Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Alphabet Weekends - 'B'

This fortnight's Alphabet Weekend is brought to you by the letter B!

The Alphabet Weekends is a challenge I have given our family to put a bit of pizzazz into our social life in 2014: every second weekend throughout the year, we are going to go on a family outing. The first of these outings started with A, the second with B, the third will start with C and so on, until we have made our way through the entire alphabet.

Last fortnight, I asked my readers to help me think of what we could do for B and I got some really fantastic suggestions, ranging from baking to badminton to battling! I really did like the idea of staging a battle, but seeing as I have a real one every night just to try and get Ben into the bath, I thought we'd try something different :)

There were actually so many fun things starting with B that we couldn't just pick one and so we decided to go for a bike ride and then do some body boarding at the beach.

In preparation for the bike ride, we bought a baby seat for the back of my bike, but we couldn't find a helmet the right size for our baby (perhaps we'll have to do some ORGANISING when we get to the letter O!) and I didn't feel comfortable taking her out without one, so the ride ended up being just mother and son.

The morning of our bike hike was quite overcast, which was good because it meant it wasn't too hot for this unfit mamma, but it was also not so good for taking photographs. We ended up riding about 8 km in total and besides one moment when we decided it would be a good idea to hold hands as we were riding along and consequently both ended up crashing into a bush, all went well.

Two days later (it was a long weekend because of Australia Day) we set off to go body boarding. This time, the sun was out and shining splendidly, but when we got to the beach we found that the water was quite chilly and so flat you could almost see all the way out to Africa. It appeared that the day we went bike riding we should have gone body boarding and the day we went body boarding we should have gone bike riding! Oh well, at least we got out of the house and Ben, always the optimist, had a wonderful time ...

While we we making out giant B in the sand, we took turns thinking of 'B' words. I actually think that building that B and playing a word game with Ben was my favourite part of the weekend. There's something unexpectedly therapeutic about playing with sand, isn't there?

My Little Drummer BoysTwinkle In The Eye

Do you go bike riding with your kids? Have you ever been body boarding? And do you have any suggestions for what we can do next fortnight for C? C is proving to be a lot harder than B! 

Monday, 27 January 2014

Italian lessons - 9 Steps to Perfect Pronunciation

Today, for the third Italian lesson on the blog, we're going to look at Nine Steps to Perfect Your Italian Pronunciation (to get you talking like a pro!)

So far, we've already gone through the alphabet and the signs of the Zodiac so now we'll take what we learnt in lesson one a step further and talk about the nitty gritty of Italian pronunciation. It makes sense to do this in one of the first lessons, so that we don't end of with an enormous vocabulary but no idea how to actually say the words that we've learnt!

                                                                              image source
Italian pronunciation is actually relatively easy,  especially when you compare it to English. In Italian, there are set pronunciation rules that, once learnt, are simply a matter of practising and remembering, whereas for someone learning English as a second language, the irregularity of the phonology must be mind-boggling. Just think of all the different ways that the combination of letters 'ough' is articulated in the following words: dough, through, plough, enough, cough and hiccough. And there are countless other words that a foreigner would assume that rhyme in English - like shoes, does and goes or singer, linger and ginger or mover, cover and clover - which simply don't. No logical reason why they don't. They just don't. In fact, English pronunciation is so haphazard that George Bernard Shaw once said that if you took the 'f' sound from 'enough', the 'i' sound in 'women' and the 'sh' sound in words ending in 'tion', the letters GHOTI could be used to represent the word 'fish'!

Luckily for learners of Italian, the language is what is known as a phonetic language, meaning that the sounds are (almost) always written using the same combination of letters each time.

Here are the 9 Steps to get you pronouncing, to perfection, the lyrical lingua italiana:

1. You need to roll your Rs. If you don't, the first problem you will probably encounter will be confusing your carne (meat) with your cane (dog), like once when I was preparing meatloaf (one of the first times I cooked for my partner) and he came into the kitchen and said "Che buon odore! Che stai cucinando?" - 'What a great smell! What are you cooking?" to which I replied, smiling broadly and completely oblivious to my failure to roll out my R sufficiently, "Polpettone di cane", meaning;

2. In Italian words, the stress is (almost always) placed on the second last syllable of a word:




If a word has only two syllables, the stress is therefore placed on the first syllable:

Casa (house)

Rosso (red)

Gatto (cat)

When the stress is not on the second last syllable, this is indicated by an accent on the final vowel, which looks like this: à, è, ì, ò, ù.

You need to be careful to articulate these accents, so as not to inadvertently say a completely different word. When you pronounce an accented vowel, your voice should go up. An unaccented vowel, in comparison, is flat.

