Tuesday, January 14, 2014

10 Keys to Learning a Language?

Is sociability more ingrained in some languages than others? Sandro walks home with a friend last spring.
Soon after starting an Italian-English language exchange with a young Venetian here I made the bold assertion that there are ten essential words or phrases in every language that will unlock not just the underlying logic of the language but it's very spirit to those who fully grasp them. Actually, I have no idea if this is true, if I didn't steal it from someone else, or if it's so wrong-headed as to be an idea no one else would claim, but it sounded pretty compelling as I said it. And I can at least tell you about the one ostensibly similar and cognate phrase in Italian and English that inspired this claim, even if it may not actually corroborate it.

Over the course of our first weekly meetings, in which we'd spend one hour speaking only Italian and another speaking only English, I got the impression that my friend Francesco's "infatti" functioned differently in his Italian sentences than the "in fact" that I mentally translated it as and used in my own English speech. To check if this was true, I asked him to give me an example of its use.

He thought a bit, as it's never easy to explain something we say automatically and unconsciously in our own tongue, then pointed out the window and said, "It's raining tonight, infatti the streets are wet." He then apologized for coming up with such a silly example. But to me it was a brilliant bit of illumination upon a phrase I suddenly realized I'd been completely in the dark about.

What struck me about his example, and other ones he gave, was that infatti was used to introduce a second statement that amplified, extended or corroborated the sentence preceding the phrase. That is, the assertion was that something was "infatti" true because something else was also true.

This wasn't at all the way I typically used the phrase "in fact," I realized. On the contrary, my "in fact" almost always served to set up a distinction or contrast between the statement that preceded it and the statement that followed it. I gave Francesco--who as an Italian speaker was as thrown by the differences as I'd been as an English speaker--the example of a certain kind of long-winded person who will inevitably get around to telling you that even though he seems naturally outgoing, he is in fact really very shy. In English, in other words, our use of "in fact" often sets up a contrast between how things seem or appear to be and how things in fact really are.

I'm tempted to say (if only to be provocative) that there's an adversarial edge to "in fact" that is absent from infatti. When I use "in fact" I usually feel as if I'm in the process of clearing away (at least implicitly) a whole mess of false opinions to get at some essential, singular and almost pristine fact, which stands glowingly alone in its validity. While to use infatti correctly I feel the need to look beyond my first assertion to a second one with which to support it. "In fact" is rather anti-social; it requires other claims, but only to reject them. While infatti, like tango, take two: it needs to move in tandem with another assertion to really go anywhere.

Italians conversing near the entrance to the Arsenale
And indeed there's a strong element of sociability in the way infatti is commonly used. For example, a friend recently replied to my exclamation "Fa freddissimo oggi!" (It's so cold today!") with "Infatti!" To translate this response with the English "in fact," or even with "as a matter of fact" (as sometimes works with infatti), is to completely miss the tone of emphatic agreement present in the Italian phrase. A closer approximation in English would be something like the old-fashioned exclamations, "Ain't that the truth!" or "You said it!"

Now from what I've sketched out above it would be pretty easy to simply slide down the slick worn path of stereotypes: of gregarious Italians and fiercely individualistic Anglo-Americans, for example. Of course, Italians are no more uniformly or inherently social than Americans are uniformly or inherently individualistic. On the contrary, one need only travel 30 minutes by train, from Venice to Padova, to get an entirely different impression of how gregarious Italians may or may not be, while Americans' myth of "fierce independence" has been regularly questioned, if not flat debunked since de Tocqueville.

The differences in how each seemingly similar phrase functions in its own language interest me because of what such differences may in the broadest sense suggest about, say, what counts as compelling evidence or experience in each language, how facts might be arrived at or verified, or at least how knowledge tends to be talked about. Do we know things because we as an individual see through mere appearance or is knowledge arrived at more socially?

On a more practical level, though, the differences served as instructive reminders when it came time to help my friend edit his English language resume for Anglo-American companies. The important thing, in fact, on those resumes was for him to keep everything succinct, essential and to the point. He was not going to impress American human resource directors with the value of his Masters Degree in Business by elaborating upon his Bachelor's Degree in Philosophy. It was not a matter of one thing and then another, but of one key thing to the exclusion of others.

Incidentally, my bilingual six-year-old son Sandro uses both "in fact" and infatti in the Italian sense of the latter. "Wow," I said to him the other day in English, "that's a really big truck you have there!" And in English he replied, "In fact it is!"

While I on the other hand... Well, even my claim that there are ten key words or phrases underlying the mass of vocabulary and grammar in every language suggests how hard it is for me to leave behind certain reductive, essentialist habits of thought more in keeping with "in fact" than infatti.    

"By the way," Francesco reminded me during one of our more recent language exchange meetings, "you claimed there were ten key words or phrases in each language. We talked about one, but what," he asked "are the other nine?"

"Boh!" I replied, using the one word in either language that seemed exactly right. "I haven't the faintest idea."

[NOTE: An earlier version of this piece was published in L'Italo-Americano in December.]


  1. My thumb rules on this topic are:

    in fact -> in effetti
    infatti -> indeed

    1. A very handy and enlightening rule of thumb, quadernone, thanks!

  2. There is a book called You Already Know Italian. It's first and biggest part congratulates English-speakers - there are so many similarities between two languages. But the finishing part is dedicated to almost entirely dismantling that presumption: most of the similarities in words are rather deceptive.

    1. Ah, Alex, there's the rub! But I love the concept of a book which makes a bold optimistic smiley-faced assertion in its title then completely undoes it in the course of its pages. (Perhaps it's less absurd than the more typical popular narrative that begins with a problematic situation and moves toward a bold optimistic smiley-face end.)