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<   No. 3282   2013-06-02   >

Comic #3282

1 {photo of second hand Italian books in a market}
1 Caption: Learning Italian

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Kodak Pellicole
Kodak equipment and films.
I am currently in the process of learning Italian, using the language teaching website Duolingo. I've tried to teach myself the language before, but fell foul of the combination of difficulty and having to remember to do a bit regularly. Duolingo helps a lot with this, and I recommend it - they also do Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, and English (for people who can speak one of the aforementioned languages).

In 2001 I took my first trip to Italy, which was my first trip to a non-English speaking country since I was a child. I wanted to learn as much of the language as I could, both in order to cope while there and also in an attempt to be respectful by speaking at least some of the native language rather than just shouting in English. I got a Lonely Planet phrasebook, which I found quite good. It had a section at the front all about Italian spelling, pronunciation, grammar, verb conjugations, and common words and sentence constructions. Then it went on into canned phrase chapters giving sentences for dealing with various common travel situations.

I've since found that many phrasebooks only have the latter, and skimp badly on the basic grammar stuff, including later revised editions of Lonely Planet's phrasebooks.[1] I really like the grammar section, because I think I tend to be somewhat analytical and rules-based in the way I learn things. Some people just like to learn a bunch of phrases and sentences, and pick up on things like pronouns and verb conjugations kind of by osmosis. Which is fine if you learn that way. But I like to see these things laid out in tables, categorised by linguistic person, plurality, tense, and gender, so I can see the underlying patterns. I'd much rather know that the third person present tense plural verb form typically ends in "-no" so I can make the pattern-based leap that "Leggo e scrivo" ("I read and I write") can become "Leggono e scrivono" ("They read and they write"). So phrasebooks that don't include a largish grammar section are frustrating for me.

Ristorante la Fontanella
The Fountain Restaurant and Pizzeria. Pretty easy for an English speaker.
That search for patterns is augmented by a search for familiarity. Italian is a relatively easy language for an English speaker like me to start learning. Coming from the same language family of Indo-European languages, it shares a large underpinning of grammatical structure with English, even if the words are different. So it's generally possible to map simple English words one-to-one onto more or less direct equivalents in Italian. And since the Romance languages (including Italian, Spanish, and French) had a major influence on the vocabulary of English after the Norman conquest in 1066, many Italian words actually sound somewhat like their English counterparts, or at least to a closely related synonym.

For instance, a kitchen is a cucina (pronounced koo-cheena) in Italian, a cat is a gatto, a school is a scuola, obviously is ovviamente, and the verb meaning "I write" mentioned above - scrivo - is related to "scribe" and "scribble". Such words, related in both sound and meaning by actual history and evolution of the languages, are called cognates.

The problem is that these relatively easy counterparts tend to be the less frequently used words in actual texts and conversations. The most commonly used words are the little words we mostly ignore: articles, prepositions, pronouns, and conjunctions - the linguistic spakfilla that glues our nouns and verbs together. Words like and, if, who, you, they, to, from, on, in, for, so, and but. And unfortunately for the language learner, these little words tend to be very different in most languages. But you have to learn them, and you have to learn them early because you can't say much of anything without them.

25/365 Akihabara Electric Town
I can speak a few phrases of Japanese, but alas cannot ready anything.
Once you get over this initial hurdle, learning vocabulary begins to get easier. At least in languages like Italian. I've also travelled to Thailand, Japan, and Peru, where I had occasion to learn tiny bits of Thai, Japanese, and Quechua. These languages are so far removed from English that there are no historical cognates. There's the odd coincidence where a word in Thai sounds a bit like a word of similar meaning in English, and there's also the phenomenon of borrowing. Japanese in particular has borrowed hundreds of words from English, mostly nouns describing modern inventions and concepts. There's something odd about asking what the Japanese word for sandwich is and being told it's sandu-wichu. And of course some words go the other way; it's very easy to learn the Japanese word for sushi! But for the most part, every new word in a language like this is completely new and has to be remembered without any reference to something familiar.

But back to Italian. Those little words can be devilishly tricky to remember and get right. The Italian words for "he" and "she" are lui and lei, respectively. But I couldn't remember which was which in 2001, and probably ended up referring to my wife as "he" to half of Rome. It's only recently that I've found a way to remember which is which. Lui is pronounced like the man's name Louis, associating it with "he" in my mind. The word ancora means "still", as in "he's still asleep". The way I'm remembering that is that an anchor makes a ship still in the water, as in not moving. It's a weird juxtaposition of meanings but it's a hook that allows me to recall the meaning of ancora any time I see it. (Ancora also means "again", as in "he's asleep again", with the difference determined by sentence construction and context. But this is closely related enough to "still" that I can pull that meaning up as well once I have "still".)

Art class
Loro scrivono. (Or essi scrivono.[2]) (Actually they're sketching, but it was the closest photo I had.)
I'm not sure how many other people use little correspondences like this to help them remember things, but I expect it's quite a lot. Humans are pattern seeking beings. We like to see connections between things that make them easier for us to classify, understand, and remember. It's why we think of chickens, owls, robins, gulls, and ostriches as "birds" and birds is such a common notion to talk about.

One common thing about Italian and many other languages that English doesn't share so much is verb conjugation. This is changing the form of a word in a different grammatical context. I hinted at it above with the fact that "I write" is scrivo, whereas "they write" is scrivono. Compare the English "I write", "you write", "he or she writes", "we write", "you (plural) write", "they write" with the exact equivalents in Italian, respectively: "io scrivo", "tu scrivi", "lui o lei scrive", "noi scriviamo", "voi scrivete", and "loro scrivono".[2] You can see that the pronouns change to indicate who is doing the writing, but the form of the verb also changes for every single case. In English the only change is adding an "s" for the case of "he or she". This is actually the most common form of verb conjugation for the present tense in English, and verbs that follow this pattern are called regular verbs.

