How I Passed the Demanding, 5-Part, 5 1/2 Hour, Oral, Paper and Pen, Highest Level (C2), Italian Language Exam Without Going to Italy – Here’s a Hint: the 326,538 Flashcard Reviews Helped a Lot.

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Here’s the story of how and why I took this language test. I wrote this for friends and family, but others have read it as well. After putting all of this together, I myself am amazed at how long and hard I worked on this. It didn’t seem like it at the time, but when I wrote it all down, it turned out to be quite a lot. If you want to read about how I passed the German C2 exam, you can read about that test here.

You can read my comparison of the two tests here. I explain why I found the Italian test more rigorous.

Why Did You Do This?

Personal Goal

Make The Best of It

It Started in High School

Then in Germany…

Another Long Gap

Classes in San Diego at the Italian Cultural Center

I Need a Target to Shoot For!

Different Test Levels

Few Places To Take the Test

How I Did It

Starting with Flashcards

Flashcard Video Demo

Where Did Those Flashcards Come From?

Some Statistics

Yes, I have backups!

Starting with Skype

Transcribing Newscasts

Listening to Podcasts in the Car

Even in the Gym

Using Grammar Books

My digital dictionary

Italian Calendar from Germany

Italian Grammar Book from Germany

Italian Phrase Book from Germany

Word Frequency

Reading Books in Italian

Watching Italian Movies

Reading Italian Mysteries for Students, “Made In Germany”

Audio books

Pimsleur Audio Program

Reading Italian Newspapers

Meanwhile, Back at the Farm…

Flashcard Danger

Is It Worthwhile to Take Classes?

Private Lessons

Practice tests

It’s Easy for You!

It Gets Harder As You Get Older

Italian is Easy!

An Unpleasant Side Effect

Progress is Irregular

Wait! There’s More!

Hard Stuff is Easy

How Much Can I Handle?

One Month Before the Exam

More Lessons

Listening to My Own Voice

Writing, Writing, Writing

Something’s Gotta Give

The Day of the Exam

Section 1: The Listening Test

Section 2: The Reading Comprehension Test

Section 3: The Grammar Test

Section 4: The Writing Test

Section 5: The Oral Test

Finally, I Was Finished

You Probably Won’t Believe This But…

Two Months Later…

By the Skin of My Teeth

361 Days Later...

Now I Can Teach!

Slowing Down

How Many People Take This Test?

Yes, Many People Speak Multiple Languages

This is Only a Temporary State

You Can’t be Truly Fluent Without Living in That Country

On to Japanese!

When Are You Going to Italy?

2017 Update

Back in Italy after 24 Years

Homestay 2018

Sicily 2018

 

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Why Did You Do This?

This is the first question I get. The short answer is: “for fun.”  Or if it makes you feel better: “Because I’m crazy.”  People want to know why I would spend so much time studying a language I don’t need. I do not work for an Italian company. I am not married to an Italian, I have no relatives in that country, I will not travel there any time soon, nor am I of Italian heritage.   I’m not interested in opera, architecture, art, soccer, Formula 1, literature, religion, or history.  I do like to eat. I have spent maybe 2 months total in Italy, and haven't been there at all since 1993. 

Well, you could ask the same question about why I learned German starting when I was 12 years old. I had no reason to learn that language either.

When Italians ask me why I want to learn their language, my answer is, "Because everyone knows Italian is the most beautiful language in the world!" So far, none has disagreed with me. :) I will admit I always liked the sound of Italian, with so many words ending with vowels.


I usually answer this question with another question: “Why do people run marathons?” Is there any real reason to run a marathon?  No. People do it because it’s a challenge, it’s difficult, and you get a sense of accomplishment when you cross the finish line. I know: I finished five marathons. It’s something similar in this case. It’s a challenge. And as many of you know, I do like a good challenge. And learning languages is fun – for me. People who know me well should not be in the least surprised by this endeavor.


It’s also a project that was completely under my control. I could decide how much to study, which classes to take, how much to read, etc.  I did not have to rely on anyone else, unlike trying to play in a band with four other people with differing opinions.


Learning another language relies only on my own efforts. In a band, you have to find people who want to play the same music you do. That’s relatively easy to do, but what’s really hard is to find an audience for that music. It’s harder still to find someone who will pay you to play that music. I cannot force a crowd of people to appear to listen to my band, but I can spend as much time as I want studying another language. It was entirely dependent on my efforts. Remember, I’m the guy who, for fun, memorized 1,150 digits of Pi. That was a lot easier. Speaking of which, I haven’t practiced Pi in over seven years, so I probably remember about 14 digits. Maybe one day I’ll revive them, but I recited those numbers several times a week for about six years, so I’m not dying to do it again.

 

 

Personal Goal

One of my personal goals has long been to become a polyglot. People disagree on the exact definition of that term, but it appears that almost everyone agrees that speaking four languages would qualify you as a polyglot. Well, now I am three quarters of the way towards that goal. Maybe this qualifies as a “bucket list” item.


I was also curious if lightning would strike twice. I wondered if I could reach the same level of proficiency that I have reached in German. My conclusion is I cannot, unless I live in Italy for a few years.

 

 

Make The Best of It

Another reason was to make lemonade out of lemons. I am obliged to spend most of my day in front of a computer for work.  I like to make good use of my time when I am there.  In the past, I would spend that time learning songs on the guitar for the band.  Since I’m not in a band anymore, I needed something new to get me fired up.

I work 365 days a year, but from home, so that gives me more time to dedicate towards studying – no commute.   I can also squeeze in a few minutes here and there during the day, which most people cannot.

 

It Started in High School

The more detailed answer is, of course, more complex. Some of you may know that I actually started learning Italian when I was a junior in high school in 1973. I had already been studying German and Latin at that time, so I decided to take Italian as well. While learning Italian Level I, I decided to study Italian Level II on my own after school. My teacher, Dr. Scalera, let me use the language lab by myself, so I could listen to Italian tapes and study the textbook.  I then asked to take the Level II final exam at the end the year and passed, so I was able to take Level III as a senior.

 

Then in Germany…

After high school, I did not have any contact with Italian for nearly 20 years. While we were living in Augsburg, Germany in the early 90s, I started taking classes again at a language school and through adult education.  Twice I went to language schools in Italy. Both times it was for two weeks: once to Milan and once to the island of Elba. At that time, my plan was to join the Foreign Service. I thought if I spoke two European languages, the chances of being assigned to Europe would be much greater, and I wouldn’t have to worry about being sent to French Guiana or Tajikistan. Well, I never joined the Foreign Service. We moved to Japan instead. That ended my Italian studies.

 

Another Long Gap

Once again, for another 20 years, I had no contact with Italian at all. I did not read, study, listen to music, watch movies, or anything else. Then a few years ago, it started to bother me that I had never reached a high level of ability in Italian. As many of you know, my German is very good, so I always compare my knowledge of German to other languages, and everything else comes up short.

 

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Classes in San Diego at the Italian Cultural Center

In 2013, I decided it’s now or never. It’s not going to be easier 10 years from now. I decided I wanted to improve my Italian to a level I felt was fluent enough to satisfy me. I will say I have still not reached that point.  I often joke that I can stammer fluently in Italian.  In January 2013, I started to take classes at the Italian Cultural Center in San Diego. The center offers seven levels of classes. I had to figure out which level would be best for me. Although I was not a beginner, it had been more than 20 years since I’d studied Italian. I had to call the Center and ask what level they recommended.

Many of you who have learned another language have experienced what happened next: I practiced my Italian sentences in advance and then I called. Of course, what I could not practice was the answers I received. The woman (RC) on the phone asked me several questions and we chatted for a minute or two in Italian. She suggested I try Level IV, which is called Intermediate Two in their program. When I got off the phone, my brain felt like it was on fire. There had been a tremendous surge of energy as I wracked my brains to remember things and answer her questions. This only happened the very first time I tried to say something after 20 years.

I bought the textbook and showed up for the first day of class. The very first thing we had to do was take a test. I must say I did not remember much of the grammar on the test. For example, in Italian, reflexive verbs such as “I wash my hands” are conjugated with the verb “to be.” I had forgotten that. But once I saw it again, it came back to me.

Over the next 18 months or so, I took a class a quarter at the Italian Cultural Center in San Diego. Those finished up around July 2014. After that, there were no more levels.

 

I Need a Target to Shoot For!

