Teaching Italian (trying not to teach “Modenese”), teaching Italy, teaching Modena. Part one

by felicitamodna82

One of the things I do for living (being Italian grants for studying, well, rather of the non-existent type…and being Austrian ones off limits for me unless I marry one of them…which is not going to happen soon…) is translating into Italian from English/German and teaching Italian. I teach privately or in small groups; I teach children, teens and adults. Some of them follow a real course, some others just take the so-called repetitions or want to deepen their knowledge.

There are many stereotypes about the Italian language and Italians. I totally agree: our language sounds very beautiful. But… every “beautiful” thing brings a sort of curse with itself, a “but” (exactly: how did I begin this sentence?). Many teachers or trainers, including myself, develop strategies in order to avoid or postpone real difficulties in learning. Intuitive learning, learning by heart, imitating, simplifying…

The “but” is very simple: although many people come to “us” with passion, interest and love, they face a lot of difficulties. For German-speaking people this is particularly awkward. Being our neighbours and among our biggest admirers, they idealise Italy and Italian, they often hear things they interpret freely or read/hear horrible commercials with mistakes, thus originating what I call “Kartoffel-Italienisch”, potato-Italian. (Not that Italians don’t eat potatoes: Kartoffel is simply one of the words normally associated with German-speaking people in the Italian popular culture and this seemed to me a good counterpart for the term indicating the equally horrible “Macaroni-Deutsch”, macaroni-German). Somehow they are lead to think that German is one of the most difficult languages in the world because many people complain about the wide use of declension.  These complaining people never heard about Russian or Polish (as  far as I know). Of course German is far more difficult that English. Also, possibilities to practice Deutsch are less than for the simpler Germanic brother. For example: no one would watch a TV show in German (I know I don’t. It really hurts: the dubbing is pretty horrible. Sorry, folks 🙂 ). Getting friends is very difficult and one gets confined in the “acquaintances-zone” for… I still don’t know how long. I got to know other Italians living here now, after four years…and they had to settle for having Italian friends. I was quite stubborn and clever and stayed away from my “fellows”, so my German is very good and I even understand dialects. (Nevertheless my proofreader says I write very poorly. I agree: I find German too strict to use creativity in writing and I get bored. But I love speaking it, especially the Austrian variant!).

Which facts and things seem to nerve poor Italian learners, especially in my “environment”?

  1. Italian is quite anarchist. No V2 language, flexible order in the sentence, just a few correlation clauses (example: negative particle non before the verb. But verb? It depends…). This really makes learners freak out. Where do I put the word? And in case they are having a conversation and they did not develop a “ear” for the intonation, which I call “melody”: Was that an affirmation or a question or what? For advanced learners, the matter also becomes what order do I need to mean this and not that? I am currently trying to study the problem of using “anche” and “solo” (auch/ebenfalls/sogar; nur = also/as well; only). It seems that most Italian learners find difficult to place these words in the proper position, unless they are exposed to native speakers/writers a lot and “forced” to communicate back. Hearing an “anche” in the wrong place makes me feel the same as when somebody scratches his/her nails over a blackboard.
  2. The article. There are several forms for each genus. There are mixed forms which combine prepositions and article (thus “replacing” the German declension, actually…).
  3. Intonations, fast talking, accents and dialects, regional use of words in different meanings.
  4. Verbs. Even though most learners will never learn all forms, you have to believe me: Italian “outnumbers” German (tenses, moods, desinences).  Not to mention the strict consecutio temporum…
  5. Adverb vs. Adjective. Many people never learn the difference…which is crucial in Italian, because adjectives always need agreement (adverbs do not, adjectives in German only if attributive) and the adverb is in most cases a different word.

Of course, no one should scare the hell out of people by listing difficulties with a threatening tone before even starting the course. At the same time, saying that everything is fine and that there won’t be any problem is a terrible lie one can maybe tell if doing a course “Italian for travel”, where the learner just learns by heart/imitation. Pupils who are going to learn Italian for five years or people who seriously consider developing intermediate/advanced skills, maybe even a certificate, won’t move forward if they are not aware of these things.

So, dear teacher/trainer/whatever, it’s up to you! 😉 And you can, if you want!

