by Henry Lane Hull
On Monday of this week, I celebrated my first “Duoversary.” Quite frankly, I never heard of the term previously, but upon seeing the email, I understood it. The situation prompting the event began over a year ago when the Younger B.E. heard me say for the umpteenth time that one of my bucket list items was to learn to speak Italian.
Having majored in Italian in college, she decided to move into action, telling me about the programs of Duolingo, a free, online language operation that offers training in a multitude of foreign languages. She set up an account for me, and I began. Perhaps I am claiming a bit too much for the anniversary, as I have followed the course intermittently, but solidly on a daily basis for the last two months.
The Duolingo mascot is a small green owl, who — or should I say “that” — prompts the student to translate correctly. It is always happy when the answer is correct, and encouraging when one makes a mistake, warning that practice makes perfect. The owl is the most personal computer icon I have encountered. Its smiley face is encouraging, and its sad face makes one want to do better.
I have visited Italy a number of times, and on each trip I tried to engage in speaking a few words. When one is trying to learn their language, Italians are very pleasant and supportive, usually delighted that someone is attempting to converse with them. At one point, many years ago, I took a free university course in Italian. The instructor was a nice lady, an American of Italian descent, but she spent most of her time, literally, telling the class how to make Italian bread, proclaiming the superiority of the product when applied with jam to any type of baked dessert. I came away from the course having learned little except that the word “farina” means flour.
The Duolingo owl is a better “teacher.” The method of Duolingo is to engage the student for at least five minutes each day. A single lesson consists of about 15 translations, both from English to Italian and vice versa. For each of the Italian ones, the spoken words can be repeated as often as the student wishes, thereby achieving the element of repetition that is essential to language training.
In school I studied Latin, which obviously is a great help in learning Italian. I recall my Latin teacher telling the class that 75% of words in English have Latin roots. When I passed on to study French, that teacher pronounced the same ratio. When one speaks of Italian, on no authority but my own, I can say that 98% of the words derive from Latin, not surprisingly.
As a language, Italian puts one in contact with that formative civilization that shaped the world in which we live. Our laws, our form of government, our art and many aspects of our overall culture derive from Italy. Studying the successor tongue to that of the ancient Romans establishes a further bond with that period of history.
I am sure that the Duolingo owl would agree, although its thrust is more to the practical everyday terms that we use, such as how not to miss the bus or why one went to the hospital. I treat every lesson as a crossword puzzle, figuring out how to place each new word in the proper context to make a complete and correct sentence.
For those who speak Italian, this column puts me out on a limb. If you address me in your native tongue, at this stage in my development, you probably will receive a friendly, appreciative, but halting response. I conclude by saying, “Andiamo!” Let’s go!