When I restarted learning Italian for the third time, I had no ambitions of taking the test. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even know one existed. I just wanted to improve my Italian. About a year after I restarted studying, I was poking around on the Internet and discovered there is a test for proficiency in Italian offered around the world by the University for Foreigners of Siena. This particular test, known as CILS, has been around in some form or other since 1588! I know that having an ambitious goal is a great motivator. That’s one of the main reasons I did this. Since we will not be going to Italy anytime soon, and I have no real need to speak Italian, I needed another motivator to keep me engaged.


Goals work best if you have one that’s very hard, but not impossible. If it’s too easy, you’ll have no satisfaction. If it’s impossible, you’ll just be frustrated. The ideal goal is one that you have to work very hard for, but can still reach. That’s what this test was for me.


I also know it’s the way to prove that you actually do understand the language. I have met many people in my lifetime who say they speak German or are fluent in German. I would say 90% of the time that’s not true, in my estimation. I did not want to be like that, to say I know Italian, because what does that mean? Anyone can say he’s fluent. But can you prove it?  A test is proof.

 

Different Test Levels

There is a European standard for language competency with six levels: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2.  A1 is the lowest, C2 the highest level.  In many countries, you need level B2 to study at the university.  I thought if I’m going to take a language test, I might as well swing for the fence and take level C2. Here are the definitions for the six levels:

A1: the ability to use familiar everyday expressions aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type and to ask and answer questions about personal details. At this level of competence, interaction with Italian speakers can take place provided the other person is prepared to help.


A2: the ability to communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on areas of most immediate relevance, such as personal and family description, shopping, local geography and employment.


B1: the ability to understand written and spoken texts on familiar matters. At this level, one is able to engage effectively in a conversation as a tourist, to express opinions and to give simple explanations.


B2: the competence in the language which is necessary in a traditional scholastic context (to register with school or universities), to pursue post-graduate learning (such as professional and training courses), as well as to prepare for work activities that involve interaction with the public. At this level, one can interact with Italian speakers fluently and spontaneously and use the language for work related activities in one’s own field.


C1: a strong confidence with the Italian language and culture, such that it can be used in all working environments (professional, commercial, industrial and administrative). One can understand and produce a wide range of demanding, longer texts and recognize implicit meanings in complex writings such as literary works.


C2: a high linguistic competence comparable to that possessed by an Italian cultured speaker and applicable in any and all professional settings. It is the level required to teach Italian as a foreign language and to qualify for professional assignments of a high degree.


As you can see, C2 level means near native fluency. I would not make that claim in any shape or fashion. I would say that I have a pretty good vocabulary, but I would not say I have near native level fluency.


I do not like the Italian test system because you have to select the level of the test you want to take. Unlike the TOEFL, where there’s one test and you get a different score depending on how well you do, with Italian you have to select the level you want to test at. So if I had tested level C1 and had passed it, I would’ve had to go back six months later and take the C2 test to reach that level. I thought even if I fail at the C2 level, it’s unlikely I would fail all five parts. That’s based on the practice tests I took. Rather than being forced to repeat the entire test, I thought why not just try the highest level, because in the worst-case scenario I would have to repeat part, and probably not all, of the exam.

 

Few Places To Take the Test

There are only 11 places in the United States where you can take this test. Three of them are in Chicago, two are in New York City and one is in northern New Jersey. So there really are only seven places where you can take the test. If you live in Texas, you’d probably have to go to Chicago.  If you live in Idaho, you’d probably have to go to San Francisco.  Lucky for me, LA is one of the test sites. [Update 2017: there are more places to take the test now]


There are over 18 million people in the greater Los Angeles area, yet I was the only one who took a test in December 2014. And I’m from outside that area. Sure, about 40% of the residents in the greater Los Angeles area are Hispanic, and they may not be interested in learning Italian, but that would still leave over 10 million other possible candidates. I asked the deputy director of the Italian Cultural Institute about this, and she told me it’s less popular than before for people to learn Italian. Furthermore, most people don’t need a test to speak Italian. I’d guess the most common reason people take the test is to be able to study at an Italian university, or perhaps for work. They told me normally they get 6 to 10 people to take the test, but in December 2014, it was just me. The test is given only twice a year: in June and December, the same date worldwide. [Update: In June 2015, four people took the test in LA.]

 

How I Did It

I would say I spent a minimum of one hour a day studying Italian for close to two years. That’s every day. No days off.

Starting with Flashcards

When I started back up with Italian, I read through some of my old books about how to learn a language. One of those books is written in German and describes the system invented by a German called the Leitner system, where you use flashcards to learn a language. The system was actually based on research from the 1880s from another German named Hermann Ebbinghaus. Ebbinghaus discovered there is a pattern to how people forget things, and if you want to remember things, you have to repeat them at intervals based on how well you know them. This is now called spaced repetition. Ebbinghaus also discovered something called the forgetting curve. I find it amazing that this information was discovered about 130 years ago and is still not commonly used. This is what it looks like:

 

spaced


Unfortunately, based on the graph above, you'd think that after four or so reviews, you would remember the information forever. I can tell you that was not the case with me. Sometimes I have to repeat a word or phrase 5 or 6 times in less than a minute just to learn it the first time. I'm sure there are phrases I've reviewed dozens of times over the years. Some I learn quickly, others are automatically deleted after too many repetitions as "leeches" that suck up too much of your time.

Flashcards involve something called “active recall,” which means if I you ask a question, your brain has to search for the answer, which reinforces the memory.  For instance, if I ask you, “What’s the capital of Bhutan?”, your brain has to work much harder than if you just read the answer in a sentence.  This means reading is passive, and not as useful as studying flashcards. And no, I am not going to tell you what the capital of Bhutan is. :)


Anyhow, I figured instead of using paper flashcards and a manual system to sort them, there must be software that does this. In fact, there are many flashcard programs. I finally selected one called Anki. Anki is my daily companion, as well as my taskmaster. Anki is a flashcard system that shows you cards in ever-increasing intervals. If you know the card, it will not come up again for ever-increasing period of time, but if you forget the card, it comes back into the front of the queue and will be repeated more often. The idea here is that you only need to repeat the cards that you are about to forget and that’s where the forgetting curve comes in.


I answer the cards out loud so I train my mouth and ears at the same time as my eyes and brain.


I have studied flashcards in many different places. I have studied on airplanes, in hotel rooms, as a passenger in a car, in conference rooms, and any place I could sit down for a few minutes. I have studied at 5 o’clock in the morning and 2 o’clock in the morning and all times in between.

 

Flashcard Video Demo

OK, I write about flashcards a lot.  Here’s a video clip of what it looks and sounds like:

 

 

I did not set up anything special for this demo.  I just started Anki like I normally do. These were the first cards that came up, which means they were the oldest, so I had not seen these cards for probably 7 or 8 months.  I am also stammering, because I am concentrating on recording the video, and not answering the cards.


You’ll notice a mistake on the second card.  I said “eravama,” but the correct answer is “eravamo,” as you can see on the screen.  However, my brain thought I said “eravamo,” as there is no word “eravama” in Italian. I did not notice this until I watched the video.  We’ve all had that experience: we swear we said “A,” but the listener swears we said “B.”  That’s what I did.


As you see in the video, the front of the flashcards is usually written in English. The response must be in Italian, because you want to recall the language you are trying to learn. However, I have every possible card format you can imagine. I have some definitions on the front that are only in Italian. I have Italian words on the front with English words on the back. I have grammar rules on the front with answers on the back. I have lots of pictures. I have verbs to be conjugated. And I have many, many cards with a missing preposition like this:


Q: I am going __ the store
A: to

Where Did Those Flashcards Come From?

I created every single one myself.  I calculated I created an average of 50 flashcards an hour when I got on a roll. That means to create 18,000 cards probably took 360 hours over two years. That works out to about four hours every week. There were some weeks I spent more time making cards. Remember, time spent creating flashcards is not the same as time spent studying. It’s all additional time.

 

Some Statistics

One useful thing about Anki is it creates statistics for you so you can see how you are progressing. For example, I spent 613 hours studying flashcards in the almost 2 years before the test. That was 686 days in a row, averaging 53.6 minutes a day. 613 hours is less than two months of life at 10 hours a day. If I had spent two months in Italy, I would’ve had been exposed to the language for more time that I had in almost 2 years of study. Of course, I would not have remembered as many words without the study. Here's the graph from the day before the test:

review

 

This is the day before the test. Here you can see I reviewed 326,538 cards in 686 days, which is 476 cards per day. You can also see how I tapered towards the end:

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Here are some statistics from April 2, 2015. Today I studied for 41 minutes. A mature card is one I have not seen in at least 3 weeks:

 

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You'll notice I'm up to 806 days in a row, 704 hours, and I need 6.7 seconds to answer a card. You can see how my workload has dropped off since the test.

