Category Archives: books

Micromastery and Italian songs

Since I got back from my trip to Italy I have been super-charged with enthusiasm for learning Italian, in fact I would go so far as to say I have been quite obsessed with how to make progress. On a recent road trip to the Lake District I listened to the one CD of Italian music that I possess all the way there and all the way back. This worked out at seven – yes seven!- hours of Marco Mengoni’s songs, from his album Le Cose che non ho , by which time you can imagine I was getting pretty familiar with the lyrics but wasn’t feeling entirely certain how this might help improve me.

A week or so later I took an Italian lesson on Skype and I was really struggling. The nouns were coming back to me but every verb I ever learned seemed to  have disappeared out of my cervello.  Or the required verbs were only in the INFINITIVE which was next to useless in the midst of the flow of conversation. Until a great thing happened : I needed the word dicono ( they say) and I remembered one of Marco’s lyrics  dicono,dicono,dicono parole in circolo. The right word was ready and waiting  for me. I swear this was the only time in the entire hour of my lesson that I knew a verb.😂

This led me to thinking why singing the language helps so much, the words just stick in your head better with the music,  and the repetition, and before you know it the words seem to belong to you. It’s a short cut to really owning those words !

This past weekend I went to Wales – another long road trip where this time I wasn’t the one who was driving. I spent the journey trying to remedy my lack of verbs by chanting all the imperfect verbs that had eluded me in my lesson. Andavamo,  andavamo, andavamo a fare la spesa la mattina. Eravamo, dicevamo, facevamo,dovevamo, potevamo.And so on. All in the first person plural for some reason. Time will tell if this will improve my conversation. Yes indeed and there were times when I wondered at what point this obsession with Italian might be considered an actual problem for me.

In amongst the imperfect verbs on my grammar book, I was also reading a book called Micromastery by Robert Twigger. Now I was finding this book really interesting because although I hadn’t bought it to help my language learning, it turned out that it was directly applicable.

THe following is the quote from inside the book because it explains the premise of the book better than I could :

“We are often told that we must be passionate about only one thing : that 10000 hours of hard practice is needed to achieve mastery, but in fact most highly successful people including Nobel Prize winners spend their free time learning new skills and activities. Whether it’s making a perfect souffle, painting a door or lighting a fire, when we take the time to cultivate small areas of expertise we change everything. We become more fearless learners, spot more creative opportunities, improve our brain health and boost our well-being. We see knowledge itself completely differently.”

Robert Twigger defines a ‘micromastery’ as ‘a self contained unit of doing, complete in itself but connected to a greater field’. For example, learning to make the perfect omelette. Once you have mastered the skill, you could get hooked and use this as a springboard to go on to become an amazing chef. Or, you might decide to stop there, but every time you make an omelette in future it will be An Incredible Omelette,  and that will give you great satisfaction, as well as impressing anybody else who eats your omelettes.

The book gives about forty diverse examples of micromasteries including Make a Perfect cube of wood, Do an Eskimo Roll (in a kayak), Mix a Delightful Daquiri and Walk the Tango Walk. Micromasteries for language learning that he mentioned were for example, learning a simple set of greetings in Chinese, so that you could greet anyone from a child to an emperor; learning to read Japanese in three hours by learning the katakana; And learning  a song in another language. The song he suggested learning was “La Marseillaise”( by singing along to the Youtube clip from Casablanca. )

For any complete beginners who are planning to visit Italy I would recommend learning to order specific things such as coffee or gelato (details such as which flavour , how many flavours, and if you want it in a cone or a little coppetta) as micromasteries since you are guaranteed to need these phrases when you are there, and you will get a real kick out of being able to do this perfectly! And you will immediately impress your travelling companions. You might decide this is as far as you want to go with learning Italian…. OR you may decide to devote yourself to achieving fluency, however long it may take.

Anyway I highly recommend his book, it’s pretty short but gives you some cool ideas to think about.

And I’m off to browse for more Italian music , I might need a little change from Marco,  Please do share in the comments any Italian songs that you enjoy and that have helped you learn, and I will give them a listen!