Naturally, I learnt this the hard way. When I was an exchange student in northern Italy as the age of fifteen, I was sitting down to dinner one night with my host family and half a dozen of their extended family, when the phone rang. I was expecting a call from my family, so I got up to answer it. It was my dad and we spoke from a short while (international calls were still quite expensive in those days!) and when I got off the phone, I went back to the dinner table and announced "Scusatemi, stavo parlando con il papa". I thought I was very clever and that I had just said, perfectly, "Sorry, I was just talking to dad", but no, as it turns out, I actually said ...

Note to self: papa = Pope and  papà = dad

3. Learn when to make a Ch sound and when not to.

 * In Italian, the letters 'C' and 'H' together do not make a 'ch' sound as they do in English.

Chiesa (church) is pronounced 'key-air-zah'

La chiesa è bellissima - the church is very beautiful

Che (what) is pronounced 'ke' ('k' as in 'kitchen' and 'e' as in 'elephant')

Che ore sono? - What time is it?

* The following combinations of letters, do make a 'ch' sound though:

ce and ci

cena (dinner) is pronounced 'chen-nah'

Cosa mangiamo per cena stasera? - What shall we eat for dinner tonight?

cinema (cinema), although spelt the same, is pronounced 'chin-em-ah'

Hai visto il film Cinema Paradiso? - Have you seen the film Cinema Paradiso?

                        Cinema 1
                                                           image source

4. Be careful when you see an 'S' in front of a the letters ce and ci, because the 'S' changes their pronunciation.

* 'schi' and 'sche' make a sk sound

* 'sci' and 'sce' make a shh sound

schifoso (disgusting) is pronounced 'ski-fo-so' as you would assume from the 'chi' example above,

but sciare (to ski) to pronounced 'she-ar-air'. 'Sci' makes a shh sound.

scheletro (skeleton) is pronounced 'skel-et-ro) as you would expect from the 'che' example above,

but scena (scene) is pronounced 'shair-nah; the 'sce' also making a shh sound.

Al teatro, ho visto una scena proprio schifosa - At the theatre, I saw a really disgusting scene.

5. Gs need some attention too ...

* When placed before the letters a, o and u, the Italian G sounds like soft the English G in 'goat':

gabbia (cage)

goloso (greedy)

gufo (owl)

Nella gabbia, c'è un gufo goloso - in the cage, there is a greedy owl.

* When placed before the letters e and i, the Italian G sounds like the hard English G in 'gel':

gelato (ice-cream)

giardino (garden)

Abbiamo mangiato un gelato nel giardino - we ate an ice-cream in the garden.

* Ghi and Ghe are pronounced like the soft English G in 'goat':

laghi  (lakes)

alghe (algae)

Che schifo! Tutti i laghi sono pieni di alghe - How gross! All the lakes are full of algae.

* Gli can be a difficult sound for English speakers to pronounce. It makes a sound similar to the double L sound in 'million':

figlio (son)

aglio (garlic)

Mio figlio puzza perché mangia troppo aglio - my son smells because he eats too much garlic

Here's a video I found on YouTube featuring a beautiful Italian girl and her deliciously cute nephew explaining how to make this 'gli' sound ...


* Gn in Italian makes a sound like the Spanish ñ and like the English ny sound in 'canyon'.

cognata (sister-in-law)

campagna (country, as in countryside)

lasagne (lasagna)

Ho cucinato lasagne in campagna con mia cognata - I cooked lasagna in the country with my sister-in-law.

6. As we discussed when we talked about the Italian alphabet, the letters 'i' and 'e' are pronounced quite differently in Italian.

The Italian 'E' is soft and is pronounced 'eh'. An easy way to remember this is to think about the pronunciation of Alfa Romeo: 'Alfa Rom-eh-o'.

                                                                      image source

The Italian 'I' makes an 'ee' sound, as in the English words 'key' and 'bee'.

The word io, meaning 'I' is therefore pronounced 'ee-oh'.

Io sono Australiana - I am Australian

anch'io - me too - pronounced 'anc-ee-oh', abbreviation of anche (also) and io (I)

7. The letter H in Italian is always silent, even when it appears at the beginning of a word.

Ho (I have) is pronounced 'oh'

Ho due figlii (I have two children)

Hanno (they have) is pronounced 'an-noh'

Hanno un cane brutto - they have an ugly dog

8. Italians say the letter Z as if there is an invisible T in front of it

The easiest way to remember this is to think about how you say the word 'pizza'.

In fact, Italians actually have great difficulty in making a Z sound the way we do in English. As a result, when I lived in Italy, I very quickly got used to being called Litzzy or Litz. I even have a postcard from a girl I met in Italy when I was a teenager that she sent to me when I got back to Australia addressed: "Ciao Litz!"

9. And finally, make a concerted effort to sound out those double consonants

This was definitely the most challenging aspect of Italian pronunciation for me when I was learning the language. Many Italian words contain double consonants and these are articulated more forcefully that single consonants. If you don't pay attention to this, you can very easily blurt out an entirely different word altogether!