 

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My total number of reviews is now 380,796.

 

review count

 

The intervals have grown longer. Now it takes 8.5 months for a card to reappear:

 

interval

 

You can see how many cards I added before the test. One month it was more than 2,000 cards. The total is now 18,527 cards.

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This shows how often I clicked each button.

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Yes, I have backups!

In case you’re wondering, I have six different backups of my flashcards on three computers, an external fire-proof hard drive, and my phone. Two of those backups are in the cloud. You don’t think I’d want to risk losing all that work, do you?

 

Starting with Skype

Okay, the flashcards are fine, but there’s still another part missing, and that’s actually speaking to people. Thanks to the miracles of the Internet, I found several websites where you can find language partners online with whom you can exchange language lessons on Skype. The way it works is we spend a half an hour speaking Italian, and a half an hour speaking English. This way each person gets to practice a new language and no one has to pay. This is a great deal. You basically have a private tutor for no money and the other person gets the exact same deal.

The good news is, if you’re a native speaker of English, there are many people who want to learn English. Therefore, any language you want to learn as an American, you are likely to find someone who is a native speaker of that language and is willing to trade with you so he or she can learn English.  I started Skype very shortly after I started classes. That would’ve been in February 2013. Since then, I have spoken to my Italian friend Marco almost every week, twice a week, for an hour at a time. I’ve asked him all sorts of questions about how you say different things in Italian, as well as checking grammar rules. He’s asked me many similar questions, such as what does “at the end of the day” or “don’t mince words” mean? Everybody wins.

I will say that it is trial and error to find a good language partner. You need someone who is at a similar level, who has similar interests, who is reliable, and wants to talk to you. I often say it’s like dating. As a matter of fact, Marco’s wife calls me his “fiancé.” P thinks that’s hilarious.

 

Transcribing Newscasts

In addition to classes and Skype, I use other techniques to help expand my knowledge. One of the requirements for the test is to write an essay and to write a business letter. To help me with writing, I found a website (Euronews) that has the news in Italian. They have videos with some news clips and an Italian speaker. The bonus is, this website also has a transcription of the spoken word. I would listen to the news clip, then try to transcribe what I’d heard onto paper. Afterwards, I could go back and check to see if my transcription matched the one on the website. As you might imagine, this was quite difficult in the beginning. As always, any word I did not know, I turned into a flashcard. I did these transcriptions every day for about eight months or so.

 


When practicing at home, I use the same pen with black ink that I used at the exam. This is the old specificity of training issue. I wanted to replicate the test environment as closely as possible. Since I use a fountain pen, I had to buy black ink. I’ll usually write only with blue, but I bought some black ink just for the test.

 

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Listening to Podcasts in the Car

Another part of the test is listening comprehension. To help me with that, I started listening to podcasts from an Italian radio station. The one I listen to has four disc jockeys. Sometimes they all speak at the same time, often two are speaking at the same time, with music in the background, and frequent telephone interviews. As you may know, the telephone makes things much more difficult to understand. The sound is compressed, so you do not have a full range of tone. The reason I did this is because I knew from practice exams that the actual exam almost always includes a telephone interview you have to answer questions about. I figured if I can understand three Italian disc jockeys talking at the same time to someone on the telephone, I can probably pass the listening test.  Click on the image below to hear a sample of what they sound like when they’re all talking at once:


I would listen to the Italian podcasts while driving around San Diego. I tried listening to podcasts in the gym and while running, but I found it too distracting. It’s hard enough to listen to it while you’re driving. But it’s good practice, because there are road noises in the car and you are distracted by driving, making comprehension even more difficult.

 

Even in the Gym

While I was doing exercises in the gym, I would count the reps in Italian. But not regular numbers; that would be too easy. No, I would count ordinal numbers like this: first, second, third, etc. Now that I am learning Japanese again, I alternate languages and do 1st-3rd-5th in Italian and 2-4-6 in Japanese. The next time I reverse the order and start with Japanese.  On one exercise I do 45 repetitions, so I get a good mental workout too.

 

Using Grammar Books

I have two grammar books that I bought about 25 years ago in Italy. I turned almost all of the exercises in those books into flashcards. All in all, I would say that would be several hundred cards. The reason is, knowing the answer once is not the same as knowing the answer every time. Only by repeating the question many times will it be burned into your brain. A red dot means I turned that sentence into a flashcard.

 

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My digital dictionary

I bought this one from Zanichelli (il Raggazzini). It's worth 10 times what I paid. I can't say it's worth its weight in gold, since it weighs zero :). I often copy sentences from this dictionary to make flashcards. Here's a sample entry for the word "pane":

italiandictionary

As you can see, you could easily create 50 flashcards from this one entry alone. This is my #1 tool for study. I can't say enough good things about this dictionary.

 

Italian Calendar from Germany

I also have a Italian language desktop calendar from Germany that is similar to those word-of-the-day calendars you see here. The difference is there is a little story for every day. Sometimes there’s a cultural note, sometimes it’s a little quiz, sometimes there’s a recipe for food. Here’s a picture of what a typical day looks like:

calendar

The blue marks are indicators for me to make flashcards for those words or sentences.

 

 

 

Italian Grammar Book from Germany

grammatik

In my opinion, Germans create better materials for learning foreign languages than the Americans. When I’m in Germany, I scour the bookstores to see what’s available. I bought a grammar book in 2013, and I turned almost the entire book into flashcards. Every grammar rule, every grammar exercise that I didn’t already know well, I turned into a flashcard. Here’s a picture of what a typical page looks like:

german

The red dot means I’ve turned that item into a flashcard. The letter “A” means I wanted to put it in Anki.

 

 

Italian Phrase Book from Germany

echter

In Germany, I bought a phrase book called, “Speak like a Real Italian.” It has lots of different chapters, including foul language, drinking, going to the doctor, school, work, and lots more. I turned almost that entire book into flashcards as well. Before I did that, I asked Marco about all the phrases in the book. I would ask him, “Do you say this?” He would say yes or no. Here’s a picture of what a typical page in that book looks like:

real italian

 

 

Word Frequency

One of the interesting things about learning a language is some words are used more frequently than others. As a matter of fact, clever and diligent people have sorted most major languages into word lists, so you can see what the most frequent words are, then learn those first. Here are the top five for English:

  1. the
  2. be
  3. to
  4. of
  5. and

Obviously, this is not the same thing as learning to speak English. But you can focus your attention on words that are more frequent than others.

grund cover


I have another German book of phrases incorporating the 2,000 most frequent words in Italian. I went through the entire book and copied all the phrases I didn’t know into flashcards. There are over 9,000 sentences in this book. Of course, I did not turn most of them into cards, just the ones I didn’t know. Here’s a sample of what that book looks like:

grund

What makes these flashcards particularly hard is the front side is in German and the reverse is in Italian. This is actually exceptionally difficult to do. You are translating from a second to third language, so it is more work for your brain. This is similar to the famous Stroop test in psychology. Say the colors of the letters fast out loud; do not read the words. The first answer is "red:"

stroop

 

The Stroop test is very hard if English is not your first language. You brain has to process conflicting information. Your brain reads the word "blue," but the letters are red, so you have an extra mental step to say "red" instead of "blue" as the correct answer. I have a Stroop test t-shirt, which is a great ice breaker at parties.


I do not enjoy these cards at all, but I force myself to use them so that my brain gets a more intense workout. Or maybe I’m just crazy.


I have another old German book with the most common 3,500 words in Italian. I went through every page of that book, and made a card for all the words I did not know. The reason is if you know the most common 2,000 words you probably will understand about 80% of a moderately difficult text.

 

Reading Books in Italian

I also read Italian books every day in the “library,” and when I do that, I have a pen with me to market any words I do not know. Of course they are then turned into flashcards. I recently started reading aloud, so I would get more practice pronouncing Italian. Yes, it's slower, but it trains my ears and tongue at the same time.

 

Watching Italian Movies

P and I would also go to the Italian films that were shown here in San Diego. Yes, they have subtitles, which are annoying, but it was another opportunity to hear the Italian language and be exposed to other media.

 

Reading Italian Mysteries for Students, “Made In Germany”

lernkrimi

Another learning aid I bought in Germany is something called Mysteries for Learning (Lernkrimi). These are mystery books written at different levels of difficulty, so you can learn vocabulary while having a somewhat interesting reading experience. Some of these books are also audio books. I really enjoyed those. I would listen to the audio, then read the book, then listen to the audio while I read the book. You already know what comes next: I turned every word I didn’t know into a flashcard.

