In praise of language maintenance

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no day without a word

How can I learn multiple languages at once? I think this question misses the point.

Many of us, language enthusiasts, at some point engaged in learning several languages simultaneously, with various degrees of success. Based on this experience, some have sworn ‘never again’, while others saw the light and decided this was the way to go.

For me, a more useful question is ‘how can I maintain multiple languages at once?’, which all of us face on a regular basis.

With languages, unless you deliberately maintain your hard acquired skills, you forget. Lest you forget, you need to maintain; and if you want to advance, you need to improve.

I think the secret to successfully maintaining multiple languages at once is leveraging the difference.

The languages should be different from each other. Your level in these languages should be different. Your ambitions and goals in these languages should be different. The time of the day when you study these languages should be different, the skills you practice every day and the activities you do should differ, too.

Let me give a concrete example with the three languages I am improving, maintaining, and learning right now: English, Italian, and Estonian.

Although I use other languages with some degree of regularity, this year I deliberately chose to focus on only these three. I aim at engaging with each of them daily, and I need to fit my language studies into my otherwise busy schedule.

The three languages belong to different language families: English is Germanic, Italian is Romance, both are Indo-European, whereas Estonian is a totally different story: it’s Finno-Ugric.

For English, my goal is to speak more idiomatically, to have a richer vocabulary, and to improve my pronunciation and intonation. To achieve that, I am learning idioms and will move to phrasal verbs in July and August. When I read in English, I write out words and expressions that I liked and would like to use. I have started doing a hard but extremely useful exercise of shadowing native English speakers.

Time-wise, I always read my English book in the morning: on a good day, I might have a 30 minutes sting before work; often, only 15 minutes, which is plenty to learn at least one new expression. At the week-end, I would spend some time in the afternoon writing out new idioms, revising and recalling my expressions and old idioms. I would try to shadow at least once a week, usually in the evening.

For Italian, my goal is maintaining and reviving. I used to speak Italian daily, which is not a case now. Last year, due to my intense focus on Spanish and multiple trips to Spain, my Italian began to suffer from interference – hence this year’s decision to remedy the situation.

To do so, I read for pleasure in Italian every evening (which has a huge advantage that I fall asleep thinking in Italian). Occasionally, I write out Italian expressions and idioms. I also have been learning one Italian poem a week, at the weekend.

Over summer holidays, I will work on revising some forgotten aspects of Italian grammar, such as tenses, irregular verbs, and subjunctive. Finally, when I switch my focus in English from vocabulary to pronunciation and intonation, I will switch my focus in Italian to vocabulary.

For Estonian, I am learning the language from scratch. I started last year, learning the bare basics prior to my trip to Estonia, and doubled down this year, following an online course for beginners.

I do my Estonian lesson every day, just after finishing my work. I go through the lesson, do exercises, and learn a few new words.

I have found that a half an hour a day of Estonian provides a perfect transition from work to home mood, since engrossing myself in Estonian grammar and grappling with new vocabulary is such a contrast with my work activities.

At the week-end, I spend time revising, recalling, listening and writing down useful sentences and expressions.

A final tip. In language learning, regularity is the key. If work gets busy or life happens, I might miss a day for one of these three languages, but I try to never miss more than one day for any of the three, and I never have a day when I don’t spend some time with at least one of them.

If time is really shot, I would spend as little as five minutes reading one page, learning one expression, listening to one dialogue.  No day without a line, no day without a word.

An Italian year

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nell’angolo della terra

Among few positive things the lockdown has brought me, is the revival, albeit online, of the International Poetry Club. The club met regularly in the early 2000s, sporadically afterwards, and then came to halt. It was sorely missed, as its founder wrote:

If there is one thing I really miss in my life ever since it is this kind of meeting: I have never managed to establish something similar anywhere else.

All previous attempts to resume the readings had failed, because of our increasingly busy lives and scattered geography. But universal confinement means that we are stuck at home most of the time, thus we arranged to meet online last week-end.

Everyone recited a poem inspired by these unprecedented times. The one that struck me and my friends most was a short verse by Salvatore Quasimodo, a great Italian poet (1901-1968).

Ognuno sta sul cuor della terra,
trafitto da un raggio di sole:
ed è subito sera.

This powerful verse, part of a larger poem called Solitudini, is extremely famous and was translated into English and other languages many times. Yet, I knew nothing about it and next to nothing about Quasimodo!