 

 

When vassoio doesn’t sound like a tray

The other day I learned the Italian word for tray, il vassoio, and had one of those moments of incredulity when I looked at the dictionary. Vassoio? Tray? Really? naah, that can’t be right. Vassoio does not seem like it would mean tray. I could believe it meant vase, or some other kind of vessel, that would be fine with me; For example annaffiatoio means watering can, and I am happy with that. However, a translation of a word is not something you can argue with, it just is ! This internal struggle made me smile as I could have ended up thinking I’m the only one to have issues like this with vocabulary, had I not recently read a book by Rachel Cusk, called The Last Supper : A summer in Italy. 

Towards the beginning of the book she talks about her approach to learning Italian, and how she likes learning vocabulary:

“It is in the area of vocabulary that I feel my resources can be most securely invested. An identifiable object has a kind of neutrality, like Switzerland : It is a place that seems to offer the possibility of agreement. I have no difficulty with an armchair being una poltrona or a rug il tappeto : indeed I almost prefer calling a mirror uno specchio , for it seems to suit it better.”

This is all fine until she reaches the word scarpa 

“But sometimes I cannot escape the feeling that the word in my hand is counterfeit money, for there are other words that have no ring of truth about them at all. They are false somehow, I can’t believe they’ll work. How could a scarpa for instance be the same thing as a shoe? If i went into a shop and asked for a pair of scarpe, I would surely be handed a brace of woodland fowl, or two fish with particularly bony spines..”

I think this is my problem too in this case, for some reason I am unwilling to relinquish the reliable tray-ness of my native word.. although I have no problem with accepting the translation for the majority of other Italian words I have so far come across.

I would love to hear if anyone else has experienced a similar problem with learning a particular word, an Italian word, or in fact a word in any other language, especially Latin 😉

 

 

 

Language learning for tortoises

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In the summer of 2016 I will celebrate my 10 year anniversary of learning Italian. Honest assessments of my abilities : shaky intermediate at best.
Given that it is technically possible to learn Italian in 24 weeks of intensive study I decided it was time to reflect on my tortoise-plodding progress towards fluency, and what I could be doing differently to improve my Italian in the limited time I have available for study.
For inspiration I turned to Gabriel Wyner’s book Fluent Forever – the author is an opera singer who speaks at least 5 languages fluently. His methods for teaching himself new languages quickly involve learning correct pronounciation before anything else, never translating and using spaced repetition systems (flashcards).

instead of translating words from English to your target language it is proven much more effective to attach the new word to an image – by using the incredible super-powers of our visual memory. I tried this today to learn a bunch of Russian words attached to pictures ( I have always wanted to learn Russian, it is right there on my To Do list haha) and it really did work! I learned how to say white wolf which sounds something like Beely Volk. So awesome.
Meanwhile back to Italian….

As temperatures here in the UK have recently plunged today’s lesson has a cold theme:(freddissimo!)
Piedi congelati – frozen cold feet
I guanti.
Il cappotto (exploding) – coat
La neve
Scivoloso – slippery
I brividi
Dita fredde
il pinguino (exploding)

Masculine nouns are exploding, feminine nouns are on fire and neuter nouns are shattering like glass in his book.

Back to plodding on – lento, la tartaruga si muove piano 🙂
Ciao !

the meaning of ‘zagara’ : a book about lemons

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I have a thing about Italian words that start with the letter Z. Who knows why, they are just very pleasing. Here are some favourites. Zaino (backpack), zigomo (cheekbone), zenzero (ginger),  zanzara (mosquito , love that word!), zampa (paw, as in animal’s foot – i remember it by thinking as quattro zampe).

Today I found another Z word – zagara (DZA-ga-ra) which means citrus blossom. It is a Sicilian word derived from Arabic which has subsequently been adopted by the whole of Italy, used to name blossoms of lemons and oranges and a variety of other exotic citrus trees.

hubby came back from a visit to the big city and presented me with this book “the land where lemons grow”. I was very excited to receive a present, especially as it was a book, but I was also slow to realise it was not just a book about lemons –  it was a book about Italy!!

