Friday, November 16, 2007

Let my steeple snow!

Language students are frequently reminded to notice cognates. But as with the Ides of March, beware the false cognates! One student studying in Chile, as urban legend has it, was taken to the hospital after a series of fractured conversations with her host family. She wanted to say, “Yes, I’m sorry. I feel so embarrassed.” Embarazada, right? In Spanish, embarazada is pregnant. Not embarrassed. Occhio!

Besides hospital visits, there are of course many reasons to learn another language. Ordering in a restaurant or discussing food can also be fraught with danger. Mark relates a story of his first summer here in Italy when responded to a question about his favorite recent meal by saying that he had really enjoyed i cappellini. “Really?” “Yes, i cappellini were very tasty.” Now, capellini is angel hair pasta but maybe only in the United States? And yes, the two ps make a difference in Italian. Mark’s friends soon informed him that he had been extolling the gustatory virtues of “cute little hats.” Maybe they were just pulling his gambe...

Living in a country where English is mostly an amateur sport, I have had ample time to consider language. As many of you know, I taught in an English/Spanish bilingual classroom in New York City for two years. Through that experience and my graduate studies, I learned more than I want to remember about BICS v. CALP, comprehensible input, Krashen’s theories on the stages of second language acquisition and the psychology of affective filters, and... Sorry, the dormant grad student in me took hold of the keyboard there for a moment.

Recently I have been curious about focusing on my own Italian language development. Through self-examination I thought perhaps light could dawn on Marblehead, to use an old New England saw. I turned to an old stand-by, the Student Oral Language Observation Matrix (SOLOM), which assesses five categories: Comprehension, Fluency, Pronunciation, Vocabulary, and Grammar. The matrix is scored on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 signifies “has no proficiency” and 5 means “approaches native fluency.”

To improve the accuracy of the test, I tried to approximate lifelike testing conditions. I installed a speaker on the wall that occasionally spit loud gibberish. I taped some of my artwork and a recent spelling test by the window. I instructed my roommate to throw erasers at me. For breakfast I ate three pounds of Twizzlers. After the test, I decided that I rate a high 2 or low 3. I scored especially well on Comprehension, not surprisingly as this area is usually the first to develop.

My Vocabulary is okay, given the number of cognates from English and Spanish. But there is certainly room for improvement. I give you Example #1, translated from the Italian, in the case for “This guy often doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

My Italian friend and I were talking in a bar.
Me: “Look at those Jews over there.”
Friend: “Excuse me?”
M: “Yeah, those two Jews over there are crazy, huh?”
F: “Ummm... What do you mean?”
M: “Look at them. They’re talking loudly, gesturing wildly, making a scene. [Snort] Jews.”
F: “What?!”
M: “Those two Jews. Yikes. That’s embarrassing.”
F: “......... No. Not Jews – drunks. They’re drunks.”
M: “Uh... right. Drunks. Thanks.”

Obviously in English this would be an egregious offense. In my defense, however, the words are close in Italian. You be the judge: ebraico – Jewish; ubriaco – drunk. A related note: this “Italian Friend,” who speaks English well, had thought for years that the Beatles had been singing, “Hey, Jew, don’t make it bad. Take a sad song and make it better...” The Chosen People are everywhere!

For more fun with words, I recommend a site I found through friend Bleeding Espresso. Free Rice - a vocabulary game that rewards achievement with donations to the United Nations World Food Program.


Diabolical said...

and here i thought you were talking about your cognates coming to visit you this week ;)

Fango said...

My cognates are coming this week - a Turkey Day Italian style. Many thanks will be given.

Gabs said...

Um, hysterical. More twizzlers will be sent in the provisions box for additional upcoming assessments.