A Word, Please: Don't let grammar remain foreign

Scattered throughout Italy are a handful of natives who believe I speak their language. I’ve pulled off the same feat in France and Mexico, too.

I accomplished this by stepping off the plane my first time in each of these countries and immediately conversing with locals. I’m not proficient in Italian, French or Spanish. I couldn’t understand a movie in any of them. Yet despite growing up in a completely English-speaking universe, I was able to learn enough to understand, be understood, and in a few cases, actually dazzle. For my just-completed Italy trip, I did it with little more than three months’ study.

I consider myself good at learning foreign languages. Yet the difference between me and the people who consider themselves bad at foreign languages isn’t so great. I just have a strategy. Let’s call it No Shame, No Shortcuts. With it, I believe anyone, even the weakest foreign-language learner, can gain the basics of a language.

First, don’t buy the “no-grammar” lie. Some programs claim to offer a magic shortcut that lets you learn a language without all that icky, academic grammar stuff. These products are more interested in selling you something than teaching you something. Americans’ grammarphobia makes us easy targets for this pitch. But the real secret is that the “grammar stuff” is easy.

Say you open a foreign-language textbook and see an unfamiliar term like “reflexive verb” or “reflexive pronoun.” It’s natural to assume either that you should know these or that you’re going to have to learn them. Nope.

Read on and you’ll see that the textbooks give English examples of what these terms mean. For example, the reflexive “mi lavo” in Italian has the English equivalent of “wash myself.” You already understand the grammar of using “myself,” “himself,” etc., which means you already understand the reflexive. So you needn’t fret over the jargon.

Phrasebooks and CDs that teach you individual sentences like “I’d like to take the train” leave you high and dry if you want to say “He took the train” or “Did we miss the train” or “The train takes too long.” Unless you know the working parts of a sentence — especially verb conjugations — it’s just noise.

Another shortcut that’s really a dead end is the idea that you can learn a language without cracking a book or breaking a sweat. Kids learn language through passive exposure, the pitch goes, and so can you. Not true.

Adult brains don’t work like those of infants and toddlers. The osmosis thing isn’t enough for us. We need to actively engage to learn. I recommend a combination of book learning and sound recordings (I used ItalianPod101.com) and a lot of hard work.

Finally and perhaps most important is the “no shame” part. To learn a language you have to practice, both in your head and with real people. You’re going to feel silly, and you’re going to stumble. So what? People are more likely to admire your bumbling attempts than to snicker at them. But if someone would laugh, let ’em laugh.

And don’t worry that if you utter a carefully planned sentence in a foreign language someone will fire back with a barrage of talk you can’t understand at all. They will. I can’t count the number of times someone has overestimated my abilities and pummeled me with unintelligible noise, leaving me smiling and nodding like a doofus. It’s part of the process.

Talking to someone in a new language is an amazing feeling. It’s like earning admittance to a new corner of the world. It just takes a lot of hard work and a little humility.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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