 

Audio books

I also enjoyed listening to audio books where I had the text to accompany the audio. Sometimes the audio is so clear and so beautiful it’s hard to imagine. Click on this image to hear a clip of what I mean:


I told P I wish every Italian spoke like this. It is actually a joy to listen to such a beautiful voice.

The whole purpose of turning these unknown words into cards is to “eat the elephant.” It’s impossible to learn all the words in Italian language. What you want to do is to keep learning enough words so that the number of unknown words continues to shrink.

 

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Pimsleur Audio Program

Some of you might wonder about those audio programs you see advertised everywhere to help you learn a language. I have a number of old CDs and cassettes for different programs, including Pimsleur, which I listened to for a while. They all have the same problem: you have to repeat the entire section. You cannot repeat only the hard parts. There is no way to schedule spaced repetition based on your progress. Furthermore, you have no control over the content, unlike flashcards. You have to learn what they want you to learn. In short, I do not recommend them. It is true that every repetition helps, but I don’t think it’s worth the time or money to spend all that effort on those programs.  I have not tried Rosetta Stone, but have read comments from others who were not thrilled.

 

 

Reading Italian Newspapers

While I was in Germany in the summer of 2014, I got four Italian newspapers and read every word of every article in every paper. This would be about the same as taking four weekday NY Times and reading every single word.  All the words I did not know, I turned into flashcards. The Italians are wordy people. Even their newspaper articles are pretty long. They also use very small type, so even though the newspapers are not thick, they are dense.


I read every article because I did not know what topics would be on the test.  Most people read only things that interest them, but I had to be prepared for whatever they threw at me, so I read them all.

 

Meanwhile, Back at the Farm…

Remember, while all this studying was going on, I still had to work every day, play guitar every day, and I worked out every day.  I wrote and published a book, and started writing a second book. What I did NOT do was watch a lot of TV. I also did not do any housework. Thanks to P for supporting me in that.  I did get up early to get things done.

 

 

Flashcard Danger

One of the dangers of using flashcards is it is possible to memorize anything. You can even memorize things that make no sense. For example, you might have a card that looks like this:


Q: below!? #&@
A: 72


After you’ve seen this card a few times, you will know automatically the answer is 72. However, this card makes no sense. That is a danger. You can memorize things just because you repeat them so often. For example, I have pictures of flowers in my flashcards, so I know their Italian names. I have no idea what these flowers are called in English anymore. But I do recognize the flowers, and can tell you what they’re called in Italian. If someone were to ask me, “How you say hyacinth in Italian?”, I probably would not know. But if I saw a picture of one, I can tell you the Italian name. Very strange.

 

 

Is It Worthwhile to Take Classes?

Going to classes at night is a mixed bag. On the one hand, there is a low ROI. I was gone for maybe three and a half hours, for 90 minutes of class time. In the class, when there are 12 other people, you have the opportunity to say perhaps two or three sentences during the evening. Furthermore, you are tired after a full day of work and all your other daily activities. You also have to allow time for the others who have questions. Sometimes the class moves at the speed of the slowest learner. Not many people are ambitious about learning a language. In my experience, most people are interested in learning a little, but they really do not want to invest a tremendous amount of time into making serious progress. For them, it’s more entertainment or fun way to spend a few hours. That's okay. We all paid the same amount for the class.


On the upside, there is the opportunity to hear a different native Italian speaker. You will learn new things just by listening to the person. There is also the possibility of serendipity, which means sometimes other students will ask a question I never would’ve thought of. I would hear things I never would hear on my own. The teacher would give explanations I could not find in a book.


I did notice an interesting phenomenon. Whenever the teacher said something I did not know or understand, I would always write it down. I would then look it up in my dictionary at home, and you know the rest: I would turn it into a flashcard. However, I noticed none of my fellow students ever did this.


I can remember specific words I learned from each teacher. It’s quite unusual to me that I can recall almost what was going on at the time I heard them say these words. Here are some examples for the benefit of those teachers who might be reading this:


AI: accigliarsi, sfasciacarrozze, coprifuoco
GB: soprappensiero, mi taglia la strada, sviolinare
RB: incubo, pescare una carta, soprammòbile
RC: sgabuzzino, ville a schiera, moquette


Yes, I was paying close attention to everything they said.  Yes, I have all these words on flashcards.


I noticed my fellow students took few notes. I recall asking the woman sitting next to me who did take notes what she did with them after class. Her answer: “Nothing.” I asked her if she ever looked at them again and she told me “No.” I don’t know what the benefit of that system might be. Seems like just a waste of time to me.


Several times I told a fellow student about how I studied using flashcards. Some expressed interest and I sent them links and explanations about how to do this. At least two tried it, but to my knowledge, none persisted for very long. From my research on the Internet, this seems to be the rule. Few people go beyond 30 days. That’s too bad.


When you start learning a language, the beginner classes are full. The higher up you go in the language, the fewer people there generally are. It’s like a pyramid: wide at the bottom, narrow at the top. I think classes are very useful at the beginning, but the law of diminishing returns kicks in the higher you go or the more advanced the language gets.

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Private Lessons

One quarter there were not enough students to hold the class. Because I did not want to stop my forward progress, I had private lessons for that quarter. I’ve never done this before. I’ve taken a lot of language classes in three different countries, but I had never had private lessons before. I would say that is the most useful way to learn a language, besides having a boyfriend/girlfriend. First, you must answer every question. You have to be prepared. I also found a one-hour lesson felt like it lasted about three minutes. That’s how fast the time flew. Any question I had was immediately answered. It’s very intense, which I enjoyed. I would say private lessons are five times better than group classes. We covered an entire quarter’s worth of material in about four weeks. All the homework assignments I had required me to answer every question every time. Unfortunately, it’s also very much more expensive than taking a group class. For that reason, few things can beat a Skype partner for learning a language.


I would also agree with the statement others have made that the best way to learn a new language is to live with a boyfriend or girlfriend whose native language is the one you want to learn. There is nothing like love to keep you motivated to learn.

 

Practice tests

cils book

In March 2014, I bought the first of two books with practice tests in them. The primary reason I bought the C2 book was to gauge how hard the test would be in December.  I knew it would be hard, but I also thought I could pass it with eight months of concentrated effort. Later on, I bought the C1 practice test book so I would have more tests to work with.


These books also came with a CD for the audio portion of the exams, which is how I knew there would be a telephone interview on the test.  I found the listening test the easiest, although I expected it to be reading.  When you read, you can go over words you don’t know several times, but when the audio plays, there’s no stopping or going back.

I would say there is not much difference between levels C1 and C2, so for anyone reading this who is considering taking the test, go for the higher level. It might be different in other languages, but if you're good enough for C1, it's just a small step further to C2.

 

It’s Easy for You!

I chuckle when people say to me, “Brian, it’s easy for you to learn languages because you’re a natural talent.” Well, the only natural talents I know are infants learning their first language. When people say natural talent, what they really mean is you work very hard at it. I believe determination and persistence are far more important than “talent.” Just like playing guitar, people think it’s easy because it looks that way when you have reached a certain level of proficiency. They did not see the thousands of hours of practice it took to get there. You can ask P how hard I worked at learning Italian. She’s the only one who really knows how much effort I put into all of this.

This would also surprise my Japanese professor in college, who told me I had no talent for languages. This was just before I told her I had received a fellowship to study at Heidelberg University in Germany the following year. That professor did give me the lowest grade I ever received (D+), so my Japanese studies ended after one semester.

 

It Gets Harder As You Get Older

This will be no surprise to anyone in my age bracket or higher.  Your memory does not work like it used to.  Everything takes longer.  I say it’s because your brain is like a filing cabinet filled with documents.  A three year old has only a few sheets of paper.  A 60 yr old has millions.  It takes longer to file things away, and longer to retrieve them, because there is so much to sort through.


As difficult as it is for me, I noticed the older students in my classes struggled even more. Those in their 70s seem to have great difficulty recalling words. That’s one of the reasons I was anxious to do this as soon as possible.  I will not have a better memory five years from now.   Everything will be harder.


I often joke with my friend Marco that it’s more of an accomplishment to learn a new language at 58 than at 20. However, most people see it the opposite way: they are more impressed with a young person who speaks a language than with an older person. I suppose it’s because they assume the older person has been speaking the language for many years.

 

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Italian is Easy!