And now you can tell that I'm writing this by stream of consciousness, because if I wanted to show off a regular verb in English I wouldn't have chosen "write". Although following the regular verb pattern in the present tense, "write" is irregular in other tenses: "I wrote", "I have written". An example of a fully regular verb is "jump", which follows the same pattern as write in the present tense: "I jump", "you jump", "she jumps", "we jump", "you (plural) jump", "they jump"; and is also regular in other tenses: "I jumped", "I have jumped".

As already mentioned now, verbs that don't follow the regular pattern of the language are called irregular verbs. There are quite a few in English, when you think about it: drive, read, swim, run. Although quite common words, these tend to be the ones that young children learning English as their first language stumble over most frequently when forming more complex sentences. Their brains try to apply the strong pattern of regular verbs, and end up producing sentences like "I swimmed at the pool", when the correct, irregular conjugation is "swam".

A la Samaritaine
Pont Neuf in French would be Ponte Nuovo in Italian.
This can also easily mess you up learning a foreign language later in life. Once you recognise the patterns of regular verb conjugation, you can happily conjugate dozens of Italian verbs - until you hit an irregular one. The worst offender I've found is actually the same verb as what I believe to be the worst offender in English, the verb "be". Instead of "I be", "you be", "she bes", "we be", "you (plural) be", and "they be", we have "I am", "you are", "she is", "we are", "you (plural) are", "they are", and the past tense forms "I was" and "I have been".

In Italian the equivalent verb is essere[3], from which you might expect the regular conjugations to be "io esso", "tu essi", "lei esse", "noi essiamo", "voi essete", and "loro essono". Instead we get "io sono", "tu sei", "lei è", "noi siamo", "voi siete", and "loro sono". The pattern of endings is still kind of there, but the words have been munged almost beyond recognition and there's no way you could work out these conjugations yourself if you didn't already just know them. And there's no getting around learning these, as the verb "be" is actually the most commonly used verb - in both English and Italian. It's one of those words that's so commonly used that you never notice it until you stop and think about it.

One good thing about learning Italian is that it is so closely related to two other languages of global importance: French and Spanish. I've visited Latin America and France, and found that the little bit of Italian I knew helped make learning a little bit of Spanish and French much, much easier than it might have been otherwise. Italian words that are very different from their English counterparts are often very similar to their counterparts in Spanish or French. For example "shirt" in English is camicia in Italian, camisa in Spanish, and chemise in French.

The cool thing is that this similarity can help in the other direction as well. For a long time I kept confusing the Italian pronouns noi and voi. I knew one meant "we" and the other meant "you (plural)", but could never remember which was which. One nice thing is that the possessive versions of these words ("ours" and "yours" in English) are nostro and vostro, and they match noi and voi by the initial letters. When I started learning a tiny bit of French for a trip I did last year, I was delighted to discover that the French words for "we" and "you (plural)" are nous and vous, and the corresponding possessive forms are notre and votre. These are clearly related to the Italian words. Now I had this chunk of four words across two languages that all relate to "we" (noi/nostro/nous/notre) and "you (plural)" (voi/vostro/vous/votre). It was easy remembering that all the words starting with "n" related to the same pronoun, and all the words starting with "v" related to the other pronoun, but I still got mixed up on whether the "n" or "v" words were "we" or "you" or the other way around.

Notre Dame evening
Cathedral of Our Lady, Paris.
Then I started reading a bit of tourist information about Paris. One of the major tourist attractions in Paris is Notre Dame Cathedral. I thought to myself, hang on, what does "Notre Dame" mean in French? I had no idea until I looked it up. It means "Our Lady", as in the "Church of Our Lady", which is a popular name for churches in English-speaking countries, referring to Mary, the mother of Christ. Of course! Suddenly all the cogs clicked into place. Notre Dame is "Our Lady", so notre is "our", so the Italian equivalent nostro is "our", so the pronoun starting with the same letter, noi, means "we"! Notre Dame is the church of Our Lady, not Your Lady, so therefore noi means "we" and voi means "you".

It may sound like a long and convoluted chain of causation, but in the end this is how I finally managed to remember what those two little Italian words mean. You need some sort of hook to hang your recollection on. Anything to kick off the domino chain of association that leads you to the right memory. But once that hook is in place, it becomes easy to remember the most obscure little pieces of information.

And these are exactly the same sort of memory hooks I use to remember other stuff, ranging from technical jargon in English, to mathematical formulae, to scientific and historical facts. I'm no master of mnemonics and actually have a pretty lousy memory for many things, but when I really want to remember something this is the sort of thing that often helps me. I like to think it's making some use of all the disparate knowledge stuck in my brain, and forming some sort of web of cross-links between different semantic areas.

I just hope that now if you ever find yourself in Italy and desperately needing to know the difference between noi and voi, you'll think of Notre Dame Cathedral too.


[1] I have assembled a collection of Lonely Planet's phrasebooks in editions published around 2000, as they all contain the useful grammar chapter, whereas more recent editions have discarded much of it.

[2] An Italian reader writes to tell me that the traditional word meaning "they" is essi - not loro, which is actually the third person plural object pronoun, meaning "them". Although in modern spoken Italian essi is often replaced with loro, and essi may eventually be phased out of existence altogether. Duolingo apparently takes the route of modern conversational Italian, rather than traditional written Italian.

[3] There are actually two different Italian verbs meaning "be": essere and stare. Essere is used for more or less permanent qualities: for example "I am a man" is "io sono un uomo". Stare is used for temporary conditions: "I am well" is "io sto bene".

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