Thursday, April 15, 2010


Until I began studying Italian, I never realized how lucky we are to have the word THE in English. So easy to use.... the [insert ANY noun in the english language here], done. People know exactly what you're talking about. French adds a layer of complexity because, of course, the nouns have gender so one can no longer use one all purpose definite article, enter le and la and, for use before vowels, l' (for both genders). Not bad, not bad. As a bonus in french, when a noun is plural, BOTH genders use the definite article les. Now we come to Italian:

lo: masculine, singular nouns starting with s+consonant OR z
l': masculine or feminine singular nouns starting with a vowel
il: masculine, singular nous starting with any other consonant
la: feminine, singular nouns starting with any consonant
gli: masculine, plural nouns starting with any vowel OR s+consonant OR Z
i: masculine, plural nouns starting with any other consonant
le: all feminine plural nouns

Phew. But the party is just getting started. These definite articles when used in conjunction with certain prepositions: con(with), su(on), in(thankfully, in), da(from, by), di(from, of) combine to make new words so for example if one wishes to state the baby is sleeping in the bed, one does not say: La bimba dorma in il letto, rather one says: La bimba dorma nel letto - because in + il combine to make a new word nel. So, a few more examples in case I haven't bored everybody away yet:

di + gli = degli
in + lo = nello
su + i = sui

etc. (or, as they say in Italian, e cose via).

These word combinations are, in part, what makes Italian such a beautiful, lyrical language to listen to (it also helps that so many words end in vowels which gives the language a sing song quality). It's impressively exacting to have a specific definite article for a multitude of vocabulistic scenarios. English is often limiting in that way, for example vocabulistic is not actually a word. Italians have the exact right article for every occassion, one would expect nothing less from a country that has the exact right form and stamp for every occassion. However from the standpoint of a foreigner trying to learn the language it's paralyzing. As I go about my day trying to express important sentiments like "the baby is in the bed" or "the cat is in the tree" or "the incessantly barking dog next door is getting on my nerves", I must first remember the gender of each word, then chose the correct definite article, then remember how it combines with the preposition (assuming of course I have remembered the correct preposition) and it becomes absolutely paralyzing. I actually know far more Italian than I speak because I keep getting tongue tied in the details.

So, I've come to the conclusion that the only way forward for me is to stop sweating the details. I am picking one indefinite article for each gender and using them because I have to get out of this linguistic hole I am trapped in so that I can work on wider issues like... my limited vocabulary, the fact that I only know six verb tenses, the fact that I am STILL referring to myself in the third person occasionally. I have to just start speaking the language without worrying too much about the details.

This kind of segues to a more general topic which has been on my mind lately which is the trade-off between perfectionism and, well, just getting stuff done. A continuum exists with a perfectionist who never finishes anything on one extreme and mistake-maker who gets a multitude of things "accomplished" on the other end. I probably am too far towards the latter end of this continuum. Whenever I interview people and ask them that tired, hackneyed question "What's your grestest weakness?" (note to self, STOP asking that question, it is irritating beyond belief and never yields anything enlightening.) I always cringe when the person inevitably tells me "Well, I'm a perfectionist and sometimes I get too caught up in the details." The cynic in me always thinks 'Hmmm, a perfectionist eh? Tell me what it is you SHOULD be getting done but aren't?' (or maybe it's the jealous person in my who wishes she was more detail oriented).
I guess there are times to be a detail-oriented perfectionist and times to just let things slide for the sake of getting things done.

Hmmm this has been a fairly lengthy post that is probably not of much interest to anyone but myself (why should this post be any different :) ). It is just me trying to learn Italian but also trying to figure out what kind of a person I am going to be when I return to my job (which will be a very different job than the one I left due to changes in my company), am a mommy and a runner... yup, I have to say it feels very intimidating to me (though I have been heartened by the people I have met online and IRL who seem to just be DOING it).

Anyway, there you have it.