I’ve only had chance so far to read a few chapters but as the author sets the scene for how abundant various types of citrus tree are in Italy, it got me to thinking about wild foraging. In the opening chapter she describes her first visit to Italy, arriving by train and seeing lemon trees growing by the side of the station platform and the impression that this made upon her. Imagine lemons growing the same way apple trees do in the UK! Wild foraging is a fun occupation for our family. Last week hubby and older son came back with a bagful of apples from a tree on our local Common ( They had to climb for them, all the ones within easy reach had been picked already). We also make nettle soup in spring, and eat wild garlic leaves in omelettes when they’re in season. summer is foraging time for bilberries, coming home with hands and knees stained purple. So as I read about the lemons I wondered if it is usual in Italy just to forage outside for a lemon when you need one in your cooking? Maybe one day I will be fortunate enough to stay there long enough to find out!!

I’d love to hear what other people forage for. please comment and let me know! Or share your favourite Z words too!

Why you cannot forget ‘che’

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Lately I’ve been reflecting on the effectiveness of how I teach myself Italian. I’m now into my tenth year of learning – there have been gaps along the way mind you, weeks, months where I haven’t studied. The longest gap was probably  a whole year following a holiday in Italy . During the trip I’d managed a few conversations in Italian and was thinking to myself I was making a bit of progress. We got back to the airport and I ordered a slice of pizza for lunch. The lady asked me if I wanted it heating up ( I think) and I completely failed to understand her. I was a bit frustrated, thinking the only way to get any better would be to stay there and practice….. The year later I got over myself and carried on!!!

So my approach is entirely scattered, and is not exactly following a syllabus (!!) – time is short and I’m not that disciplined. Some days I only learn (or only retain!) one word- for example the other day I learned lo scivolo ( pron. SHE-vo-lo) meaning ‘slide’ whilst I was playing in the park with the kids. Words for everyday things that I repeat often tend to stick better. Sometimes I label things round the house. That really works. Sometimes I give the kids instructions in Italian – lets go downstairs. Scendiamo per le scale! Let’s go- Andiamo!
As often as I can I listen to the language being spoken , I watch lucrezia’s videos on YouTube (learn Italian with lucrezia) – she is awesome, very clever at explaining things. And when I’m in the mood I read Italian novels very slowly : which brings me to the point at which I left off my last blog post “an astonishing lack of adjectives“…..
I am a few chapters into my book ‘Il Suggeritore’ translated in English as The whisperer, when I come across the following sentence :

“sono una che apprende in fretta.” (I’m a fast learner)

And because I am being perfectionist about understanding everything properly and not skimming along as I often do, I realise I don’t know why ‘che’ is being used here, in fact I’m puzzled why ‘chi’ is not in its place.
Which exposes a glaring hole in my grammar learning. Out come the grammar books.
I think this is the explanation: che is being used as a relative pronoun in this situation – it can be used to mean ‘who’ or ‘whom’ (in a statement); it can also mean ‘which’ or ‘that’ . And whilst it might be omitted from the equivalent English sentence, in Italian it cannot be forgotten.

another example : la prima volta che sono andata in Italia era nel 1996.  In English you can choose whether to leave out the equivalent of che or include it in the sentence – the first time (that) I went to Italy was in 1996. In Italian che cannot be left out. Shall I say that one more time?? Che has to stay.

I remember reading this same chapter about uses of ‘Che’ in my grammar book a few months ago and the ironic thing is that I clearly am not a fast learner because the subject was still a total blank.

Non sono una che apprende in fretta

Chi should not be confused with che. Chi is a question word, used to ask about people.
For example “Chi ha mangiato il gelato?” – Who has eaten the icecream?
In proverbs and generalisations it can be used to mean ‘he who, those who’, etc – for example “Chi va piano va sano e lontano “.

My favourite mix up of the past few weeks was regarding the word for chimney- camino– ten years of learning and I somehow hadn’t registered that one and had been translating it to myself as something to do with walking.
Cammino, I walk. Or, the path.
Il camino, the chimney.
Not the same, enough said.