Dealing in Words§

writer: russell j.t. dyer; posted: December 1, 2006; revised: April 23, 2018; readers in past month: 591

Cinque Giornate Statue

It’s been a year now that I have been trying to learn Italian at the source and fluency still evades me. I continue to improve — although I’m not studying like a student but more like a child learning his first language. Of course, I’m not a child and I am studying conversationally primarily, if only a little by grammar books. By studying conversationally, I’m listening intensely and reading carefully (i.e., signs, news blurbs, etc.) everything in Italian. The result is that I see the words. This is a definite barrier to fluency. If I would do this in English, it would make communication almost impossible. I do it a little in English: I notice words that are said or written and think about the metaphor, the connections associated with them, the grammar, the word usage, and many other factors. But this is very selective analysis. I don’t continuously consider the use of articles, word choice, sentence structure and so forth when speaking, when listening in English. I do do this in Italian.

I’ve made the comment several times that when I speak Italian, I feel as though I’m dealing cards from a deck of Italian vocabulary flash cards. When I want to find something, I reach for the dove card first, which means where (or the dov’é for where is — which sounds the same anyway), and toss it across the counter at a waiter. If I want directions to the bathroom, I then deal out bagno. I then listen for them to play this game of bridge and deal back a card I can use like dietro for behind and cuccina for kitchen. They might say a few other words in the mix, but I pick up the cards I know for my hand. Even when I know all of the words in a speakers sentence, I’m still examing each before picking it up. If a speaker talks quickly, clearly, and smoothly, I can generally follow their conversation with high comprehension. However, I cannot repeat their words. I can translate, give an English listener a sense of what was said, but not word for word. You might think that’s nearing fluency, but I’m still accepting cards dealt to me, registering their meaning, and then dropping them on the floor. I suppose given enough exposure to this pace of listening, I will eventually tire of my examination of words and achieve fluency. This is my current assumption and hope.

This all leads me to two points I would like to make: first, most people believe that learning a language requires you to force yourself to use it. That may be necessary for some people. I read part of a book about linguistics and how languages are learned. The authors made a comment that children learning their first language will develop at different paces and by different methods. Some children will be naturally talkative from an early age. And some children will be quiet and mostly listen. And although some decent speakers at an earlier age, by age five they’re almost all fluent. I do talk in Italian at times, but not always to the level that people I know who speak English and Italian think I should. It’s not that I’m afraid, it’s that I’m busy learning while Italian is being spoken. I suspect this relates to my trait of not taking notes in school: I can’t listen to the teacher and take notes at the same time. The best kind of conversation for me is to speak English to someone while they speak Italian to me.

Along these lines I want to make my second point: I have been suspecting for a few years now that after thousands, maybe millions of years of humans communicating vocally, I think we are still only grunting at each other. The difference is that we have learned to take those grunts we hear and process them in our brain to equate to images, thoughts, and emotions. We use the nouns to see images, the verbs to see action, we use the words in between to adjust our internal senses. Language resides in the listener, not the speaker. The speaker has learned to make the grunts in a proper way and order based on his understanding of what the listener will do with those sounds, how she will string them together, smooth them out, and thereby react to them.

I am well spoken. Although my second grand teacher said I had a monotone voice, was tone deaf, and had no sense of rhythmn making me inept when it came to singing (thank you very much, Mrs. Connley), I have been told that I have a soothing sounding voice. My grammmar is far better than most, my vocabulary and word usage are agile. When I am with someone who is well read and well educated and a native English speaker, I can speak extremely well and smoothly. To someone who doesn’t speak English who might be listening, I would seem to be grunting. So, what’s the difference? The listener.

The ability to listen in a language is the most important aspect of learning a language, I think. Being able to speak the language naturally will follow. Children learn first from listening, not speaking — how can they speak a word until we tell them first. They learn from mimicing words they hear spoken, as well as words that they speak which yield positive results. So, yes, they and I must experiment to see the results. I cannot go years without uttering a single word and one day spontaneously speak fluently. This is not what I’m suggesting. Instead, I’m claiming that there is merit in being a good listener. The flaw in listening too closely is that you will focus on the words themselves too much and forget to look past them to their meaning.