* When the following letters are doubled, they make a staccato sound; a distinct start-stop between the doubled consonant: B, C, D, G, P and T

bistecca (steak) bis-tec-ca

matto (crazy) maht-to

* When these letters appear twice together, the doubled consonant is prolonged and distinctly drawn out: F, L, M, N, R, S and V

sorella (sister) so-relllllll-ah

mamma (mum) mah-mmmmaah

You need to be on your guard so you don't confuse your polo with your pollo (because if you said Il Principe William gioca a pollo, you'd be saying: 'Prince William plays chicken', instead of his usual polo) and you need to make sure that when you want to assert yourself and say 'I'm a grown woman!' that you say: 'Sono una donna fatta!' because if you exclaimed that you were a donna fata you are likely to get a reaction opposite to the one you were seeking (una donna fata is a fairy woman :)

I'm going to conclude this lesson with a little story ...

The importance of learning how to sound out these double consonants correctly really hit home for me one day when my partner Giuseppe (who had only been my boyfriend at that point for a short time) and my son, Ben (who was five), went out for a coffee one day. Ben and I had been in Sicily for about six weeks at the time and Ben was just starting to form sentences and had learnt how to say quanti anni hai? - how old are you?

Being of a social nature and always eager to make new friends (as well as being a little bit cheeky!), he was running around to all the other outdoor tables at the café, asking all the other customers how old they were. Quanti anni hai? Quanti anni hai? he kept asking young and old. At that point, his vocab was still very limited, so I'm not even sure if he understood their answers, but that definitely didn't dull his enthusiasm.

Giuseppe asked me if I could hear what he was asking them and I said "Si, sta dicendo 'quanti anni hai'"?  - "Yes, he's saying 'how old are you?'" At that, Giuseppe burst into a fit of laughter. "What's so funny?', I asked him. "Let's just say it's lucky it's Ben running around asking everyone that question and not you. Your son has better Italian pronunciation than you have!"

"And why is that?" I asked, moderately offended.

"Because the way you say it, it sounds like quanti ani hai!"

"And what does ani mean?" I asked naively.

He turned rather pink in the face and attempted to explain the meaning of ani, using words that I might understand:

"Significa il buco del culo" he said sotto voce - "It means the hole in your bum".

Oh what an enlightening day that was, when I realised that every time up until that point when I had asked an Italian how old they were, even though they'd been too polite or embarrassed to point it out to me, what I'd really been saying  was "How many anuses you do have?"!!

Have you ever pronounced something wrong in another language? Did it leave you red faced??

I hope you'll join us next Monday for lesson four. We'll be talking about coffee. BYO cup and come join in the conversation!

Monday, 20 January 2014

Italian lesson numero due - the signs of the zodiac

Now it may seem that star signs are a rather unusual topic to dive into on only our second Italian lesson, but there is actually a good reason for this: interestingly, and to my surprise, one of the questions I was asked most frequently shortly after meeting a new acquaintance was "di che segno sei?" - "What (star) sign are you?" I say that I was surprised because I had imagined that being a country in which religious doctrine is so firmly ingrained (Catholicism is taught as a compulsory subject in all state schools from kindergarten right up to the final year of high school), that enthusiasm for astrology would have been scarce.

As my knowledge of the culture grew, however, I came to realise that this was not as strange as it first appeared.  I learnt that Italians (at least in Sicily, where I lived for the most part) are superstitious in nature. On the bookshelf in the kitchen on my mother-in-law's house, in amongst a large collection of recipe books, she also kept a well leafed-through book titled How to Interpret Dreams to Win the Lottery. Also, when she saw that my daughter had a visible little vein on the top of one side of her nose (as many infants do in the first months after birth) she told me that meant that if I were to have another child, it would also be a girl. This vein has a specific name in the Sicilian language, a musculedda, and if it is present on an infant, it is said to signify that the next child in line will be of the same gender. A particularly superstitious person would put down any faults in this theory to miscarriage between full-term pregnancies. The topic of Italian superstitions is so vast that it merits an entire blog post all for itself and indeed, entire books have been published on the subject. One that I particularly marvelled at though was a little pearl of wisdom from one of my partner's cousins, who advised me to cut my daughter's fingernails on Mondays to prevent her from ever suffering from teething pain.

I also realised after a while that many habits and rituals that appear religious are, in fact, based more on superstition than on profound faith. My mother-in-law, for example, would make the sign of the cross every time we drove past a cemetery, regardless of whether or not she knew anyone buried there, however she did not go to church except for ceremonies and told me herself she was not religious. At first I viewed her crossing herself as a sign of respect, but later came to understand it more as a little ritual done, on her part, out of both habit and the fear of what might happen if she did not do it.

