Category Archives: pronounciation

Is school French a waste of time?


This weekend I read an article in the I newspaper which quoted Richard Branson as saying that learning French at school is a waste of time because nobody ever learns to speak it fluently in a classroom. He went on to say : “children spend years learning it in a classroom but nobody ever comes out of school able to speak French . It is a complete waste of time and if you go to France they will speak English anyway.” His conclusion was that students would be better off learning Spanish which is a global language and easier to learn.

now Richard Branson has lots of opinions and ideas (space tourism anyone?? Can’t think of anything less appealing myself…) but as a person who spent 5 years learning French in a classroom and left school with a GCSE but unable to speak French I have to concede that he does have a point.

My French classes began age 11 and involved learning lists of vocabulary which we were frequently tested on, and completing grammar exercises. When we listened to French recordings the native speaker talked VERY slowly, and it was repeated so many times even a baby could understand. We rarely had to speak. In fact it was possible never to speak if you didn’t want to. We were encouraged to read Paris Match magazine, nobody did. Altogether it was not a fun experience and clearly not effective. At the age of twenty one when I had long left French classes behind I dated a French guy named Alex for a while and discovered that I really couldn’t speak a word! The main problem was embarrassment as I was completely unable to pronounce any words I might have wanted to say. The French “r” sound is incredibly unnatural for an English speaker and mostly the reason in my opinion that English speakers give up!! I remember Alex trying to help me pronounce the word “araignee” (spider) correctly and after a few attempts I gave up. Defeated! The next day it was raining in Paris and he commented to me about the weather that it was  ” pas un temps d’aout” and I had to ask him to translate, defeated by the elision. If he’d written it down I’d have been fine. School French had failed me because I could neither pronounce the words not understand normal spoken French.

Recently my almost two year old tuned my car radio onto the France inter station – who even knew this was possible in the Midlands?? It’s not even one of those digital radios! So for the past few weeks whenever I drive anywhere I’ve been listening to radio programs similar to those on BBC radio 4 – current affairs, politics, some daft quiz shows, but also some music. The reception isn’t great which makes understanding even more of a challenge. It’s all very fuzzy so I drive along with a frown of concentration which probably makes me look quite angry. But undeniably my French listening has improved in the space of only a few weeks. It’s interesting to hear words and expressions popping out at you, like the word “donc” – French people say this a lot. Drop it into your conversation to instantly sound more authentic. There you go.

If you think about it Babies spend almost two years on average just listening to their native language before they start to speak more than the odd word, so listening A LOT is clearly the way forward. If you’re a baby. And also if you’re a learner of a second language!!

i am reaching the end of this ramble, really I am. I did try listening to Italian radio too but it was a Saturday night, and the station I found was a football match commentary, empoli versus Udinese. The last time I heard anyone speak so quickly I was in a Yorkshire livestock market buying some sheep. Seriously couldn’t understand a word. Think I need to find a more appropriate station for a very intermediate learner!! I learned the word “pareggio” which means ‘draw’. And also Tiro!!! Which they shout when the striker shoots at goal. I had zoned out by the time this happened so it gave me a shock I tell ya.

according to me, Richard Branson is correct, if they still teach French the way I learned at school it is indeed an ineffective waste of time. Far more listening and actual speaking are essential. And more fun.

as regards “French people all speaking English ” this is neither true nor a good attitude to have. No Richard, that doesn’t help at all.

is Spanish easier to learn? I don’t speak Spanish so I can’t really comment. As it shares quite a few similarities with Italian he could be right. Italian is much easier than French to me anyway. imageIs Spanish more global than French?? Probably, but only just?

now it’s time to listen listen listen! Anyone know any Italian radio stations apart from RAI 1 ????

Adventures in Pesto Making

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This week I had fun making pesto sauce for the first time! I like to keep things simple when I’m cooking, and you can’t beat pesto for simplicity. no heating required, just gather your ingredients, chuck them in a blender and Hey Presto… Hey Pesto!!

The thing that took longest in the whole process was plucking the leaves off two whole basil plants – 50g of basilico was required, that’s a whole lot more basil than you might imagine!!
Here’s the recipe that I followed, which is Lucrezia’s recipe as she described in her video (if you haven’t already, then check out her Youtube channel, she is awesome – LearnItalianwithLucrezia).
1 SPICCHIO d’aglio – a clove of garlic
50 g basilico – basil
70 g parmigiano grattugiato – grated parmesan
15 g pinoli – pine nuts – pronounced pee-NO-lee
100 ml Olio d’oliva extravergine – extra virgin olive oil
sale – q.b. (quanto basta) – salt, a tiny pinch

The recipe described washing and drying the basil leaves, then putting all the ingredients in the blender to achieve the desired creamy (CREMOSO) consistency. I had a mini crisis once I had prepared the basil as I don’t have a food processor….. before I remembered I had a small hand-held blender which just did the trick!! (that mini blender is definitely the most useful kitchen appliance ever)
Useful verbs learned in the process:
FRULLARE – to blend
ASCIUGARE – to dry
TAMPONARE – to blot

