Everything he touches tranforms into gold (good for him!). Tim Ferris, author, public speaker, and entrepreneur, has written about many topics, including language learning.
Honestly, I didn’t know who he was until a dear reader (Don) left a comment on one of my previous posts writing that it would make a great blog post if I translated into Italian the 13 sentences that, according to Mr. Ferris, are the grammatical key to learning any language.
“If you would provide the correct Italian translation for each of these sentences, it would be very helpful and much appreciated”, Don and Elin.
Below are the sentences in English with my translations in Italian:
1) The apple is red. La mela è rossa.
2) It is John’s apple. È la mela di John.
3) I give John the apple. Io do la mela a John.
4) We give him the apple. Noi gli diamo la mela.
5) He gives it to John. Lui la/lo* dà a John.
6) She gives it to him. Lei la/lo* dà a John.
7) Is the apple red? La mela è rossa?
8) The apples are red. Le mele sono rosse.
9) I must give it to him. La/lo* devo dare a lui.
10) I want to give it to her. La/lo* voglio dare a lei.
11) I’m going to know tomorrow. Lo saprò domani.
12) I can’t eat the apple. Non posso/riesco a mangiare la mela.
13) I have eaten the apple. Ho mangiato la mela.
*depending on the genre of the direct object of the English sentences (“it”), in Italian we can have two possibile translation: “la” and “lo”. We need context to determine the right translation. Supposing we are talking about the apple, then it is “la”.
So I have searched a little bit more into this, I have found his blog and started reading a few of his blog posts regarding language learning. The first thing I noticed was the following sentence: “learning in record time”, and I quote, which appears constantly in his titles. Is it really necessary to learn a language in “record time”? Is it effective that way? Who are you competing against? Why do we have the urge to do everything as fast as we can?
When it comes to time, I’m firmly convinced that there is no such thing as “learn a language in 1 week”, “become fluent in 3 months”, or “learn in record time”. In most cases, it takes years. Since I’ve started my YouTube Channel, I have never said anything like that to my viewers, even though I receive a lot of questions like “how long will it take me to learn Italian?”. I haven’t because I would tell a lie if I answered: “you will learn Italian in three weeks”. Who am I kidding? From my experience, I know that it takes time, dedication and effort. I have been studying English for over ten years and I still feel like there are so many things I don’t know about it. That is because languages are ever-changing.
How long it takes to learn a language depends on the student, how much they are willing to commit and how much they can commit (most people work/study full time), how much info they can absorb at once, if they are prone to language learning, yep, there’s that. Some people are better at maths, others are better at language learning. It’s just the way it is. I don’t think everybody can do anything. For example, I would love to study scientific subjects, but it’s just not my thing.
One other thing I don’t agree much with is considering all languages the same. From my experience, I don’t think one person can learn Arabic or Chinese in the same way another learns Spanish. The approach is different. What’s more, it all depends on the student’s native language. I know of Italian classes specifically created for Asian students, because they have to learn how to use our alphabet. Also, every Russian language course at university level in Italy is precisely made for Italians, this means that grammar books and textbooks are designed to help Italian students.
Affirming that you just can learn to say the 13 sentences above to speak ANY language means underestimating the difficulties languages carry with them just because they are languages. They go hand in hand with culture, and this is something to bear in mind when studying any language. Language is the realisation of how speakers’ minds are shaped, if that makes sense, and this is hard to reduce to 13 sentences.
Translating the sentences in Italian might seem an easy task, but in fact it is not if we are missing elements from the context. Let’s take Sentence 12 as an example:
12) I can’t eat the apple. Non posso/riesco a mangiare la mela.
In Italian two translations of the sentence work:
- Non posso mangiare la mela.
- Non riesco a mangiare la mela.
“Can” in Italian can both mean “potere” e “riuscire”. How do we solve this problem? With context. If I knew the reason why the speaker couldn’t eat the apple, I would have given just one option. In the first case, “non possono mangiare la mela” it is implied that they could, it’s in their ability to eat the apple, but they won’t for a number of reasons: they are allergic, they aren’t allowed to, they are in class, etc. As for the second possible translation, “non riesco a mangiare la mela”, it is implied that they can’t eat the apple because it’s not in their ability to eat the apple, they might have toothache, they are running late for school (they don’t have time), etc. I talk more in depth about the difference between “potere” and “riuscire” in this video lesson.
So this is just to say that every sentence, even the shortest and easiest one, is actually a complex world of pragmatic assumptions and linguistic implications, because language is not something fix, we can’t decide what to study and what not. Language and context are inseparable.
You have probably understood that I don’t agree with the 13 sentence theory. However, I think it would make a good starting point for introducing and exploring the basic notions of grammar. Other than that, it might work from a strict grammar point of view, if students are just interested in learning grammar (which I highly doubt!). I say basic knowledge of grammar because these sentences make use of pronouns, present tense verbs and their structure reflects the one of simple sentences (Subject + Verb + Direct Object + Indirect Object). In Italian that would be basic grammar knowledge.
Since languages are not solely made of grammar, the theory would have to be integrated somehow; and it could have been presented differently, not as a way to speak ANY language, but as a tool to start building your grammar knowledge. The 13 sentences should then be adapted to the language of choice.
Have you ever used this theory to study? Or do you know anyone benefiting from its use? I would like to know your take on this.