Some of the people I met in Italy, particularly women, seemed to believe so deeply in astrology that, for them, it was almost like a religion in its own right. This was so far removed from my own upbringing and belief system that it at first seemed ridiculous, but over time I learnt to respect it more. One reason for this gradual change of heart was that I learnt, through my partner and his friends, what an enormous role the moon plays in terms of agriculture. Many of the Sicilians that I met had a much more practical and productive relationship with nature than anyone I had ever met before; not through years of study, but through knowledge passed down orally across the generations - they understood (and if they did not fully understand, they at least respected) that the phases of the moon are an incredibly powerful force that cannot be ignored and that balance can be achieved, on the land and within oneself, by becoming attune to its waxing and waning.  What I found most intriguing about the moon was how it affects women: a woman with an irregular menstrual cycle can learn to regulate her periods by following natural lunar rhymes. In ancient times, before the invention of artificial lighting came and interrupted women's connection with nature's own periods of light and darkness, it is said that a group of women living together would all get their periods along with the new moon and would all be fertile when the moon was full. I have even heard that the phases of the moon can be used to time intercourse depending on whether a couple wishes to conceive a boy or girl.

So eventually, with more cultural insight, I understood the Sicilian's preoccupation with the signs of the zodiac and I appreciated that, having had such a practical connection to la luna - the moon - over so many centuries, that it stood to reason that they would likewise trust that the stars could be equally utile.

I never got to the point where I chose my friends based on their star sign, but I did start to enjoy conversations on the topic. In fact, from a linguistic point of view, it's not actually a bad question to ask someone you've only just met. For someone with a limited knowledge of the language, the question "di che segno sei?" it can lead to further questions, such as "Allora sei nata a marzo?" - "So you're born in March?" and for someone with a more advanced grasp of the language, it could extend a conversation with something like: "quindi sei compassionevole e creativa?" - "So you're compassionate and creative?" (if you wanted to be kind) or "quindi sei troppo sensibile e pigra" - "So you're over sensitive and lazy?" (if you did not). Or, if you really wanted to cut to the chase, you could always say: "Allora, saremmo molto compatibili insieme!" meaning: 'Well then, we'd be very compatible together!"

The signs of the zodiac are an Italian lesson within themselves since, unlike in English where the names we use derive from Latin but do not actually mean anything else in everyday language (other than 'cancer'), most of the Italian names for the signs directly translate to commonly used nouns.

Allora, guardiamo un po' - So let's take a little look ...

Sono del segno dell'Ariete - My star sign is Aries

Un ariete = a ram

Il nostro ariete è ammalato - Our ram is sick.

Sono del segno del Toro - my star sign is Taurus

Un toro = a bull

Il toro è arrabbiato - The bull is angry 

Sono del segno dei Gemelli - my star sign is Gemini

I gemelli = the twins

La mia amica è incinta di due gemelli - my friend is pregnant with (two) twins.

Although in English in wouldn't be grammatically correct to say "two twins", in Italian it is said like this because tre gemelli (literally 'three twins') means triplets and quattro gemelli (literally 'four twins') means quadruplets, etc.

Sono del segno del Cancro - my star sign is Cancer

Cancro = cancer

La zia di Angelina Jolie è morta per cancro al seno

Angelina Jolie's aunt died of breast cancer.

Sono del segno del Leone - my star sign is Leo

Leone = lion

Il leone è triste - the lion is sad

Sono del segno della Vergine - my star sign is Virgo

Vergine = virgin

Maria Vergine - The Virgin Mary

Sono del segno della Bilancia - my star sign is Libra

Bilancia = Scale

Stamattina, mi sono pesata sulla bilancia e sono quasi svenuta!  - 

This morning, I weighed myself on the scale and I almost fainted! 

Sono del segno dello Scorpione - my star sign is Scorpio

Scorpione = scorpion

Gli scorpioni hanno otto gambe ed almeno sei occhi

Scorpions have eight legs and at least six eyes eyes.

The 'e' at the end of scorpione has changed to an 'i' in the plural.

Sono del segno del Sagittario - my star sign is Sagittarius

Sagittario does not mean anything literally, but sagittaria is a type of aquatic plant. The species sagittaria latifolia is known in English (among other names) as 'broadleaf arrowhead'. An interesting comparison can be made between the English name of this plant and the fact that the astrological symbol for Sagittarius is an archer with a bow and arrow (or - as in the picture above - simply a bow and arrow).

Non eravamo compatibili perchè lui era Sagittatario - 

we weren't compatible because he was a Sagittarius. 

Sono del segno del Capricorno - my star sign is Capricorn

Il Tropio del Capricorno - The Tropic of Capricorn 

Capricorno does not have a literal definition, but the word capra does mean 'goat', which is easy to remember if you know your star signs since the symbol for Capricorn is a goat!

Mi piace tanto il formaggio di capra - I really like goat's cheese.

Sono del segno dell'Acquario - my star sign is Acquarius

Acquario = aquarium (acqua means 'water').

Il mio acquario è pieno di alghe - My aquarium is full of algae. 