Va bene, I said to myself. It looks like 2020 is going to be an Italian year.

Last December, taking stock of my language progress, I realised my Italian was getting rusty, and was planning to remedy this.

This year I began by reading Il Gattopardo of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, an old favourite, and then succumbing to Ferrantomania, when I casually opened the first volume of L’amica geniale.

Then, in March, as the epidemics arrived in Europe, I started reading Italian media, as they were the most reliable source of information on the virus.

Now, at the poetry event, I realised that my knowledge of Italian poetry was non-existent. Sure, I know the names of Leopardi, Montale e Pavesi, but know nothing about them, have no idea which poets I like, and, apart from ‘nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita’, I cannot quote a single line!

Dunque, what is the game plan to improve my Italian in the next 6 months?

First, learn some Italian poems by heart. Learning by heart is not for everybody, but I like it and find it an effective way to memorise words, expressions, and grammatical constructions.

Second, decide which language skills I want to improve and which knowledge gaps I need to fill, and work methodically and regularly to achieve this.

And third, read in Italian for pleasure, especially as I finally got my hands on the three remaining volumes of Elena Ferrante’ Neapolitan novels.

Abat-jour

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che diffondi la luce blu

To protect against infection, washing hands is a critical gesture, and to do so properly, the washing should take as long as singing Happy Birthday twice.

I don’t like the Happy Birthday song at all.

That’s why I decided that every week I would choose one song among those I do like but have never looked up the lyrics, and would learn them by heart, to accompany my hand washing routine.

The first song is in Italian, chosen in honour of our Italian friends, although its name is French, abat-jour, from abbattre (to through down) and jour (daylight).

It is a song from the 1960s. In a film Ieri, oggi, domani (Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow), it accompanies the famous sensual scene with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. 

Abat-jour che soffondi la luce blu
di lassù tu sospiri chissà perchè
Abat-jour mentre spandi la luce blu
anche tu cerchi forse chi non c’è più

In some versions of the song, the verb soffondi (you suffuse) is replaced by diffondi (you diffuse). The two verbs are related, but different: soffondere means to suffuse, to spread in a manner of light or fluid, and derives from Latin suffundere, with the etymology of spreading upon (‘sub’ ). A more common diffondere, from diffundere, means to diffuse, to spread around, away (‘dis’).

You can watch the famous spogliarello scene here.

Confinement

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a view of Japanese summer

Confinement, lockdown, quarantine, clausura, карантин, couvre-feu. Our everyday vocabulary has been filled with these forgotten, military words.

I have just finished my third week of confinement, with restricted freedom of movement and quite a few big and little inconveniences. Still, I believe that when confinement conditions are not dangerous nor inhuman, the difficulties of dealing with confinement are greatly exaggerated.

I was pondering the issue when reading La storia del nuovo cognome, the second volume of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.

Elena, now a student in Pisa, describes how she wrote her first book. One morning, she bought a grid notebook and began writing down what had happened to her the previous summer, and kept writing for twenty days, not seeing anyone, only going out to get something to eat:

Una mattina comprai un quaderno a quadretti e cominciai a scrivere in terza persona di ciò mi era successo ….

Impiegai venti giorni a scrivere quella storia, un lasso di tempo in cui non vidi nessuno, uscivo solo per andare a mangiare. Alla fine rilessi qualche pagina, non mi piacque e lasciai perdere.

Writers, scientists, and creatives have lived periods of self-imposed isolation, and so have monks, astronauts, and submarine crew, to name but a few.  Whether voluntary or compulsory, people are able to live confined for extended periods of time, and often even profit from it.

I myself spent several weeks in splendid isolation during the final stages of my PhD thesis, and three months of going out only the strict minimum during the long, hot, and humid Japanese summer. Yes, it was inconvenient, but it was not particularly difficult.

Today’s situation is different.

The real difficulty is not confinement per se. The real difficulty is the uncertainty, the danger, and the battle against the virus.

Ferrantomania and language

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Latin, Italian

Ferrantomania, or Ferrante fever. After several years wondering what was this fuss about, I have at last caught the Ferrantomania bug.

I picked the first volume on a business trip to Brussels last November. Going back to the train station, I entered a bookshop to get something to read on my way back, and was delighted to discover a foreign language section.

L’amica geniale was there, and I bought it thinking that at least I should give it a try. But I did not read it until this January, when I decided to brush up my Italian in anticipation of two trips to Italy.

