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Italians Struggling to Learn English

As some may know, Italians spend quite a lot of time and money trying to learn English. Some make good progress and others do not really pass ‘the book is on the table’ level of ability.

I see something like 300 students a year, most of whom are between 23 and 33. These people are graduates and often come from quite wealthy backgrounds, which means they have either travelled widely, done loads of English courses or worked abroad in English speaking countries.

Some of these people have done all three and speak the Queen’s lingo very well. Others have not had the same opportunities and still need to make lots of progress before they can confidently say that they speak the language. Most of the people I teach have been through the state education system and the results are not always encouraging from a linguistic point of view. Although, that said, there are often more people in the higher level groups than in the lower ones nowadays, which means that something somewhere is improving.

English, or rather learning English has become something of a fashion here in Italy. English words are creeping into the vocabulary and Italian verbs with obvious English origins are quite common in the business world. Most English speakers may understand ‘forwardare’ and ‘faxare’ for example, to name but a few.

The English ‘Invasion’

I regularly hear Italians respond with ‘yes’ instead of ‘si’, which is another piece of direct evidence of the sort of linguistic invasion which is taking place. However, some things still mystify me. For example, the word ‘club’ exists in Italian and it means these same as it does in English, but the pronunciation for some inexplicable reason is ‘cleb’, (that is the ‘e’ as in ‘egg’) but ‘cleb’ is not alone, there is a TV series which comes from the USA and is about Naval lawyers and their antics.

The name is ‘Jag’, which is an acronym, but the TV announcers call it ‘Jeg’, don’t know why, but I don’t understand why either seeing as the ‘a’ in Italian has the same sound as the ‘a’ in ‘apple’. Strange, very strange. Then there is the word ‘curry’, which becomes ‘cerry’ in Italian, again I cannot find any logical explanation for this change, the Italian ‘u’ is pronounced ‘oo’ as in ‘boot’ , so why it has mutated into the ‘e’ as in ‘egg’ is beyond me. Curious.

Other words of English origin have managed to preserve their pronunciation. Examples are ‘box’ and ‘loft’, but an Italian box is not the thing your new shoes come in, it is the place where Italians keep their cars. ‘Loft’ does not refer necessarily to the large open space under a roof where all your old boxes get stored, oh no. An Italian ‘loft’ is a living space which is not always converted roof space. You can find three floor lofts, would you believe.

Alas, all these distortions make the life of the average Italian striving to get to grips with my mother tongue even more difficult and that is before we enter the dark and complex world of the ‘infamous’ phrasal verb and we won’t even mention that useful verb which goes by the innocent tile of ‘get’ and seems to have been designed specifically to discourage others from attempting the learn the English language. And I shall remain silent as to the interesting relationship which exists between spelling and pronunciation in English, which I explain by saying that English is something of a bastardized language, whereas my poor students, where capable, may make a similar comment, but leave out the ‘ized’ and the word ‘language’.

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I feel for them, I really do.

Some More Examples

I thought I would add some more examples of English words which have been absorbed into Italian, because it is a quite an interesting subject. Well, it is for me anyway.

When I first came to Italy and was struggling to get some handle on the language, I remember asking ‘How do you say ‘stop’ in Italian? The response, which left me a little surprised, was ‘stop’. Yes, Italians do use the word ‘stop’. They believe it is a universal term which can be understood from Great Snoring in the very depths of the English countryside to Khovd city, which is in the depths of Mongolia. They, the Italians that is, may well be right. I’m still not sure whether the word ‘stop’ is an internationally used word. I should, perhaps, point out that the Italian use of the word ‘stop’ is, grammatically speaking, the same as the imperative form of the verb, you know, that form you use when you sort of order someone to do something. If you have children, you will be very familiar with imperatives, and probably expletives….But I digress.

Another word which is believed to be international in nature is ‘alt’, which you may recognize as being ‘halt’, another way of saying ‘stop’, as most will know. Now, I know that ‘halt’ exists in English, and that there is a very close equivalent in German, but again, I’m not sure whether those who reside in Khovd city would know what it meant. I could, of course, be very wrong. However, if ‘stop’ is considered as being an international term, then this begs the question as to why the word ‘alt’ is used here. Surely, one internationally used word would suffice? No? Well, as I have mentioned on more than one occasion, Italy and its inhabitants are prone to complexity.

A Different Tilt

Yet another example of the adoption of an English word into the Italian language comes by way of the humble pinball machine. Yes, it’s true. The pinball game has made a contribution to the enrichment of the Italian language. In fact, not only has it contributed, but it has become part of an Italian idiom. The expression in Italian is ‘mandare in tilt’; ‘mandare’ means ‘send’, ‘in’ means, well ‘in’, but ’tilt’ does not mean ’tilt’ in its true sense, oh no, that would have been too simple.

The expression ‘mandare in tilt’ is used when something causes chaos or confusion or problems for something else, or, often, somewhere. If you have ever played pinball, and most people have I imagine, you will know that if you try to lift the pinball machine, to tilt it in the true sense, you get a warning. Do this again and the pinball machine may well bring your game to an abrupt end. This concept has been adapted by Italians to indicate difficulty. It’s wonderful how language evolves, is it not?

My Experience

For the record, my other half asked me to ‘fastforwardare’ a video we were watching. At first, I thought I may have found another example of the evolution, or pollution, of the Italian language by English. However, she explained, with a big smile on her face, that she had invented this new verb on the spur of the moment. For some reason I asked about ‘stop’ and queried whether the verb ‘stoppare’ existed, as I thought I had heard it somewhere. She replied that ‘stoppare’ is indeed an Italian verb, although it has not yet managed to take over from the more commonly used (at the moment……) ‘fermare’, which is the normal Italian verb which means ‘stop’.

All That Jazz

And finally, there is one other English word which is in common usage here, well, amongst musical types it is, the word ‘jazz’, but, dear reader, you may have a hard time listening out for the word ‘jazz’ if you ever happen to be near a group of Italians waffling on about music. In fact the unwary may well draw the conclusion that Italians are great lovers of aeronautics and planes, seeing as you will hear a word which sounds not at all unlike the word ‘jets’.

It is confusing out there/here.

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