In my last post, I promised to summarize the methods that have proven to work best for me in learning a new language. As I wrote that post, the one thing that stood out most strongly in my mind was actually quite simple:


Read a lot.

Read everything you can find.

Don't worry that you won't understand everything because of course you won't understand everything! But you already have the tools to figure out what you don't know... you don't need me to tell you what those are or how they work.

An example - il buio

I remember when I was learning Italian and I discovered a popular Italian rapper named Caparezza, who's biggest hit song was called Vieni a ballare in Puglia — a very political song about an area of Italy called Puglia.

The first time I listened to the song, I didn't understand all the words, and I certainly didn't pick up on all of the overtones in which it was written, but I remember hearing this refrain the first time through and feeling that there was something "dark" about it:
Vieni a ballare in Puglia Puglia Puglia
dove la notte è buia buia buia...

You see, as I worked to learn Italian, one of the things that improved my understanding the most was reading Pinocchio from cover-to-cover in Italian. As I read, I didn't understand everything early on. In early chapters I had to look up a lot of words just to get the point of the story.

But as I read on, I saw the same words over and over, and I remembered their meaning and their context... and in a later chapter, when I was reading more comfortably without searching out definitions all the time, the story brought Pinocchio through a dark and scary forest. I understood the somber tone of the story, but I encountered a word I had not seen before: il buio.

Now, when I'm missing a lot of context and things don't make sense, I look things up — sometimes even send whole sentences to Google Translate so I can just understand the point — but when I'm understanding most of what I read (or hear) and only miss a word here and there, I try to figure out that word's meaning from the context. It's more natural. This is, after all, how we learn our native language, isn't it?

So as I read this chapter about Pinocchio walking through this scary forest, I kept seeing how intimidating il buio was, and wondering to myself, "is il buio a spectre? is il buio a demon?" I kept reading and trying to figure it out, but eventually after several pages I realized that this question was starting to take away from my ability to enjoy the story, so I paused and looked up a translation.

Il buio is "the darkness".

Context is everything in language learning

When I heard that Caparezza song for the first time, I didn't understand all of the implications of his lyrics, but I knew that there was something scary about what happens in Puglia after dark. I heard "la notte è buia" (the nights are dark) and I remembered scared little Pinocchio walking fearfully through that forest. There is context behind this word that makes it mean something completely different to me in Italian than it ever would in English. (And I couldn't have gotten that from a flashcard!)

All of language works that way. We choose our words not just for the meanings defined in dictionaries, but also for the connotations they carry. It would take years of sterile memorization to ever get the same language skill that you could easily acquire just from spending time reading in your target language, seeing how words are chosen, and forcing yourself to infer their connotations.



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