People say Italian is an easy language to learn. Well, that might be true if your goals are limited. It is certainly easier than Japanese if you're a native speaker of English. I'll bet it's really hard if your first language is Mandarin. I will say this: Italian has lots of false friends. These are words that sound similar to English, but mean something different in Italian. The most famous example is probably “parenti,” which means “relatives” and not “parents.” Another is “largo,” which means “wide” and not “large.” Sure, there are lots of cognates too, but that’s more than made up by the fact that they have so many verb tenses. It’s maddening. Yes, they only use a few tenses in spoken language, but you’ll never guess what happens on the exam: they test you on all the uncommon ones.


Prepositions are another monster headache.  Yes, there are rules, but probably twice as many exceptions.  I have hundreds of cards just for prepositions.  You often have to learn each individual case.  For example, when we say something like “go to school,” in Italian, the preposition changes based on the noun.  You have to memorize all the different nouns and corresponding prepositions.  I have a grammar book just for prepositions:

prep book

prep inside


My experience has been it’s a ton of work to reach a high level in any language.

 

 

An Unpleasant Side Effect

One big problem I continue to struggle with is interference. Since my German is so good, whenever I am faced with a situation where I don’t know a word in Italian, my brain will typically fill in the blank with the German word. I probably have said five sentences in Italian in my lifetime that did not contain a word of German. Okay, am exaggerating. But it’s a continuous struggle to not speak German when I’m trying to speak Italian. Strangely enough, I’m not having this problem with Japanese. My suspicion is because Japanese is so different, my brain realizes something else is going on. But Italian and German commonly get confused in my head.  P often says I now mumble incoherently in a mish-mash of languages.


I think if you spend so much time learning in one area, other areas automatically have to suffer. It would appear the region of my brain responsible for language can handle only so many challenges at once. Therefore I think it’s highly unlikely that many people could stay at a high level of proficiency in many languages. It just seems you would need so much time every day to practice that would be virtually impossible to be highly fluent in many languages all at the same time.  I don’t know what the limit would be, because it probably depends on the person, how young they started, what languages they speak, and how much they practice.  And there’s the old problem of what “fluent” means.


It’s like sports: how can you maintain a high level of proficiency in golf, baseball, football, and tennis, all at the same time?  Every hour of golf is an hour you’re not playing tennis, football, or baseball.  You need many hours a week in each to maintain a high level, and there just aren’t enough hours.

 

 

Progress is Irregular

Learning a language rarely proceeds in a straight line. There are lots of ups and downs and plateaus. It can be frustrating to forget a word you knew cold yesterday, but have no clue about today. Many times I felt like I was making no progress at all. However, like piling up grains of sand on the beach, eventually you have a lot. The same is true here. You cannot see each grain of sand or each word you learn, but over time they accumulate. I never let it bother me much. Sure, I didn’t like it, but I knew it was unavoidable, so I just kept moving. And tomorrow might be a better day.

 

 

Wait! There’s More!

Because I’m crazy, I also have some flashcard decks in Anki for other purposes, which I also study every day. I have been working on the multiplication table from 11 to about 42. I don’t memorize the cards, I just practice doing mental arithmetic so I can calculate out what 42×27 is in my head. In addition, I have cards for the periodic table of elements, including atomic numbers, a map of the world with all the countries, and their capitals, and a bunch of classical music themes, where I hear an audio track and I have to name the composer and the title of the piece. I also have Japanese kanji and kana decks, which I have been studying since January 2014. I did stop studying all of these other flashcards for about three months before the exam to concentrate on Italian. After the test in December, I restarted the other cards.

 

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Hard Stuff is Easy

Another odd phenomenon: it’s easy for me to talk in Italian about the fundamental attribution error (Errore fondamentale di attribuzione), or the marginal propensity to consume (Propensione marginale al consumo), because I understand these concepts in English. I’d guess most Italians (or most Americans, for that matter) don’t know either of these concepts. On the other hand, I do not know a single Italian nursery rhyme, something every child in Italy surely knows. So more complex subjects are easy to speak about than conversations children have. Likewise I rarely understand puns and jokes.

 

 

How Much Can I Handle?

When I started with Anki, I experimented with how many new cards to add every day. After a while, I settled in around 16 new cards per day. About a year ago, I decided to make passing the language test my goal.


Once I decided that, I knew I would have to increase the amount I studied, so over time, I added more cards to my daily workload. I went to 20 new cards daily, then to 40 cards, and finally in the summer of 2014, I wanted to test my limits. I increased my workload to 80 new cards a day. Now these were 80 cards of varying degrees of difficulty. Sometimes it was just a single word. Sometimes it was a picture of an object. Many times it was a complete phrase, such as, “The verdict was overturned upon appeal." Or “The European Central Bank has lowered the interest rate for the second time this quarter.” I was able to maintain that pace for 52 days, then I had to reduce the number of new cards down to 40 again. You have to understand that as you increase the number of new cards, you have to repeat them all the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, to memorize them. It snowballs. I finally stopped when I hit 2 ½ hours of study in one day, just for flashcards. Most of the previous times I was studying between 40 and 60 minutes per day, but as I increased the number of cards, the workload also increased. Just before the exam, I was spending close to two hours a day just on flashcards. In addition, I was writing essays and memos every day, as well as taking lessons and talking on Skype.  I was busy.

 

One Month Before the Exam

This is when I went into the final stages of preparation. Sort of like peaking the last few weeks before a marathon. I found two Italian teachers who offered Skype lessons. I had two lessons with each of them every week. I also asked Marco to increase our meetings to three times a week.  Much of that time was spent on practice exams. Since I also have to work every day, the only time I could have lessons with the Italians was at 6 o’clock in the morning. So I got up at 5:30 every day for a month to have lessons at 6 a.m.  I would be finished at 7a.m., then start work. On the weekends, I would get up at the same time to maintain a rhythm and not interrupt my sleep patterns. Instead of having lessons on Skype, I would study my flashcards at 6 o’clock in the morning.

 

 

More Lessons

One problem is I can read all I want, I can study all I want, but what I cannot do is speak all I want to Italians. That was the hardest part. Therefore, with my language teachers, we spent a great deal of time practicing the oral parts of the exam. There are two sections: the first is you have to have a conversation about four minutes long with the tester about a subject you will not be told about until three minutes before the start time. You select one topic from a list of four, then you have three minutes to prepare for a four-minute dialogue with the tester. The second part of the oral exam is you have to hold a monologue 2 to 3 minutes long about a topic from the list on the test. Again you have no idea what the subject will be, you get a list of four, then you have five minutes to prepare. We practiced that every time with my teachers via Skype.

 

 

Listening to My Own Voice

My teacher S. recorded all of our lessons so I could listen to them afterwards. I will say there are few things more gruesome than listening to yourself stammer in Italian. I kept making the same mistakes over and over again. My pronunciation sounded more German all the time, and I was so self-conscious about not making mistakes, it made it harder for me to speak. However, it was good practice for the actual exam. Because that’s what happens: you have to speak, your speech is recorded, and evaluated for every single aspect of the language. S. told me that my letter “s” in the word “persona” sounded like a German “z” and not Italian. She also told me I did not pronounce the word “gli” correctly. Even though I heard my voice dozens of times, I cannot say that it got easier with time. We tried to re-create the test environment as much is possible. For example, when I was working with S., I always used my digital wristwatch to time myself, so I could glance down at my wrist to see how long I had been speaking. The reason is I had to speak for a minimum of two minutes for the exam. You would be surprised how long two minutes seem when you are trying to speak without making any errors in a foreign language. You will read about this again when I describe what happened on the actual test.


I also learned to slow down and concentrate more on my speech.  After all, it’s not a test of how fast you can speak, but how correctly.  On Skype, I tend to speak too quickly, so I had to consciously slow down.

 

Writing, Writing, Writing

We also did a lot of compositions, essays, and letters. As I said before, these are all part of the exam, so I wrote essays on all types of topics such as family, the environment, the workplace, women’s rights, religion, and others I can’t remember. I had to learn to write business letters and letters of complaint, and letters asking for assistance, which were all good, because that’s what is on the exam.

 

 

Something’s Gotta Give

In this last month before the exam since I was spending so much time on all of these subjects, I stopped studying Japanese and playing guitar. I just did not have enough time to do it all. I was spending about four hours a day on Italian. I did not do anything around the house. Thanks to P for taking care of and supporting me.  I owe her.

 

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The Day of the Exam

The exam starts at 9 o’clock in the morning in Los Angeles. Because of traffic, I would have to leave home at 6 a.m. to get there on time and be tired and stressed when I arrived. For that reason, I went to LA the night before, and stayed in a hotel. When I arrived at the Italian Cultural Institute in Los Angeles, I discovered I was the only person taking the test. When I had asked about this by e-mail ahead of time, they told me around 6 to 10 people take the test every time. The test is only offered twice a year, in December and June. This is a pen and paper test - no computers! Everything has to be in black ink only, no pencil.  When was the last time you spent over five hours writing by hand with a pen? Yes, even though we live in the computer age, this test must all be done by hand on paper. While I had practiced writing longhand at home, I admit I’d never practiced for 5 ½ hours straight. Yes, I did get tired of writing during this exam.