Sono del segno dei Pesci - my star sign is Pisces

Pesci = fish (plural) and pescare = to fish 

Papà è andato a pescare, ma è tornato sette ore dopo senza pesci -

Dad went fishing but he came back seven hours later without any fish. 

I may just have to keep this phrase in my back pocket to use one day when my daughter's old enough to understand it :)

Or, if you were feeling romantic, this phrase could come in handy:

Senza di te, la mia vita sarebbe come un acquario senza pesci - 

Without you, my life would be like an aquarium without fish :) 

Well, that's enough from me now.  Adesso tocca a voi - now it's your turn ...

Allora, ditemi- so tell me - di che segno sei? - what star sign are you? 

I hope you can join us again next Monday for lesson number three ... we'll be talking about some of the finer points of pronunciation (with some examples of how not to mispronounce words to avoid embarrassment, based on personal experience!)

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Alphabet Weekends - 'A'

My New Year's Resolution was to spice up our family social life by committing to go on 26 fortnightly outings throughout 2014 with each outing being something that begins with each consecutive letter of the alphabet. I also decided that I'd photograph each of these activities and turn them into a blog series called The Alphabet Weekends.

We kick-started the challenge last weekend by heading off for some Archery.

The participating archers were:

My son, Ben;

My nephew;

My niece;

My brother-in-law;

and me.

I'm not quite sure what's going on with my face in this photo, but there you are.

My sister couldn't be there because she had a headache (will we call that a reason or an excuse??) and since we were in the middle of a heatwave, my partner stayed home in the aircon to keep the baby cool (I'm sure he was quite thankful of this as it turned out, since he probably would not want to be anywhere near me while I'm armed with a bow and arrow!)

Here are some more of our action shots on the field ...

The kids really enjoyed themselves despite the heat and suddenly became super interested in maths when it was time to add up the scores. I think they surprised themselves with how accurate some of their shots were too. My own performance was a bit hit and miss though (pardon the pun).

And just in case you were wondering, this is what kids look like after two hours of archery when their blood sugar levels have dropped down around their ankles ...

My Little Drummer Boys  Twinkle In The Eye       

So have you ever tried archery? And do you have any suggestions for what we can do next fortnight for the letter B??

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

A little Bit Left of Centre - my favourite 'new' music

It's time to link up again with Jen for Twisted Mix Tape Tuesday, where the theme this week is:

                 << the best new songs you've heard this past year >>

These didn't necessary have to be songs that came out in 2013; just songs that you heard for the first time sometime during the last 12 months.

1. I've heard quite a bit of new music over the past year, ranging from my baby girl's renditions on a recorder (or part thereof!) to some really incredible individuals and groups. For me, one of my most exciting musical discoveries over the past year is a young man who calls himself The Mad Violinist. I watched this clip he made of himself covering Avicii's Wake Me Up with my jaw on the floor. The combination of strength, emotion and grace that he brings to this piece completely changed the way I feel about the violin as an instrument. Previously, I'd considered it to belong solely in classical ensembles. This guy got me excited about the possibilities of the instrument. He made me want to learn it myself.

2. I've also enjoyed listening to a lot of Kina Grannis over the last few months. Not only do I like her voice, but I also find some of her video clips quite original and clever, like this one:

I also really like her cover of Anna Kendrick's Cups, for its simplicity:

(I'm sneaking in two for the price of one here - I'm only supposed to list 5 songs, but I'm going to do 6 today and hope no-one minds!)

3. I definitely have to mention The Piano Guys here, who I only actually discovered last year even though they've been big for a while. I love the story of how these guys met and I love the music they create together on the piano and the cello. They add a classic twist to their covers of popular songs, which are often filmed in beautiful outdoor locations. It's hard to choose a favourite, but I think the first piece of theirs I heard was their version of Christina Perri's A Thousand Years and even though I've now heard them play it dozens of times, I still find it breathtaking.

4. My partner introduced me to Playing for Change last year - a team of musicians from around the world who aim "to bring peace to the world through music". Just before Christmas, I posted the group's version of Feliz Navidad. The clip below is their epic rendition of Stand By Me, the first of their 'songs from around the world' to be released independently. This video is one of the best testaments to the ability of music to bring people together that I have ever seen.

5. And last, but by no means least, comes this ditty by the little known Australian band, Axis of Awesome. One of my nephews actually told me about this song and I've posted this clip in a previous post, where I mentioned it inspired me to keep trying to learn the guitar, even if I'd only mastered half a dozen or so chords. Titled Four Chord Song, it highlights, hilariously, how so many popular songs are based on the same four identical chords. As I mentioned the first time I wrote about it, if you're offended by the F word, please block your ears at the 00:49 and the 4:59 mark!

So there it is; some of the music and musicians who were new to me in 2013.

My Skewed View

What are some of your favourite recent music discoveries?

Monday, 13 January 2014

Italian Lesson Numero Uno - the alphabet

So here is the very first lesson in the Italian Lessons series that I will be posting weekly from now on.

