the language textbooks of yesteryear that gave us such classic (and probably apocryphal) sentences as “My postillion has been stuck by lightning.”

In combination with other methods, however, Duolingo is great way to get the basic structure of a language. To supplement vocabulary I used my old friend Anki with a deck of flashcards that claimed to be “427 Common Italian Words”. They may be common, but they certainly aren't the most common unless Italians spend a lot of time watching war films and are even hornier than they're made out to be: words I've learnt so far include “capitano”, “colonello”, “cullo” and “cazzo”. (There may also be a bias toward the letter C.)

For some practical and rather more realistic Italian communication I discovered the course “La Mappa Misteriosa”, which was bradcast on BBC 2 and still hanging around the BBC website (I had to log in through a British proxy server to get the videos to play). This is a story in which you help a couple of Italians to follow a cryptic map to find a lost recipe - a very Italian quest! It's shot in first person perspective, which given my background makes me want to click on things with the mouse to shoot them ... “Mi dica?” “Vorrei un kilo formaggio RATTATTATTATT BOOM BOOM!!!” On the other hand, close up scenes with the sexy Italian lady who is leading me all over virtual Bologna tend to put me in mind of different POV experiences, but let's not go into that ;-)

So did all this concentrated learning prove to be of any use? Actually, not so much, since unlike my experiences in Deruta, where hardly anyone spoke English, Rome was filled with English speakers. I managed to follow directions and do a little shopping in Italian, and found an excuse to say “Mia moglie รจ insegnante di ceramica” in a conversation with an artist from whom we bought a couple of nice landscapes, but for the most part all conversations were in English. I would justify this by saying “Ho solo studiato l'Italiano per due settimani,” not because an apology was called for, but because I wanted to use the Present Perfect tense. Other than that, it was English all the way. I think I'll continue my studies, though, because I love the quirkiness of a language where eggs are masculine and the polite way to address someone is “She” regardless of gender, plus I quite like the idea of being to understand opera.
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Robin Turner

June 2014

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