  1. This has nothing to do with figuring out what kind of a person I am, just with THE. This article stuff is soooooo complicated for me (we do not have any articles in Slovak language, lucky us, right? But we have 6 "falls" and the suffix of both noun and adjective changes according to 12 different categories they fall into so Germans' 4 falls and corresponding change in article is a bliss compared to us).
    My explanation is little confusing I assume:)
    English word "CAR" you say
    what is it? car, from car, to car, I see a car, about car, with car
    In Slovak you say:
    what? auto, from autA, to autU, I see autO, about autE, with autOM
    Or let's take a word WOMAN (ZENA) What? zena, from zenY, to zenE, I see zenU, about zenE, with zenOU

    This was just to illustrate that not having article does not mean an easy language:)

    Anyway, I have no idea when to use A/AN and when THE is more appropriate, or LA/LE/LES instead of UN/UNE/DES and my UN et UNE sound the same. I only cared when it was a part of an exam and now I do not care at all:)

    And in my last internship interview, I said my flaw was that I usually get caught up in details when working on something. But it is true as you can see from my long post explaining "falls" issue in Slovak language and I should be preparing lunch instead:)

  2. That's a great point mmmonyka - languages manifest their complexity in different ways. The Italians I have met here complain, justifiably so, about the strange way in which many english words are pronounced. In Italian EVERY letter is pronounced which makes english words like: enough, phone, muscles completely baffling to them. Seriously... how many ways do us english speakers NEED to make the "f" sound: ough, ph... and what saddist thought of putting a SILENT K on words - knee, knife - these make kno sense! As for your quandries though, in brief, the is a definite article, it refers to a PARTICULAR noun e.g. girl who lives in Italy and is obsessed with her baby left a comment on my blog. A and an are indefinite articles and so refer to nouns in general e.g. A girl left me a comment on my blog (could be ANY girl). An is used before a vowel and a is used before consonants. La/Le/Les are the french version of THE i.e. definite articles that refer to a PARTICULAR noun whereas une/une/des are indefinite articles used for the general.
    But as per my post, I say until one is proficient, don't sweat the details, just USE the language. How many languages are juggling anyway?

  3. oops, meant to say in my first example: THE girl who lives in Italy and is obsessed with her baby left a comment on my blog.

  4. I don't speak any other languages besides English and often I wonder about my ability to even do that very well!
    Communication is difficult enough without a silent K and gotta love read and read ect.

    I love to read this blog and imagine what it would be like to move to another country and learn the ways they have. The being just thrown in there is the exciting part!
    I love when I meet a non english speaker and the trials and laughs (usually, I have had seen tears too) trying to communicate and I always have a warm fuzzy "kudos to you" feeling when they blunder and yet keep trying.
    When I lived in Hawaii I met people from all over the world that came for the Ironman.
    Most often its pretty safe to rely on human understanding and compassion no matter where we are or what we say.

  5. I had big problems with the article deal myself. Way more complicated in Italian it seemed than in French.

    Being fluent in French, I was able to do things like read signs and help my husband with his Italian grammar homework when he took a class, but being as we were there with the American forces, I wasn't forced to learn the language like someone who is there without that crutch. Once my daughter came along, however, we got both a Sicilian housekeeper and babysitter, neither of which spoke a word of English. So. My learning curve incrased exponentially that last year to the point that by the end I was fairly easily holding conversations with them... me, speaking only in present tense and understanding maybe 75-80% percent of what they were saying.

    In terms of culture shock, I almost had more being around Americans! I was shocked at how environmentally un-friendly Sicilia is as compared with Edmonton, home of one of the best recycling programs in N. America. They threw garbage everywhere, burned things like rubber and plastic, and recycled nothing. Also shocking was the heat. Oy, the heat. In a lot of respects Sicilia is more like Africa than Europe. The summer I was pregnant it was between 40 and 50 degrees C for nearly my entire first trimester so I would wake up every morning, already nauseous, to unbearable heat and the smell of burning garbage. Dis. Gusting. Also, zero percent humidity in the summer and I'm one of the few people in the world that prefers humid heat to dry heat; the couple of summers I spent in southeastern Ontario were bliss, for example.

    Anyway, good luck with your cultural immersion! How long are you planning to live there?

  6. Any time I think another language is confusing, I think of English pronunciation: tough, though, through, thought, trough. Then I think of how I bandy sayings like a one-armed juggler. A Chinese woman I worked with used to have a list of words I used that she needed to look up: about 50 a day.

  7. steveq - yes, english is brutal for pronunciation, my favorite example is that one can phonetically spell fish as: GHOTI by taking the GH sound from cough (f), the O sound from women (i) and the TI sound from nation (sh).
    brianne - so interesting you found less environmental awareness in Italy. I find so much more e.g. people don't use clothes dryers, recycling is far superior to Montreal, garbage trucks don't drive slowly through the streets stopping at every house - it is picked up from a central point, people ride public transportation. I wonder if the difference in our experiences is due to the location in Italy (Sicily versus the north), our Canadian reference point (Montreal versus Edmonton) or time (4 years?).
    barefoot angieb - thanks for the compliment! i was nervous about moving to a new country with a 6 week old infant but it has worked out really well.