As soon as I came in the front door, the deputy director started chatting with me nonstop. Ready or not, here came the Italian tsunami.


When we got to the exam room, we went through the formal process of registration. The deputy director gave a welcome speech, and I had to produce my ID. I received printed labels with my name and registration number on them, which I had to affix to each of the answer sheets, which had large printed warnings: “These pages may not be copied.” I had to sign each answer sheet in front of two witnesses before we even started the test. The assistant then read the instructions to me and I had to agree that I understood everything I needed to do. Because I had read about how the test works, I brought along my own scratch paper. The reason is, you’re not allowed to write in the question booklet. I wrote all my essays on the scratch paper first, so I could correct my mistakes, and then copy the final product onto the answer sheets. What that really means is I wrote everything twice. That’s something else I did not practice at home. I wrote everything just once.


While the Italians might be pretty laissez-faire about many things, apparently language testing is not one of those areas. I joked with P that they were more German than the Germans. They were very strict about the time and following protocol. You’d think I was being tested to see whether or not I could handle nuclear materials, weapons of mass destruction, or worse.   The assistant wrote my schedule down on a white board, with the start & stop times for each section, just in case I forgot them.


Since the test is so long, it’s too much for one person to sit there and guard you the whole time. I had three different “guards” sitting two feet away from me during the whole exam, just to make sure I didn’t cheat.  They spent their time reading or working on their computers, but they always kept one eye on the clock. I had two people with me during the oral section.

 

Section 1: The Listening Test

For the listening portion of the test, I wanted to use headphones. I had checked with the center in advance to see if that would be possible. They told me yes. The reason I wanted to use headphones, as you probably can imagine, is they block out extraneous noises and make it easier to understand.  Of course, the boom box the tester brought with her did not have a headphone jack on it. So right away, the test started off with me at a disadvantage. While I was listening to the CD, there was somebody vacuuming next-door, and there were people down below in the courtyard talking loudly. I wanted to avoid all that by using headphones, but it didn’t work.


Okay, we’re ready to start, so here we go with the listening test. The first voice on the CD is Andrea Camilleri, who is the author of the books that turned into the TV series Inspector Montalbano. He is about 90 years old, has a very deep, dark voice, and mumbles. I did not understand a word the first minute of the test. I tried not to panic, because I assumed it wouldn’t all be so hard. In fact, that is what happened. He only spoke for a minute or so, and then another person with a clear, crisp voice spoke for the next 4-5 minutes.

From my practice tests I knew how difficult the listening test would be. After you hear the audio section, you have one minute to read seven multiple-choice questions. That means you have to read 35 sentences in one minute. Next, you hear the audio track a second time. After the second go around, you have 2 minutes to answer the questions. Once again, that’s 35 sentences in two minutes and you have to make a decision on every question. When I practiced this at home, my system to help prepare myself was to glance at the questions during introductory remarks for the audio section. It’s only 20 or 30 seconds, but it was enough for me to look at the questions and find names or locations or other key words I would listen for in the audio text. I can tell you two minutes is not a lot of time to make seven decisions.


The second listening test is very similar to the first test. You listen to a discussion for about five or six minutes, then you have to read seven questions with four answers each in one minute, then you listen to the test again. Once again you have two minutes to answer the questions.

The third part is pretty tricky. In my case, it was three separate news clips. Just like the other sections, after the first go around, you have one minute to read 18 sentences. Unlike the others, on this section you have to select all the statements that are correct in the audio. That means out of 18 sentences on the page, perhaps six or seven are correct. The scoring system for this entire test is pretty complicated. In this section, you get positive points for correct answers and negative points for incorrect answers. On the previous two sections you only get positive points for correct answers and no negative points for wrong answers. The reason it’s part of this section is if there were no negative points, you would just check every answer as correct and you would be guaranteed to have included all the correct answers. So on the third section there is a penalty for guessing. Once again, you have just two minutes after the final listening to answer the questions and select which of those 18 sentences are true. For example, there are always numbers on the listening test and one question will be something about whether the unemployment rate was greater than 7.52% or less than 7.52% in the last two years. The entire listening test takes about 40 minutes. 

Despite the bumpy start, this section turned out to be my best score on the exam, 17 out of 20 points.

 

Section 2: The Reading Comprehension Test

The next section is reading comprehension which takes one hour and 20 minutes. There are three articles to read and answer questions about.  The first article was about fatherhood. At the end of the article there are seven questions with four multiple choice answers.  

 

The second section on the reading comprehension is always some kind of bureaucratic language. In my case, it was an announcement about social media initiatives in some region and applying for grants to start a project in your community. However, the second reading comprehension test is like the third listening test in that you receive a list of 20 statements and you have to select which of those are correct or true. Again, there are negative points for guessing, so you have to read a three page article, then select which of the 20 statements are correct.


The third section in reading comprehension is a short story that has been broken up into 16 brief paragraphs of one to three sentences each. They are scrambled and you have to reassemble the 16 paragraphs in order. My story was about a woman in her 50s, I believe, taking her elderly mother to vote at school in the snow. Interspersed with the story about going to vote were recollections from her mother about her first time voting after the war. It’s a lot trickier than it sounds. From doing the practice tests, I realized it’s critical to get the first few answers correct. Otherwise, if you miss the first two or three, every answer will be wrong, and you will receive zero points on this section. Therefore, I developed the technique of attacking this problem from both ends. I would try to figure out which were the first sentences, and the last sentences, then work my way back to the middle. This way I hoped I would get at least a few points on this section, even with one or two mistakes.


I wound up with 16 out of 20 on this section.  I thought it would be my high score because you can reread the articles, but that didn’t help.

 

Section 3: The Grammar Test

The next section, which was 90 minutes long, is called the analysis of the structure of communication or meta linguistics. This was the hardest part for me, even though it was not my lowest score. This section has four different tests.


The first part is a page of text with 18 missing words you have to insert. You’ll have a sentence like this:  “I go to the movies _____ I feel like it.” You have to enter the correct word in the blanks. There are no clues. Most of the answers are grammar type words such as: always, never, sometimes, recently, thoroughly, amazingly, etc. You're supposed to be able to fill in the answers based on context.


The second section is another text with 18 missing verbs. They give you the verb, but you have to figure out and insert the correct form. You might see something like:  “I (to go) to the movies when I was a kid.” Well, it could be I go, did go, went, have gone, would have gone, used to go, would like to have gone, will go, etc. Italian has 15 verb tenses. In my case, it was a story about Tullio Campagnolo and bicycle racing. I did not know, but learned, that he invented some gear shifting parts for bicycles. Unfortunately, my bike vocabulary was limited to handlebar, wheel, and tire, but I figured out what the rest was. This particular exercise had proven to be the hardest in my practice exams. There are so many different tenses and you have to know if something happened first, second, or third in a sequence, then use the different tenses based on the correct timeline.   Plus you have the conditional, the subjunctive, gerunds, and something called the “future in the past” tense. 

This is tough, but it used to be worse: they would not tell you which verb to use. You'd get a sentence like this: "I ____ to the store to buy fruit." Well, it could be went, drove, walked, ran, hitchhiked, rode my bicycle, etc. You were supposed to be able to tell the correct verb from context, but to be honest, if "walked" is correct, then "went" would be too. I always failed this part on the practice tests because I could rarely tell which verb they wanted. My teachers would tell my answer was correct, but not the one they wanted. Mercifully, they now give you the verb on the test. It's up to you to figure out the correct form.


The third section was another text with missing words, but this time you received four possible answers. Again, it’s a story, and you have to find out which words fit best. You’ll have a sentence like this: “I like to go to the movies____.”  Your four possible answers are: often, frequently, -not, sometimes. Based on context, you have to decide which of those four words fits. Unfortunately, most of the words you have to choose from are $25 words, nothing as simple as the example I just gave.


Finally, the last section is rewriting sentences. This section always has some bureaucratic language which you must reformulate. You will see a paragraph on the left side of the page and it’ll say something like this: “The applications for admission to the test have to be addressed to the rector of the University for the Studies of Foreign Languages at the University of Perugia.  They must arrive in the office of the secretary responsible for foreign students no later than noon on 29 August and they must be sent by registered mail.” Okay, now rewrite that same paragraph, conveying the same information, but in a different fashion. We’re talking about 10 paragraphs, not just the one example I gave you. That would be too easy.  This is another section where I wrote everything twice: first on scratch paper to correct mistakes, then I copied my corrected text onto the answer sheet.


