Excerpts by Henry Lane Hull

As I write this item, I have finished my Duolingo lesson for today, which marks 807 consecutive days of effort to learn Italian. I have described the onset of this process in a previous column, and as a follow-up, I can say that I have made some, incremental progress. The key word in that last sentence is “incremental.”

Having traveled in Italy many times, and being enthralled by the country, the landscape, the cuisine, the culture, and the people, over two years ago I set out to be able to speak with them in their native language on my next visit.  As the pandemic has forced many of us to postpone travel plans, I thought working on developing a new language skill might be a good stop-gap measure.

As I have found in other language studies, reading and speaking might be two sides of the same coin, but they are very different in the results that they produce. Duolingo offers a good beginning for novices, such as myself, but the student is left without the opportunity to ask questions or to seek more elaborate explanations.

A large part of the difficulty lies in my long-term view of seeing language study as another form of a crossword puzzle, where the student learns what goes where, but in this case does not have a ready resource, i.e., a teacher, to impart guidance and understanding. When I studied other foreign languages, I had walking resources at hand in the form of my teachers to keep me on track. That facility is missing in Duolingo.

Many years ago, I made a similar effort by taking an Italian course as part of a Free University curriculum. Regrettably, the teacher, although a native speaker, spent most of the time telling the class how to make Italian bread. Worse yet, she did it in English, but then again, it was free.

Although I am confident that the Italian I now am learning is correct, I am concerned that some of the English translations are clearly incorrect grammatically. They have stooped to colloquialisms, which can be understood, but are not smooth in expression.  As an example, often I am marked wrong because of the place where I put the adverb in a sentence, despite my usage being correct English grammar. Under the surface, I suspect that the program developers are not familiar with English as spoken in America. 

In reading, I have come a long way towards proficiency. I have learned a beginner’s basic vocabulary, thereby enabling me to understand the meaning of a sentence when I read it. In each lesson, which takes 15 to 20 minutes, the student has the option of replaying the sentence or question at a slower speed, which is a great benefit. 

The daily lesson contains about 15 exercises, but only one of them concerns pronunciation. Unfortunately, here in the Northern Neck, with our limited signal ability, that single pronunciation exercise often does not materialize, as the computer cannot understand what the student is saying, therefore marking it incorrect. Consequently, I often hit the “Cannot speak now” key and proceed to the next instruction. 

For much of the summer I have benefited from the presence of the Younger B.E., who majored in Italian, and who kindly affords me the in-person level of instruction that is important if one aspires to speak a foreign language. I do not expect ever to be truly proficient at speaking Italian, but as my reading skill advances, I am pleased that I am beginning to be able to look at an Italian text and understand more of the meaning with each passing day. “Ciao” for now!