  • Native Italians often have a nice way of making humour,  feature good entertainer skills: these things motivate learners. I am certainly the case and I also have a lot of funny stories to tell during pauses. Even though people with real problems don’t like me (a pupil openly requested not to be in my class because I smiled too much, I made jokes and wanted to communicate with everybody.  The kid showed a lot of signs of “something going on”, even though I am not a professional in psychology or psychiatry. Insecure people also feel more unsecured if confronted with humour.). People with problems need help and if your smile and your “I am here for you” attitude wont’ help, it just mean you can’t do anything for them. So, don’t be frustrated and move on. Focus on those who really want to get in touch with the language and let the door open for you. If you are in a school, ask for a professional´s support. If you are not a native, keep in touch with natives (internet, social networks, friends and so on).
  • Go on with intuitive and “simple” learning as long as it is possible, explain grammar only after having showed practical application. On the other side, you will need to be very detailed and  prepared when it is time to “reveal” the complicated and boring matter ( that is, grammar rules), especially the first 4-5 handbook units are gone (or you are beginning the past tenses).
  • If you are a native speaker, be aware of your own culture, accent and intonation (mostly products of your city or town) and confront your pupils/students with other perspectives. CDs, articles about other cities, provinces or regions should accompany a nice explanation of “your own Italy” or even “Italies” if you lived in more cities. I wrote a short script to complete the unit about eating and ordering at the restaurant by showing some of the main differences between German-speaking and Italian-speaking countries, among North, Centre and South and among cities. This way my students have the necessary instruments to go on with the dictionary and with real-life Italian people without making common mistakes caused by standardized and/or stereotyped knowledges and without having a travel-size Felicita with them. I started writing it as I read the website of the “Community of Italian teachers and learners of Salzburg“:  some students of the Italian studies institute started observed the difficult translations of “dolce”(dessert) into German. I also noted myself some mistakes by my students and a lot of common misunderstandings. The result was a nice script about eating, ordering and cooking. I also use the CD when there is something to memorize and try to highlight the difference between the mainly Southern pronounce and intonation used in the tracks and the mild to strong Modenese issues I will never get rid of ( I can control some of them but I am not going to get rid of them 100%. Why should I anyway? Dialects are cultural richness!). Once again, if you are not a native, keep in touch with real Italy and real Italians.
  • As soon as you notice an interest for “translating” or a compulsive need to translate each word from the book or from the blackboard (many of the students do), be very open about the fact that you cannot simply “pour from a language into the other”. Most of the time a correct translation needs rewording, reformulating and so on. If the students feel that it is a good exercise (also to improve their mother tongue), it is OK. If they just do it to “learn better”, try to steer them away from this habit. I am tolerant only with adults who have very little time to attend and learn and feel insecure, but I have been very open about the implications. My example about “I speak Italian” seemed to work:  I explained that parlo l´italiano would sound in German “spreche den Italienischen“, but of course you say “ich spreche Italienisch”.
  • Turn yourself into a nice, stylish, environment-friendly but nevertheless effective bulldozer and get rid of: misspellings, mispronunciations, stereotypes, urban legends perpetuated by advertisement, commercials, tales created by people who have little or no idea about what Italy and Italian are (or Italians who sold a false image of Italy for reasons I do not want to know, or like stereotypes as well). Of course, you will have to use all of your communication skills in order to avoid looking unsympatisch. Also note that many people build their “love for Italy” or “inner security” on these few “facts”, so make sure that you provide new knowledges and sources for interest, love, culture, building a new inner security. The point about “inner security” could seem stupid to many but it is not. Let me explain it. One will be confronted with people who are insecure, sooner or later, in life or in the class. If you are a good observer and able to get in touch with others, you will notice how devastating removing a stereotype could be if the person has insecurity issues. Similarly, people who are in love with certain “Italian images” could react in an unpleasant way unless you give them simply new reasons to love f.i. Forte dei Marmi, Jesolo, Riccione, il Gargano.Remember: you teach Italian language and culture (and not stereotypes and a mixture of esperanto and Italian). Your tasks are teaching the best you can, making the “customer” happy (somebody hired you, even though this does not sound nice…) and open new communications channel (this also balances the previous economic point with a warm human level). By the way, I am a black and pink  biofueled bulldozer with silver glitter 🙂
Practical examples: why are these suggestions so useful – in my humble opinion-?
This example fits both German and English native speakers. Currently, an awful commercial about a pizzeria in Northern Flachgau can be heard on a local radio station. The commercial ends with the awful sentence”Pizzeria XXX ist molto bene“. Now, this horrible mistake is the typical example of  people who have no idea of the difference between adverb and adjective. If you describe the pizzeria through the verb essere (sein, to be) you will need an adjective, because pizzeria is a noun, singular and female. The matter is: the adjective gut/good used in the predicative clause does not change or differ from the adverb. The adjective buono always needs agreement (Italian language) and differs from the adverb bene. So, possible correct forms would be: 1) Pizzeria XXX ist (= is, è) molto buona (adj. used predicatively) 2) Pizzeria XXX ? Molto bene! (this solution would imply a non-spoken question such as “are we going there” or even a statement such as “going to pizzeria XXX” if you replace the question mark , so one could answer by commenting the action of choosing the pizzeria or simply commenting the action, thus allowing the adverb). Of course, the average learner of Italian cannot come to this conclusion if not guided, as in every case the English/German form would be very good/sehr gut.
I always get questions or comments concerning olive trees (Modena has no Mediterranean climate! They would freeze!), snow (same as before, so, yes, it snows. Of course not as much as in Salzburg, but it does), sea (we are far away from the sea!), hair-skin-eyes issues. You cannot imagine how lame it sounds, even to me, and I love chatting with people. How would you react if you heard people saying that f.i. all Austrians wear Lederhosen, all Germans are Nazis, all Americans eat hamburgers all the time? Modena has a continental climate, the Province reaches from the Po river to the Apennines (thus having also mountains), there is no sea. Our traditional cuisine is based on pork and pork fat, secondly on butter. Olive oil was imported along with other Southern or “standard” types of pasta, such as the dry pasta. Our traditional pasta is more of the”fresh pasta” type, more similar to the Austrian kind (yes, Austrians have their own Nudel too, talking of stereotypes!), except for the spice usage. The plain parts are often covered with fog during the autumn, the winter and early spring. It rains a lot during the year, it can snow. You can find black, dark brown, light brown, dark blonde, light blonde hair. You can find any kind of eye colour and complexion (as in Austria and Germany, former Empires, as in GB or USA). I am a dark brunette with pale complexion and some sprinkles on the nose and I don’t get a serious tan, no way. Still, I met people who believe we all have black hair (yes, even in 2012 with free libraries, cinema, internet and so on…) and told me my hair would be black (which is not, especially since I am constantly wearing a lot of black things and the comparison makes the difference  striking. My eyebrows and eyelashes are black and are different too). Don´t get me wrong, I still love people 🙂 but sometimes the matter becomes boring and one would prefer talking about other things!
So, for the first part, enough (editing possible if I see mistakes or bad forms)! What do you think? Agree or disagree? Am I too strict? 🙂 Want to share your opinion?, even if you teach another language or if you are a learner, a translator, an interpreter?
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