My score was 13 out of 20 points on this section.

 

At this point in the schedule, it’s time for lunch. You have exactly 15 minutes. Since I knew how short the break would be, I had bought a sandwich before I came to the test, so I could wolf it down, then go back to the fourth section of the test.

 

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Section 4: The Writing Test

The fourth section of the test is the writing part and is another 90 minute block. Here you have two assignments. The first is to write an essay. You receive a sheet with four topics, from which you must select one to write an essay about. I don’t remember all the topics, but I did choose the one about whether or not there such a thing as a permanent job anymore. I thought this was great, because you just have to write. You don’t have to be an expert on anything. Anyone can state an opinion, so that was good. The bad news is, I had written many essays previously, and I tended to make the same mistakes over and over again. So I wrote and rewrote my essay on scratch paper, then I had to transfer it to the actual answer sheet.  Even though 90 minutes sounds like a lot of time to write two essays, it was, in fact, a very tight squeeze.


Remember, all of the writing is done with pen on paper. My hand was getting pretty tired from all this writing. Like I said, I had practiced at home, but I had not done any five hour sessions.


The second part of the written exam is always a business letter.  Once again you have four topics to choose from, and I was thrilled to see one of the topics was a letter of complaint about my Internet service. From my practice exams, I had probably written a dozen complaint letters already, and just the week before, I had written a complaint letter about my telephone bill. So it was not a big leap to write about Internet service. Luckily, by working with my teachers, I had learned the correct formatting and typical phrases to use in a complaint letter.


This letter also impressed the deputy director of the center in Los Angeles. After the exam, she read through my work and said to the other woman in the room, “Listen to this:” She then read the last few sentences on my complaint letter. She looked at me and said, “I’m a lawyer. I don’t get letters like this from my clients in Italy. This is very good.” Yes, it made me very happy to hear that. What I did not say is, “Sure, it’s a good letter. That’s because I’ve written 10 of them in the last two weeks, each of which was corrected by a teacher. Your clients write only one letter in their lifetimes. If they wrote 10 letters in two weeks, theirs would be even better.”

For the Italians reading this, here are my sentences she read:


Esigo che assumiate le Vs. responsibilità e che il mio problema venga risolto entro domani.   Altrimenti sarò constretto a procedere per via legale.
In attesa di un Vs. riscontro…


For the non-Italian speakers, here’s the translation: “I demand that you assume your responsibilities and that my problem be resolved by tomorrow. Otherwise I will be forced to take legal action.  I await your reply.”


This is standard type of legal text, so it was actually fairly easy to do that part.  It also uses the subjunctive mood twice, which is tricky.


I don’t think I’ll ever write another Italian business letter by hand.


My score was 14 out of 20 points on this section.

 

Section 5: The Oral Test

Okay, we had another two-minute break, and then it was time to do the oral section of the test. This also has two parts: the first is a conversation; the second is a monologue. Because of some delays in getting things organized, by the time we started the oral section, I had already been at the center for over six hours. That was six hours of full concentration. I was pretty tired. And it’s disconcerting to have someone record everything you say and be listening for every little mistake.

Once again, I was given a sheet with four topics on it, from which I had to select one to have a conversation with the proctor. I had four minutes or so to prepare some ideas and then we had to speak for 3 to 5 minutes. I chose the topic about families. Once again, it’s good to have a topic like this where you don’t have to be an expert, but can have an opinion. So we chatted for a few minutes about families and what it means to be part of a family, and what will families be like in the future, etc.


When we started the second part of the oral exam, I was given another sheet with four topics. I had a minute or two to select one of those topics for my monologue. After that, I had five minutes to prepare notes about what I wanted to say for the 2 to 3 minutes required. Unfortunately for me, the two ladies were whispering to each other 3 feet away from me while I was doing this. No matter. The subject I picked had to do with Italians becoming more optimistic in the last few years. Sure, it’s a softball question, which made me happy, because I didn’t have to pick one of the other topics. I jotted down a few notes to collect my thoughts, then it was time to speak. Through my practice sessions with my teachers I had learned to start my digital stopwatch at the beginning of my talk, so I could glance at it and know how much longer I needed to speak. I did the same thing in Los Angeles. As soon as I started, I pressed the start button. I had prepared enough material, so I thought I could easily speak for the 2-3 minutes required. Just so you know, you cannot read your notes aloud or even look at them during your speech. You have to speak only from memory.

Well the starting gun goes off, and I spoke until I finished up all the material I had prepared. I glanced down at my watch, certain that it would show two minutes or three minutes had passed by. To my horror, I saw I had spoken for only 70 seconds. At that point, I tried not to panic, but to think of something else to say. I had also practiced to stand up during my speech, something I remembered from my days as a seminar leader or further back, from Toastmasters. Your energy and power levels go up when you stand, which is why opera singers generally do so.

Still, it is disconcerting to have two silent people staring at you while you’re talking, while two iPhones record every sound you make. I had also trained myself to look at a blank wall when speaking, to maintain my concentration. I could still see the two women out of the corner of my eye. They were nodding along, so I knew they were rooting for me. Luckily, another thought or two came to my mind, and I was able to talk for another minute. Of course, an hour later, in the car, I thought of 10 or 15 brilliant sentences I could’ve said during my monologue that would’ve floored everyone and demonstrated my amazing skills as an orator. :)  We’ve all had that experience, thinking about things we wish we had said during conversations.

Even though I've played guitar and sung on stage in a band, and spoken in front of thousands of people over the years, for groups large and small, in seminars, workshops, and classes, I would say this was one of the most difficult speeches I've given. It's a very unnatural situation (2 silent Italians!), and you know every word you utter on an unfamiliar topic in a foreign language is being recorded and will be scored for errors.

My score was 11 out of 20 points on this section.

 

Finally, I Was Finished

When all was said and done, I had been there for almost 7 hours, of which fewer than 20 minutes were breaks. I was pretty tired, and I was not sure if I had done well enough on all five sections to pass the test. The only section I felt confident about was the written part, because the deputy director had read through my work and told me it had only minor errors.  The folks in LA sent my answer sheets and audio files off to Italy for scoring.

The women at the center peppered me with questions before I left. I'm surprised they were able to contain themselves during the test, because they were very curious about why I did this. I did not fit the normal profile of someone who takes this test.

 

You Probably Won’t Believe This But…

…after that strenuous day of testing, getting stuck in LA rush hour traffic, driving three hours to get home, and stopping to shop at the German deli in Carlsbad, after I got home and had something to eat, I also spent 30 minutes studying my Italian flashcards, so I could continue my streak uninterrupted.  I told you I was nuts.  I did not complete all the cards scheduled for the day, but I did a big chunk.  I answered all my work e-mails, then I went to bed.

 

 

Two Months Later…

…I found out I’d passed the test by checking the university’s website: 71 out of 100 points.  They told me it would take three months to get results, but I started checking the website after about a month and a half.  All the tests from all the test centers worldwide are scored in Siena. Here's the web page screen shot:

siena


When she found out I passed the test, P said she knew I would do it. I did not share her certainty. Because I had taken the test, I was not so sure how well I had done. I was pretty sure I passed the written part, because the deputy director told me it looked good, but I had sweated bullets on some of the other sections, so I was not certain I had passed.

 

 

By the Skin of My Teeth

Even though I received a score of 71 out of 100 on the test, and the passing score is 55, I just passed this test by the skin of my teeth. Why? Well, there are five sections on the test. Each section is worth 20 points. To pass a section, you must have a minimum of 11 points. You must pass all five sections to pass the test. A person with a score of 55 would pass the test, assuming he had 11 points in each of the five sections. However, a person with a score of 90 could fail the test because he could have received 20 points in each of four sections and received only 10 points in the last section. In my case, my score on the oral section was 11. If my score had been 10, I would have failed the test with an overall score of 70. The good news is you do not have to repeat the entire test if you fail. You only have to repeat the section(s) you failed. If I had received 10 points on the oral section, I would have had to repeat only that section within a year to pass the test.

361 Days Later...

I received my certificate. It was a long, arduous process, made more so by that famous Italian bureaucracy and efficiency. The only reason I received it all was because my Skype buddy Marco made some calls and wrote some e-mails on my behalf to find out what the hold up was. It turns out the office in Siena did not think that the people in LA had paid the required fees. No fees, no certificates. It seems LA had paid, but that information never was communicated to the proper person in Siena, so after some clarifications, Siena sent the cert. That took almost a year. Here it is:

cert

 

Now I Can Teach!

