My first adult class was with a group of colleagues who wanted to learn Italian. We met faithfully every Wednesday evening in a rather dimly lit room, to plough through the basic vocabulary required to meet, greet and order drinks, eventually moving on to grammar.
A conversation I had with one of my very first students, a Physics and Chemistry teacher, has stayed with me. She declared that she hadn’t a clue when it came to Italian verbs. “But you can explain Organic Chemistry!” I replied, somewhat frustrated by her self-deprecation.
For me, learning verb tables is very similar to learning nomenclature and structural formulae in hydrocarbons, alcohols and carboxylic acids. As a language student, I would sit for hours memorising pages of verbs from my old, pocket-sized edition of Harrap Italian Verbs, first published in 1990 – my lifeline in those days. On each page there's a new verb, allowing me to take them one at a time and memorise the tenses: present, passato prossimo, imperfect, future, conditional, subjunctive. Other verbs then follow suit. Wonderful! This task might seem tedious, but I’ve always loved the highly structured, sheer logic of Italian grammar.
Take, for example, verb table number 138 – the verb parlare, in the present tense. This is a regular Italian verb and many others follow the same structure; to learn it is, effectively, to learn dozens and dozens.
Here is the verb stem:
You then add the ending appropriate to the person:
Parl -o I speak
Parl -i You speak
Parl -iamo We speak
Then, to go into, say, the imperfect tense, you simply take the same stem and add an alternative set of endings:
Parl -avo I was speaking
Parl -avi You were speaking
Parl -avamo We were speaking
Now, look at the alkanes – hydrocarbons (compounds containing Carbon and Hydrogen only) with Carbon atoms joined by single covalent bonds. These are the compounds burned in fuel tanks in cars, trains and aircraft; in the case of the large molecular mass versions, they are used as petroleum jelly to support medication, or as candlewax.
You have the “verb” stem:
Then you have the prefixes, which simply depend on the number of Carbon atoms:
Meth -ane One Carbon atom
Eth -ane Two Carbon atoms
Prop -ane Three Carbon atoms
If you then add in one Oxygen atom and one Hydrogen atom, arranged in the right way, the compound becomes an alcohol. The “verb” stem for these compounds becomes:
Then, adding the prefixes:
Meth -anol One Carbon atom
Eth -anol Two Carbon atoms
Prop -anol Three Carbon atoms
Isn’t a chemical formula so like a verb? The similarities between Italian grammar and organic chemistry are striking, and both will appeal to anyone with a mind that enjoys orderliness and rarely-broken rules in learning. Many seemingly unrelated subjects are more alike than we realise, and we must surely be constantly and unconsciously transferring skills acquired in learning one thing to a later pursuit of another.
Of course, many would argue that the rote learning of grammar is a dry and demotivating way to learn a second language, especially for children. Plenty of teachers would advocate a less structured approach, based on dialogues, scenarios, or learning in chunks – all of which can be great fun. My approach was simply a matter of personal preference. The Frankfurt International School's guide to learning English as a second language outlines many other learning styles people can use.
My point is that to all those who would love to learn a second language but don’t think they can, I would say don’t give up. Find out your particular learning style, whether it's listening, writing, reading, repetition or even singing, and have a go.