Learning Italian Without Memorization

Though I have extensive experience at charades and my classes will all be in English, I thought it might be expedient to learn some Italian before moving across the pond. I mean, my other alternative would be to follow Peter’s example in this clip from Family Guy. Side note: I had an elderly family friend who was convinced that if she spoke Cantonese in a high-pitched voice, she was speaking English. This tended to inspire much confusion and head-scratching.

With some canvassing at the library and through friends, I soon acquired a few textbooks on Italian, Schaum’s Italian grammar outline, and a CD with basic conversations. This was a good start…but it felt an awful lot like work. And we know that is frowned upon in Italy. (I kid, I kid!) So, upon another friend’s suggestion, I picked up the first three levels of Rosetta Stone. This is a really neat, interactive program that teaches language without the pain of memorization. Essentially, you go through a series of exercises with pictures and spoken prompts, and the approach is meant to model the way you intuitively learned language as a baby. Before you realize it, you can say “The whale is swimming in the Atlantic ocean” and other phrases such that will be frequently used while traveling in Italy.

The only problem with Rosetta Stone is that its greatest strength (lack of formal drilling) is also its greatest weakness, particularly when it comes to unintuitive concepts like grammar and syntax. If you decide to give Rosetta Stone a try, I would be sure to pick up a textbook too, so that you aren’t scratching your head when verb endings in the past tense have changed gender to match the direct object in the sentence.

Having put myself through a crash course in Italian, I must say that previously elegant phrases have become a bit more mundane. Spiaggia, for instance, is the name of one of Chicago’s top Italian restaurants (and a favorite haunt of the Obamas). While the name sounds beautiful, it simply means “beach,” which reminds me of the shack-on-sand Oak Street Beachstro and Burrito Beach, probably not the intended free associations. Also, a fermata, the musical symbol for a pause, simply means “bus stop” in Italian. I picture hundreds of musicians all over Italy, lingering at bus stops with puzzled expressions.

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