Speak Italian, Confidently and Accurately

by Henrietta Laurenston

Am I the only language student who finds modern teaching methods unsatisfactory? The endless promises of “instant” learning and the implicit – if not explicit – message that grammar is for old bores both irritate and depress me. I’m thankful that at least one language school agrees with me More on this later.

Back in the Eighties, when I was at school, we used to conjugate our French verbs out loud, we knew why the word for ‘beautiful’ is sometimes ‘beau’ and sometimes ‘belle’; we were able to use the language because we understood how it works.

While I am not suggesting that language-teaching methods were perfect in those days, I do believe they were more effective than what is generally on offer today. My major criticism of the way I learnt at school is that the emphasis was so heavily on writing and reading. It’s great to be able to do both of those things in a foreign language but it’s even more useful, particularly at the beginning, to be able to speak and to understand what someone says back.

The strength of modern methods is the concentration on speaking and listening. The weakness is the sloppy attitude to grammar. Yes, making yourself understood is what matters but if you don’t learn the correct forms in the early stages, it will be almost impossible for you to speak the language smoothly later on.

It is a manifestation of the current culture, craving instant gratification, that so many language courses offer Italian in a Week – or even a day! Learning a language is a considerable undertaking and it’s simply not realistic to pretend it can be done in less than a few months. If your idea of ‘speaking’ Italian is being able to say “buongiorno”, “grazie,” and “gelato”, then OK, you can achieve this in a day. However, if what you mean is being able to hold a conversation, even if only about what you did yesterday and what you like about Italy, then you need to settle down and study properly.

The first two or three weeks or so are a grind. We have to accept that. Committing to memory all those endings, not confusing verb endings with noun endings, getting to grips with genders and all the different words for “the” It’s hard work. But it is SO well worth it!

After the initial phase, when you’ve got some linguistic building blocks, you can begin to put sentences together – and then things get more interesting. If you try to build a house before you’ve mastered the technique of brick-making, you will never have the beautiful, durable edifice that you will have if you put the time and energy into learning the basics.

As I see it, the primary role of teaching materials is to explain how the language works, in terms both of grammar and of functional language (eg, telling the time). They should also provide practice exercises, since people learn best by doing something active.

I highly recommend Italian for Beginners, an ebook written by a language school in Manchester. I bought it 3 or 4 months ago and have now just finished working through it. I’ve still got some way to go before I can discuss politics in Italian, of course, but I feel very secure about what I’ve learnt and I know I’ve got a solid base on which to build further. Sono molto felice!

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