My Ferrante fever symptoms were the same as described by millions of readers worldwide: you buy this Ferrante book because you have heard that you should definitely read it. You read a couple of pages, and when you finally put the book down, it is after midnight, the book is over, and you desperately want to read the other three titles of the “Neapolitan Novels”.

When I started the first volume, I was not aware that language plays such a crucial role in the story. Much has been written about the use of Neapolitan dialect in the book, about sociolinguistic mechanisms, and about some enigmatic language-related metaphors, such as ‘il suo italiano che assomigliava un poco a quello dell’Iliade’ (‘Italian that slightly resembled that of the Iliad’).

Not only languages, but Classical languages specifically, play such a crucial role in the story. Thanks to private Latin lessons, Lena is able to continue her education; then, Latin and Greek (and their teachers) become her favourites, and eventually she goes on to study them at university.

A passage in the first volume struck me.

Elena is struggling with her Latin, and when she tells Lila (who has stopped the school because her parents could not afford it), Lila recommends the change of approach:

“Leggiti prima la frase in latino, poi va’ a vedere dov’è  il verbo. A seconda della persona del verbo capisci qual è il soggetto. Una volta che hai il soggetto ti cerchi i complementi: il complemento oggetto se il verbo è transitivo, o se no altri complementi. Prova così.”

Provai. Tradurre all’improvviso mi sembrò facile.

In language learning, we have moments when suddenly something clicks and we finally get it. I have experienced it myself multiple times, and now I am really looking forward to reading about Lena’s linguistic (and other) discoveries.

Last week, I went to the local library knowing that it held the entire trilogy, and indeed, volumes 1,3, and 4 were there. The volume 2, exactly the one I was eager to read, was on loan. I made a recall and am impatiently waiting for the book to become available.

Blue prince

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blue princes

Twenty years ago, my first Spanish teacher, to teach us the subjunctive, used to play this silly song:

Si una lámpara mágica tuviera  / y me diera un príncipe azul
no podría desear jamás / a un hombre mejor que tú.”

(If I had a magic lamp / and it would give me the prince charming
I would never want / a better man than you.)

The method worked. I still remember the lines and know the words for  ‘magic lamp’ and ‘prince charming’, although these are not the words I use daily!

The ideal man, whether you mean it seriously or ironically, is called in English ‘prince charming’;

in French prince charmant

in German Traumprinz (‘dream prince’) and Märchenprinz (‘fairytale prince’)

in Latvian sapņu princis (‘dream prince’)

in Modern Greek πρίγκιπας του παραμυθιού (‘fairytale prince’)

in Czech pohádkový princ (‘fairytale prince’) and princ na bílém koni (‘prince on a white horse’)

in Russian прекрасный принц (‘beautiful prince’) and also принц на белом коне (‘prince on a white horse’). (The appearance of a white horse in two Slavic languages needs to be investigated further.)

A popular Russian songs goes:

Так чего же ты ждёшь? Ты ждёшь чтоб я извинился.
Прямо здесь чтобы я, чтобы я вдруг стал прекрасным принцем.

(So what are you waiting for? Are you waiting for me to change?
For me to become a prince charming right here right now.)

But in Spanish the ideal man is  príncipe azul, that is, ‘blue prince’ (as in the song I remember from 20 years ago), and also in Italian, principe azzurro.

Although the colour blue is associated with aristocratic origin, as the expression ‘blue blood’, which exists in many languages, attests, today only in Italian and Spanish (of the languages I know), the prince is blue. Where does this expression come from?

I have searched various sources, but did not find a clearcut answer.

The most comprehensive explanation comes from the Accademia della Crusca, the research academy for Italian language.  An article entitled Da dove arriva il Principe Azzurro? (‘Where does the Blue Prince come from?’) traces the first appearance of the expression, in both Italian and Spanish, to the late 19th – early 20th century, and the existence of an equivalent French expression, prince azure or prince bleu (which is not used today) even earlier, to the mid 19th century.

There is also a German tale, Himmelblau und Lupine (‘Prince Skyblue and Fairy Lupine’), by  Christoph Martin Wieland, a German man of letters of the 18th century, published in his collection Dschinnistan (1786 – 1789).  Can it be that this Prinz Himmelblau, portrayed as the ideal man, is the ancestor of our Spanish and Italian blue princes?