Why would you bother posting Italian lessons without getting paid a single cent for it? I hear you ask.

Because I love it, is the answer. I love to teach, I love to write, I love to reminisce about the time we spent living in Italy and I love, with an intense, enduring and devoted love, the fascinating, lyrical and theatrical Italian language.

So let's start from the very beginning, shall we? (since I have it on good authority that it's a very good place to start) ...

As ridiculous as it may seem, I didn't learn the Italian alphabet properly until my son, Ben, and I went to live in Sicily - that was after studying the language right throughout high school and for a semester at university, visiting the country three times previously and even teaching it at a beginner level to high school students myself. I never actually remember being taught it when I was a beginner myself, but perhaps it was just skimmed over and I don't remember. When I reached upper high school and uni, I supposed it was assumed knowledge and was therefore not ever touched on there either.

After Ben and I had been living on the organic farm where we were WWOOFers (part of the Willing Workers on Organic Farms program) for about a month, the owner of the property asked me if I would tutor his six year old son, who I'll refer to as Signorino A. Now Signorino A was very unhappy at pre-school and was having a lot of difficulty in learning the alphabet. His mother, who was interested in early childhood education, but who had no formal training in it at that time, suspected that he may have been dyslexic, since she was herself and she remembered having the same frustrations when she was trying to learn the alphabet as a child.

So there began a very interesting, albeit brief, period for me as an educator and a linguist: I would teach Signorino A and my son together. Signorino A could speak German, Italian and Sicilian fluently (his father was German, his mother was from northern Italy and he had been brought up in Sicily) and he also understood quite a lot of English words from having heard his parents converse in English with many of the WWOOFers who passed through his home. However, he was struggling to remember the names and forms of the numbers and the letters of the alphabet. Ben, on the other hand, still only knew a handful of Italian words at that point, but had no learning difficulties. So in teaching both of them, I needed to swap between English and Italian and also try to cater simultaneously for their different learning needs.

                                          (Ben and Signorino A doing their lessons together in the fresh air)

The first activity we did together was to paint the letters of the alphabet (you can see part of our efforts in the first photograph). I learnt within the space of about ten minutes that there is an enormous gulf between the skills needed to educate pre-readers and the skills needed to guide the learning of high school students. It took me even less than that to realise I was really quite ill-equipped to take on the tutoring on this little boy, since I myself didn't actually know how all the letters of the Italian alphabet were pronounced.

So I asked one of the stonemasons who was working on restoring an old house on the same property (who I also happened to have fallen madly in love with and who later happened to become the father of my daughter .. but let's not jump the gun just yet!) to teach it to me.

I wrote the letters down on a piece of paper, pointed to them, and when he pronounced them, I wrote them down phonetically. Then, to make it fun for the kids, we played the alphabet song (the one that has the same tune as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) on the guitar and taught them to sing it. I imagined that it would be a lot easier for Signorino A to remember the order and pronunciation of the letters if he was taught it through music. It would also feel a lot less like a formal lesson to him and he was not enthusiastic about anything that felt like a formal lesson, due to his early experiences in the school system.

Not only did he learn the alphabet within a couple of days, but Ben and I did too and ever since that week when we sang it together many times over, it has remained cemented in both our brains.

This is a copy from my notebook of how I wrote out the pronunciation of the letters, as taught to me by that stonemason, Giuseppe.

I've typed it out here too to make it easier to read. If you're up for a challenge, pay careful attention as you read through because at the end I'm going to ask you a question ...

A - Ah

B - Bee

C - chee

D - dee

E- eh

F - effe

G - gee (pronounced 'G', like the beginning of the geometry)

H - akka

I - ee (like the 'e' sound at the beginning of 'Eden')

L - ell-eh

M - emm -eh

N - enn -eh

O - o (a short 'o', as in the beginning of octopus)

P - pee

Q - koo (like the 'coo' part of the word 'cool')

R - air-eh

S- ess-eh

T - tee

U - oo (Like the 'u' sound in 'rude')

V - vee (or voo - sometimes said one way, sometimes the other)

Z - zetta

So here's the question:

Did you notice something missing?

Yep, that's right, a total of 5 letters are missing:

J, K, W, X and Y

These letters do have their own Italian names though and are useful to know when you need to spell aloud an English word which contains one of them.

J - jay (pronounced exactly the same way as it is pronounced in English)

K - kappa

W - vee doppia (doppia is the Italian word for 'double')

X - ix (pronounced like 'six' without the S in front)

Y - ipsillon (the 'ip' sound at the beginning rhymes with 'pip')

There are also a few words in the Italian which do use these letters, having been adapted from foreign words: jeans, for examplewas borrowed from French (and means jeans, just like it does in English), koala was taken from Australian English and WC. taken from American English, is frequently seen in use as the abbreviation of Water Closet. The Italian word for xylophone is xilofono and a yak (as in the animal) is also called a yak in Italian.

