Questo corso è molto prevenuto

Language courses always come with baggage, like the BBC one that teaches you to talk about climate change in Italian.

Patrick West
Columnist

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There are many good reasons to learn a foreign language: for business purposes or holidaymaking, to keep mentally active, to satisfy linguistic curiosity, or merely to have a diverting pastime. There is also the incentive of wanting to show off, to prove to your peers how clever and adroit you are with words. The latter, I confess, was one appealing motive to teach myself Italian.

Yet my decision, 12 months ago, was also the result of serendipity. I had ‘befriended’ on Facebook a lady from Rome. (I know you are not meant to do this kind of thing, what with stories in the papers that Facebook ‘friends’ inevitably turn out to be impostors or murderers, but I had penpals as a teenager and I don’t really see the difference.) As time elapsed, we exchanged addresses and gifts. One I received was an English-speaker’s guide to Italian.

I had passed my GCSE French with a grade ‘A’ in 1991 (back when GCSEs really meant something, one is obliged to add) and I thought a grounding in one Romance language would make the acquisition of another relatively simple. I had heard Italian was the least difficult language for an Anglophone to learn. It has few irregular verbs, it is mostly phonetic, and determining the gender of nouns is straightforward: the masculine singular normally ends in -o, the feminine in -a. How hard could it be?

Yet learning a foreign language by oneself has proved a challenge fraught with difficulties that I hadn’t anticipated. Naively, I hadn’t countenanced the cultural prejudices and political bias inherent in the various courses on offer.

My primer was Italian in 10 Minutes a Day (2008), a charming little pictorial companion which took a few weeks to complete, and to my satisfaction. This was until I realised it had one vital omission: it made no mention of the informal second person singular tu. It instructed the reader solely to use Lei, the polite second person singular.

It’s no use having a language guide that doesn’t tell you how to address friends, family and children, I thought. Then it dawned on me that this might not have been an oversight, but a deliberate calculation. With its emphasis on asking for directions, changing money, booking hotels and packing suitcases, Italian in 10 Minutes a Day appears to be aimed at tourists, who are not likely to meet intimates on holiday. Furthermore, being a US publication, the guide is evidently pitched at Americans, and we all know how insufferably polite American tourists are. Hell, they are the only people in the Anglosphere who still address strangers as ‘sir’.

I am not a naturally gifted linguist. This is why I’ve experimented with a multitude of teach-yourself methods. And each tells you as much about the authors and target audience as the language itself. I retrieved some teach-yourself Italian CDs given away with the Guardian a few years ago. From the outset, they tell users not to fuss over the rules of the language, but just to ingest by osmosis. How typical of the Guardian to encourage such a libertine approach. In the same spirit of negatively stereotyping newspapers and their readers, I thought it appropriate that a CD given away by the Daily Mail stressed the importance of the phrase non parlo italiano. (A hypothetical guide from a red-top tabloid might include Voglio salsicce, fagioli, patatine fritte. Capisci? or Dove può vedere il calcio inglese?.)

Still, such CDs are handy when doing the cooking, as is the pocket-size The Rough Guide Phrasebook: Italian (2006) when on the bus or train. This is obviously calculated to cater for gap-year students and drifters – those looking for cheap hotels (Mi puo consigliare un albergo economico?) and booze-loving party-goers (Venite a prendere una birra?… Che festa quella, vero?). The only surprise is that The Rough Guide doesn’t tell you how to score drugs, or whether to use tu or Lei when addressing a dealer.

I’m currently on the second volume of the BBC’s Active Talk Italian Course. The two books and CD companions contain some bizarre diversions, Talk Italian 2 (2007) especially so. This volume is rich fare for those convinced that the BBC is governed by a liberal-left cabal, aging hippies and proselytising environmentalists.

Much of Talk Italian 2 is concerned with asking for directions in the rustic campagna of Tuscany and Umbria, where one would expect BBC bigwigs and well-to-do liberal-left champions of the corporation to take their vacations. A chapter is devoted to renting and buying luxury property (In zona panoramica e comoda… quattro camere, due bagni, cantine di 50mq, garage e giardino… Prezzo: €840,000). This no doubt appeals to Italy-loving Islingtonians who think holidaying in Spain is for the ghastly hoi polloi and that the south of France is a repository for the vulgar bourgeoisie.

The section in Talk Italian 2 on telling the time casually envisages a scenario of ‘Jorge’ and ‘Alessandro’ co-ordinating a meeting at a climate-change conference: Il cambiamento climatico: rischio per la biodiversità marina. The reader is invited to insert the Italian for ‘we start’ in the following ominous sentence ‘_____ alle diece e un quarto con il discorso del Ministro sul cambiamento climatico‘ (answer: Cominciamo). Whatever happened to time-keeping dialogues simply based on railway enquiries?

On visiting the doctor, a further chapter asks you how to recognise notices for ‘alternative solutions’: medicina olistica, agopuntura, omeopatia, meditazione. Would you like to mettere in armonia le dimensioni fisiche, emotive, spirituali e sociali della persona? When ‘Simona’ complains of having l’influenza and asks for some painkillers, you, her hypothetical friend, are inveigled to suggest a superior alternative: Lo ho un prodotto omeopatico molto efficace. Simona ought to reply Che stronzata!

One does expect foreign-language guides to reflect shifting mores over time. The terms il compagno or il partner are routinely found in today’s auto-didactic guides, but I would wager that in times past a male ‘partner’ was simply un ragazzo: ‘a boyfriend’. It is appropriate that Talk Italian 2 teaches you text-speak, so that to say ‘not coming fri[day] soz’ you punch in non vengo ve[nerdì] MiDi (short for mi dispiace – ‘I’m sorry’). Conversely, a question from Italian Verb Tenses by Paola Nanni-Tate, published five years ago, which asks you to translate ‘We sent her a fax’ looks a bit anachronistic these days. Likewise, I would recommend that a bleakly honest, updated version would explain exactly how to introduce oneself at a ‘bunga-bunga’ party in the chapter on socialising, and, in the chapter on money, how to say ‘120 per cent national debt’ and ‘default on its loans’.

So, if you want to speak foreign, keep in mind that language guides are not only determined by time, but also space. They aren’t neutral or objective. And there will always be a lesson for you, in both senses of the word.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland. Read his blog here.

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