The end result was pretty tasty 🙂
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In other news I have learned some great words this week:
Madria – a herd, as in a herd of elephants. pronounced MAD-ri-a
Rammarico – regret – Pronounced ram-MAR-rico. just a beautiful, beautiful word and worth saying over lots of times !!! That is all 🙂

Parmigiana di melanzane

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My approach to learning Italian has lately become more practical, trying to integrate the words I learn into everyday life in an attempt to retain them better, and one easy way to do this is in the kitchen.
today I was inspired by Lucrezia’s latest video which was a listening exercise comprising a list of ingredients for Parmigiana di melanzane. The ingredients were as follows – 1.5 kg melanzane (aubergines), 1kg pomodori, 100g parmigiana grattugiato,300g mozzarella, un mazzetto di basilico, 1 quarto di cipolla (onion), olio extravergine d’olive, sale, 2 uova and olio di arachide (groundnut oil??) per friggere.
my first challenge was shopping for aubergines. I decided to halve the quantities in the recipe but even so I still needed 3 aubergines. feeling full of hope I visited Tesco Hednesford with two small boys (one of whom was growling loudly all the way round). no aubergines were to be found. in fact the fruit and veg section was half empty, I wondered if some kind of strike was in fact happening. this failure on the part of Tesco to supply basic ingredients led to a further stop at Aldi, with two small boys, the small one still growling, even more loudly than before. Aubergine success! Pollici in su (thumbs up Aldi!) we returned home and then I realised I had a list of ingredienti but no ricetta. I searched for an authentic Italian one, ie in Italian, but the first one I came across involved slicing the melanzane and then layering them with enormous quantities of sale (salt). just watching the video made me thirsty I tell you. feeling a bit harassed at this point, as I was multi-tasking trying to make a separate dinner for the kids, I found a Jamie Oliver recipe and used that instead. his recipe did not involve egg, goodness knows what I was supposed to do with the egg. perhaps I will never know.
I had to look up the meaning of ‘mazzetto’ with regards to basil quantity, and the dictionary supplied ‘bunch’. I didn’t want to completely decimate my basil plant so I used a small handful.
anyhow I was pleased with the end result considering the effort involved. griddling aubergines is very labour intensive!!
I made an important discovery regarding the word ‘cipolla’ which was basically that I have been mispronouncing it wrong for nearly 10 years. Randomly enough it was one of the first words I learned from my Italian friend. FYI it is la ci-POLLA, not the other way round. The pitfalls of teaching a language to yourself are endless. (finally making better progress now I started watching a lot of videos on youtube listening to native speakers, and hearing how the words should be pronounced and how they are used in context!!)
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Untranslatable Words and the art of the courtier

Ciao! yes happy readers the blog has turned back to Italian again! i’m as fickle and changeable as the weather (yes really snow blizzards, sun, rain, sleet all in one day here. please could it be primavera already?)
Today I have been thinking about untranslatable words which are truly one of the little marvels when you are learning a language. I’m not sure ‘untranslatable’ is the best word, but I struggled to find a different one. perhaps, words or expressions with no direct translation, words that require a whole sentence to describe them. I found one such Italian word whilst recently re-reading “Wolf Hall” :
Cromwell is discussing with King Henry VIII a book he has read recently – the book, written by an Italian named Baldassare Castiglione is called “The Courtier” in which he uses the word sprezzatura to define the art of doing everything gracefully and well, without the appearance of effort. Cromwell himself of course extols sprezzatura, which is the reason he manages to rise from black-smith’s son to the most powerful courtier. (He is also very skilled with languages which he often uses to his advantage -another thing I love about the book!). Nowadays in English this word seems to be used in the world of fashion, to describe people with great style who manage to look fashionable at the same time as looking like they threw their outfit on without trying to look good.
Untranslatable words are great fun in any language – the best one I found today is Finnish, the word “poronkusema” which means ‘reindeers piss’and is the distance a reindeer can travel before it has to stop and pee (around 5 miles FYI) -this word was actually used as a unit of distance in the country. Or so I read – it seems too random to be true!!!

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Meanwhile, I have not forgotten my New Year’s pledge to learn new words and how they are pronounced! Here we go, my word of the day:

Parola del giorno:
il lessico, VOCABULARY (il LESS-i-co). ampliare il Vostro lessico = to extend your vocabulary.
un’ampia gamma di parole (a wide range of words).
Hopefully I will remember this word because in English the word ‘lexicon’ means a dictionary or a list of words relating to a particular subject!

nightingale chat

nightingales are singing when you visit Tuscany in May- this is NIIIICE as they are very hard to hear in England any more. So when feeling quite excited about hearing your nightingale and deciding to chat about it with the locals, firstly try and pick someone that looks interested in birds – ie. not the young lady working in the bird museum in San Gimignano, and secondly – I will get to  the point – make sure you pronounce the word for nightingale with the correct stress on the syllables, so you say ‘usignOlo’ NOT ‘uSIGNolo’ – or something like that. Native speakers please feel free to correct me!