There are other examples where these letters appear in words in English, but different combinations of letters are used to represent the same sounds, or a similar sound, in Italian. These include: tassì, meaning taxi, and canguro, which in the Italian for kangaroo. The name Julia is pronounced identically in Italian, but spelt Giulia. Romeo and Giulietta is therefore the Italian equivalent of Romeo and Juliet.

In the absence of a video of us playing the alphabet song on the guitar and singing it to you to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle, here is a video of the Italian alphabet being sung to a different tune. Hearing the letters aloud, particularly set to music, really helps to memorise them.

I don't have any photos of us performing it either, but I do have a photo of Ben strumming the guitar after one of our little sing-a-longs ...

So why is it so important to learn the letters of the alphabet correctly? Can't you just get by by memorising the pronunciation of words that you hear?

Well of course that is possible and that is exactly what children do when they are learning their mother language, but that will only get you so far. Living in another country, there are many examples of times when you need to spell out words, such as your name, postal address or email address, particularly during phone conversations. Being able to spell words to others or to understand them when someone spells something out to you really helps to diminish the language barrier.

You would have noticed that the letter I in Italian in pronounced the same as the English E. That one letter alone can land you in considerable confusion in a situation where you are relying on your tongue and your ears only when pen and paper are not at hand. Once, before I had perfected the Italian alphabet, the mother of a little girl Ben had played with a few times asked me how to spell his name to write on a birthday invitation. I clearly hasn't learnt my vowels properly at this point, because when he got the invitation, it was addressed to 'Bin'.

My sister-in-law, Monika (who is actually my partner's brother's partner - but sister-in-law sounds so much easier), comes from Poland and had lived in Sicily for almost ten years when I first met her. The first letter of the Italian alphabet she learnt was K and, as she once told me, hands down the phrase she had used most frequently in the decade she had lived in Italy was "Monika si scrive con la kappa!" meaning: "It's Monika with a K!"

I hadn't expected, and was pleasantly surprised, to discover that having a solid knowledge of the alphabet also really improved my all-round pronunciation as well as making it easier for me to commit new words to memory. When I heard a new word, I would ask someone to spell it out for me and I would spell it back to myself or write it down. Even if I didn't have a pen with me at the time to write down the word, spelling it back to myself helped me to visualise the order of the letters and recall the word the next time I wanted to use it in a sentence myself.

I would never have thought that I could have gained so many benefits from simply putting in a little bit of effort over a couple of days to thoroughly learn the Italian alphabet. Once I'd done so, I couldn't believe that I hadn't done so sooner and nor could I believe how little emphasis had been put on memorising it when I had been at school. Better late than never though, right? Or, or they say in Italy, meglio tardi che mai!

So now you know you ABC, I hope you'll do Lesson 2 with me!!

Go on, it'll be fun ... we'll be talking about star signs (I'll let you know why next Monday!)

Ciao for now!

So tell me, which languages do you know or used to know or want to know? And how did you learn them or how are you planning on learning them? I love talking about languages and can't wait to read your comments! 

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Soundtrack of my {oh-so-embarrassing} Life

Ah, mistakes, how you have punctuated my life so frequently and so spectacularly. How I have come to accept you as inevitable intrusions into my best laid plans. And how on earth can I pick just five of you for the bloghop I am going to join for the first time tonight - Twisted Mixtape Tuesday - where you are the theme?

My Skewed View

We'll narrow you down via the fact that you need to be mistakes that come accompanied by a song, since that is the nature of this unique blog gathering, hosted by the Mistress of Music, Jen Kehl. I hope you're ready for one helluva trip down memory lane ...

1. During the year that I lived in a small town in Sweden as an exchange student, I joined a lovely little dance school with one of my friends. Our class had just four students in it and just before the Easter holiday that year, the dance school put on a concert. Unfortunately, due to a number of exchange student outings and other commitments, I missed most of the rehearsals in the weeks leading up to this concert. The week just before the concert, I told the teacher I really didn't feel prepared to dance on the stage, but she expressed a lot of disappointment at this, saying my costume (a horrid orange tutu, if I remember correctly) was all ready for me and that the dance simply wouldn't be the same with only three dancers, rather than the four she had choreographed it for. She told me repeatedly that hardly anyone would come and watch anyway. I was so shocked that she would actually want me to participate and risk tarnishing the name of her dance school eternally that I was flattered and reluctantly agreed. The song we danced to was Ray Charles' Hit the Road, Jack.

I danced abominably; copying every move of the girl in front of me, a beat and a half behind all the other girls. I'm surprised the crowd didn't start singing along, inserting 'Lizzy' into the lyrics in place of poor old Jack. However, I reasoned that hidden under the 17 kilograms of make-up the teacher had applied to my face prior to going on stage, that no-one would have actually recognised me. WRONG! Oh so woefully, woefully wrong. The next day at school, I think every second person in the building came up and told me they had seen me dancing in the concert the night before. It appeared the entire town had turned out to see me hop around the stage like a nincompoop.

