Post #6: Is there an Italian Version of Hooked on Phonics?

As an educator, I am trained to use a variety of different methods to assess student progress. Summative or formative assessments in the form of games, quizzes, tests, problems of the week, and more!  What is it you are trying to measure? You name it and I’ll design a way to assess it.

The truth is, I find comfort in the process of teaching, assessing, modifying my instruction based on those results, and repeating the cycle. Without specific checkpoints in a long-term learning goal, it’s easy to overlook that you are making any progress. Measuring progress consistently enables you to see how far you’ve come. It motivates you to reach the next benchmark because you are seeing results along the way. This has been my philosophy in learning Italian. I know that I will not wake up tomorrow morning and be fluent in the language. However, I would like to wake up tomorrow and know that I’m at least doing better than yesterday. How can I tell? Well, I can put my college dollars to good use, and assess my skills.

Although I have not written myself multiple choice tests to assess my improvement in learning Italian, I have relied on less formal approaches to evaluate my skills. For example, I fold the “Verbs to Know” page in my Italian notebook in half separating the English words from their Italian translations. I go down the list, counting how many words I translate correctly until I get to one I don’t know. If that number increases on a daily basis, I consider it improvement. After all, I have been adding 5 verbs a day for almost 17 days.

Another assessment strategy I’ve utilized is a game I call “How many verbal exchanges does it take for a native to notice that I’m not Italian?” It’s kind of like a wrestling match between two brothers where the end of the scuffle comes with one in chokehold calling “uncle”. Here, the question is, how long can I engage in conversation with an Italian before I have no idea what he or she is saying? As of now, if I initiate the conversation, I can make it to at least two, a greeting and a response from the recipient of my greeting. If the other person is the initiator, we have a touch and go situation. I’m only prepared to respond to a handful of opening lines. In either case, my personal best is 12 exchanges. I was sitting in a sun spot on a bench outside of my apartment, graciously using two bars of someone’s unpassword-protected internet access. A friendly woman from another apartment approached me. Our record-breaking conversation translated into something like this:

Neighbor: Good morning.
Me: Good morning.
Neighbor: It’s a beautiful day. Are you doing work?
Me: I write my family.
Neighbor: I always see you walking around town. (More here). Do you live here?
Me: Yes. I dwell here eight months.
Neighbor: Where are you from?
Me:  America. Boston.
Neighbor: (Something about the hockey team… sounded like a question).
Me: My husband. Val Pellice. The goalie.
Neighbor: Oh! Very good! The goalie! How do you like it here?
Me: This is my first time in Italy. I like Luserna. Luserna is a nice town, very beautiful.
Neighbor: (????)

And that was where I lost her and had to call “uncle”, or “zio” in Italian. But it wasn’t a bad run!

Although my daily self-assessments indicate that my Italian is improving, the speaking component to the language that is a definite “Needs Improvement” on any grading rubric. Specifically, there are two different letter patterns that are my pronunciation pitfalls. First, there are the vowels. Except in the names of Hawaiian Islands, I haven’t seen many words with three consecutive vowels. Here, they are everywhere! Take, Ciao, for example. How a four-letter word can be such a mouthful astounds me! The other day, I was studying the present indicative conjugations for the verb volere, which means “to want”. I was sitting at my favorite coffee bar, and agonizing over the pronunciation of the second person conjugation, vuoi. “Voo-oh-ee”, I mumbled to myself. Frustrated by my inability to connect the three sounds fluidly, I asked my coffee shop friend for help.  I had my notebook open to the “Important Verbs” page, I pointed to the word in question, and I asked her how to pronounce it. She recited it, beautifully of course. I repeated it, sounding more like a monkey than I care to admit.

As if the triplet vowels don’t present enough problems for me in the language, I have to deal with the twin consonants. In Italian, a double consonant requires special pronunciation. Spaghetti, for instance, is “spah-get-tee”. Although I notice the discrepancy between the English and Italian pronunciations of similar words when I hear them, I cannot replicate them myself. You’re probably thinking that I shouldn’t beat myself up about this inadequacy with the language. What does it matter if my pronunciation isn’t perfect, right? Wrong! Consider my seemingly harmless excursion to the stationary store where I was hoping to purchase a few ballpoint pens…

Well, in Italian, singular feminine nouns usually end in “a”. To make them plural, you change the “a” to an “e”. Sorella means sister, sorelle means sisters. Capito? So, there I was, in the store, in search of a couple writing utensils. I finally spotted a cup of pens on the wall behind the register. Alright, I thought to myself, so I have to ask the woman behind the counter for pens. I consulted my dictionary and pen is penna. So, pens would be penne. Easy! But, this is where it gets interesting. Pene, singular n, is the Italian word for a part of the male anatomy. My inexperience as an Italian speaker left me at the counter treading a thin line between asking the associate for “pens” and asking her for “penis”! To avoid a mortifying misinterpretation, I simply pointed at the cup on the wall.

Despite my frustration with pronunciation, I continue working hard every day to learn the language. Dictionary in hand, I read everything from the backs of cereal boxes to highway billboards. Since newspaper writing is too difficult for me, I bought two children’s books at a used book sale on Saturday. (I am happily working through a novel for 7-year olds about a boy and his gym shoes.) I continue to study new verb conjugations and I am constantly adding new words to my notebook. 

To practice listening comprehension, I watch Italian television with subtitles. Listening to the language and seeing the words as they are spoken has proven tremendously helpful. MTV even airs old episodes of Jersey Shore in English with Italian subtitles. I never thought I'd say this, but I'm actually learning something from Snooki and her pals. In addition to watching the local television stations, I embrace every opportunity to talk to my neighbors. They are working just as hard as I am to help me reach my goal. Every day they tell me about something new, always speaking slowly and clearly, stopping to check that I am following with a quick “Capito?” before continuing. Yesterday, a woman from across the street spent ten minutes with me talking about a wedding she had just gone to for her friend’s daughter. The bride was 45 and everyone was so happy that she finally found herself a husband. The woman talked about how she’s been married for 42 years. And she said that she ate too much at the wedding and was going to have to sleep it off.

In the end, I suppose that the penne-pene dilemma was a one-of-a-kind situation. Most of the time, small discrepancies in my pronunciation will not make for perverse misinterpretation nor will they inhibit my communication with Italian speakers. I will stick to my studying, and hope for more improvement. As indicated by my frequently administered self-assessments, so far so good.


  1. AWESOME! It is so much fun to read about your adventures..

  2. I am so impressed with work habits! Rock on!