Note to self: never, ever, don an orange tutu and cavort around on a stage in front of town of innocent people ever again.

2. When I was at uni, I lived (briefly) at college. After about a week there, I was in my room one night (my own room - no room-mate). I'd met a few nice people during that first week, including a boy who I did sort of fancy. But that particular night, I decided to have an early night rather than socialise. I was trying a new remedy that I had read about to burn off blemishes from one's face by applying toothpaste to them and I was in my pyjamas, pottering around and listening to the radio with a polkadotty toothpaste face when Walk Like an Egyptian by The Bangles came on.

This was nearly two decades after this song came out, but this did not make me any less enthusiastic about its catchy tune. In high school, a friend and I had made up a bit of a dance to this little number and so, for old times' sake, I started to bust some very Egyptian-esque dance moves.

Unfortunately for me, the radio was turned up too loud for me to hear the knock on my door. That boy that I told you about had come up to see if I wanted a cup of tea (actually I think he came to see if I wanted a cigarette, but we'll write tea here in case my mum's reading). When I didn't open, he took the liberty (very presumptuously I might add) of opening the door for himself. When I turned around, mid sphinx pose, and saw him standing there looking three parts astonished and one part appalled, I think I did a little jump in the air and squealed at the same time. We never did end up having that cigarette cuppa.

3. Let's return to Sweden again -  poor, unassuming country that I inflicted myself upon all those years ago. Now if you have been to Sweden, you would have undoubtedly heard of snus. Snus is basically chewing tobacco, which is sold either loose or in pouches that resemble little teabags. Being not very old and not very wise, an Aussie friend and I decided one night at a party that in the spirit of When in Rome and Seize the Day and all that, we would try this snus that everybody seemed to be using. I shall cut a long story short by telling you that the only thing I was seizing that day was a bucket to stick my head into. This evil invention made my head spin around on its own axis for several hours while I was violently ill into said bucket.

Apparently not everybody has this kind of reaction. Well good for them. I still have an indent in my upper gum where my diabolical pouch of snus sat for what couldn't have been more than half an hour. Somewhere in the deepest darkest depths of my wardrobe at my parents' house, there is a photograph from that night which I'm quite certain that if I ever look at again, I will need that bucket all over again.

I'm sure that there was a whole lot of music playing at that party that night, but I'll be damned if I could remember any of it after that little adventure, so let's just whack the good old original Swedish version of Waterloo on here, shall we? It's the one that shot them to fame at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest.

4. This one is still a little too close to home for comfort. A little under two years ago, the Athletics Carnival was held at the local high school where I had been teaching for a couple of months. The sports' staff played music from the loud speakers all day and every second song was Wild One by Flo Rider.

As is tradition, the final race of the day was the students versus teachers 4 x 100m relay. The whole school - students, teachers and parents - stop and turn their attention to this anticipated event. Having always been a pretty good athlete back in my own school days, I willing agreed to participate in this event. I blissfully assumed that once athletic, always athletic, and that I would successfully zoom down the track and lead our team to victory. I described the dismal reality of this assumption in this post. The short version of this story is that, if you do not run in any way, shape or form for a decade then you lose that ability. In my case, I lost it spectacularly and stumbled not once, but twice over that grand distance, both times barely saving myself from falling flat on my face. Needless to say, every time I've heard that song from that day since, I've considered digging a hole and burying myself in it.

5. And now for the the crème de la crème of the soundtrack of my red-faced moments.

Several years ago, I met a female colleague through the school I taught at at the time and we became close friends. We shared both a love of singing and sensibility and often, to relieve the stress of work, we would sing silly songs together in our office. One day, feeling particularly happy with a task she'd just completed, she broke into song with Alex Lloyd's Amazing, except she substituted the lines 'you were amazing/and we did amazing things' with 'I am amazing/and I do amazing things', which of course sent me into fits of giggles and ended up being something we would both sing at regular intervals from that point on.

One day, we were driving in her car with the windows down and the song came on the radio. Naturally, I felt the need to sing our adaptation of it as loud as possible. There would have been nothing the matter with that at all, except for the fact that just as the chorus came round for the second time, we pulled up at the traffic lights, but were enjoying ourselves so much that I didn't stop to think that maybe someone could hear us. You know, car stationary, windows down and all. And when the chorus was over, I turned my head to the side and there, a metre from me, sitting in the driver's seat of the car next to me with his window down too, was a despised ex-boyfriend of mine, whom I had not clapped eyes upon for a year and a half up until that point.

That one definitely tops the charts of my embarrassing moments ...  eat your heart out, Bridget Jones!

Oh well, at least he knows he left me with no self esteem issues!!!!!

My Skewed View

So how about you? Which songs would you put on your soundtrack of life's little mistakes?