Since I passed the C2 level exam, it seems the Italian government now considers me qualified to teach Italian. I find that rather amusing. I would not venture to teach anyone but an absolute beginner the basics. There’s still so much I don’t know, I would never claim to be qualified to teach. However, I understand why they say that. There is no higher level test available, so there must be some point at which a person should be considered qualified to teach the language.  That’s level C2.

It appears that I am also now considered qualified to be a translator, from Italian to English, in a number of countries. I've never thought about that. Someday I might write about my experiences working as a German to English translator.

 

 

Slowing Down

Since the exam, I slowed down considerably in learning new cards, as you can see from the statistics above. At this point, I am only learning five new cards per day. My goal is to keep my daily study session under 30 minutes. My average interval is now 1.7 years, which means I see the cards once in 1.7 years.  The longest interval is now 9.8 years. 

I continue to add cards to my deck, which now has over 21,000 cards. I bought a book just on the subjunctive mood, and did every exercise in it. Any answer I got wrong, I turned into a card. I also created a card for every rule in the book. All in all, I probably created over 200 cards just from that book:

congiu

congui inside

I still read every day, but I changed my system. Now I read aloud, to help practice pronunciation and inflection. It's slower, but ears and tongue get a workout too. Every unknown word in every book I read I mark in the margin with a pen. When I'm done, I create at least one card for every unknown word. Many times I'll make a cluster of cards, like these for the word "questione":

an issue that we all feel strongly about: una questione che sta a cuore a noi tutti
the heart of the matter: la questione di fondo
point of order: questione di procedura
the main issue: la questione principale
the point under discussion: la questione trattata
it's a matter of a few minutes: È questione di pochi minuti

In Germany I bought a book called, "The 1,000 Most Important Words: Italian Slang." Every session with Marco, we go over two pages. He tells me if they are common sayings or not, and confirms what they mean. Of course, I make cards for every unknown expression.

My Anki streak is now 1,276 days in a row, which is just shy of 3 and a half years without missing once.

 

 

How Many People Take This Test?

As I said, the Italians take language testing very seriously. I was curious about the statistics. How many people take the test? How many people pass the test? I searched the university’s website and the Internet and could find no statistics on this test. I wrote to the University in Siena to ask them for the information. Apparently, it’s top secret. They only give that information to researchers and governments entities. The woman I wrote to asked me if I were doing research or a PhD on the subject, and if so, I would have to contact another person and make a formal request for the information. It looks like I’ll never know.

 

multiple

 

Yes, Many People Speak Multiple Languages

Sure, in Europe and in many other countries, it’s common to find people who speak four or more languages. I say it’s a much different proposition if you grow up in a country where you’re surrounded by many languages and you learn them starting at a young age in school, versus trying to learn them as an older adult without being surrounded by the language.


It’s no big deal for people to speak three languages where P grew up.  All students take French and English.  As I point out to Europeans, it’s different growing up in America in a monolingual household where you don’t hear French songs on the radio all the time, where you’re not surrounded by other languages. Yes, you can hear a lot of Spanish in San Diego if you look for it, but it’s also easy to avoid it.  German is full of loan words from English.  They watch American TV shows. They hear songs with English lyrics.  They see international products in their stores.  English is considered essential if you want to be a top performer in many industries.

 

I explain it this to way to Europeans: imagine you had to become proficient in baseball, American football, and lacrosse as an adult. These are all sports you probably have no experience playing. Perhaps you have seen those sports on TV a few times, but you probably have never been to a game or played catch in the yard with your friends as a child. Imagine how hard it would be to learn those things as an older adult. How much time would it take? Where would you practice? Who would teach you? That's what's it's like for Americans to have to learn languages they have not been constantly exposed to from childhood.

 

This is Only a Temporary State

I wish it weren’t so, but it’s true: you have to continuously practice to maintain your proficiency in a language.


I commonly use the analogy of walking up the down escalator. That means we are constantly forgetting things, which is good. Who wants to remember what they had for breakfast seven years ago? Walking up the down escalator is trying to acquire or maintain skills while your brain is pulling you down again, which means making you forget things. The result is you have to constantly move upwards, just to stay in place. To make progress, you have to walk up faster than the stairs go down, which in my analogy is forgetting. Therefore it’s impossible to maintain that level without constant effort.


It’s the same as running a marathon: if you ran a sub three-hour marathon last week, you will not be able to do the same thing three years from now without massive effort. It’s not like learning to tie your shoes: once you’ve done that, you don’t need to relearn it. Being fluent in a language is like being in good enough shape to finish a marathon. It takes constant effort.

For example, apart from a few brief e-mails, I have not written anything in Italian since the test. I am certain my writing skills are poorer now. They have to be: use it or lose it.

 

You Can’t be Truly Fluent Without Living in That Country

That’s my conclusion after this adventure. I gave it my all, but I still am not what I would consider fluent. I just don’t speak enough. When you live in a country, you are surrounded by that language all the time. You develop a level of fluency that is virtually impossible, in my experience, to re-create outside of that country. There is no substitute for the 14 hours a day of input that you would have living where they speak the language you are trying to learn.

[Update 2017: I'm going to revise my statement a bit. While I still think you need to live in a country to truly know the language, it is possible, in my experience, to learn a lot about a language/culture if you spend a great deal of time talking with native speakers, such as with Skype. Now we just have to agree what "fluent" means, a word I have come to dislike a great deal.]

 

japan

On to Japanese!

Because of my long-term plan to learn Japanese, I started learning kanji using Anki in January 2014. At the same time, I started refreshing my knowledge of kana as well. At first, I was learning five kanji a day, but that turned out to be too much. I stopped new kanji in July 2014 and did not restart until after the Italian exam. I’ve also lowered the new kanji rate to two per day.  I started Japanese classes in January 2015.


I wanted to use my Italian studies to help me prepare for my Japanese studies. I know that Japanese is much harder to learn than Italian in some regards, principally the writing system. It’s very complicated.  Fortunately, Japanese grammar is comparatively easy. I wanted to fine-tune my study skills with Italian so the Japanese would be easier. My Japanese was never very good, and that also bothered me. I started on Japanese again in January 2014 and I would agree that the plan worked. It does not mean that learning Italian helps you to learn Japanese directly. What I do know is what works best for me when trying to learn a new language. What I can report after three months is, it takes more repetitions for a Japanese sentence to stick in my brain. I guess the most logical explanation for that is because it’s just a string of syllables that have no relation to English. Italian or German, on the other hand, has many cognates in English. Therefore it is easier to retain words that are similar to words you know in English.

Yes, I plan to take the Japanese language tests as well. However, I'm in no hurry. There are five levels and I plan to start with the easiest and work my way up. Remember, any Japanese studies are in addition to Italian, so my workload has gone up. Consequently, I am not spending as much time on Japanese as I did on Italian. Right now, it's about 40 minutes a day. Having the goal of passing the Japanese exams helps keep me motivated as well, since we won't be going to Japan any time soon. I am giving myself five years to pass the highest level Japanese test.

 

When Are You Going to Italy?

Sure, we would love to go back to Italy. We haven’t been there since 1993. Unfortunately, because of the situation with P’s mother, all our travel time and resources go to Germany. It does not appear we will go to Italy in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, with my work situation, it would not be much fun to go at this point. When I’m in Europe, I have to spend evenings on the phone from about 5 to 11 PM. That’s every day of the week. That does not leave much time for going out to restaurants or drinking wine in the evening. As long as I have this business, it is hard to have a vacation.

[2017 Update: sold the business and moved to Germany in early 2016. See the new information below.]

 

If you want to read about how I passed the German C2 exam, you can read about that test here.

You can read my comparison of the two tests here. I explain why I found the Italian test more rigorous.

 

ital flag

2017 Update

 

It's been almost 3 years since I took the test, so I thought it's time to update what has changed since then. First, and most importantly, we sold the business and moved to Germany in early 2016. We did this to help my mother-in-law, who lives in a nursing home. Secondly, my focus has shifted to learning Japanese, which is proving to be far more difficult than I had hoped. Third, we finally went back to Italy after a 24 year absence. Overall, my Italian continues to improve, other than writing, which I no longer do. Here's my "reduced" study program:

 

Still Studying Flashcards Every Day

 

At the moment, I am learning 6 new cards every day. Before and during trips, I do not add any new cards. My deck now has over 23,000 cards and counting. It takes me about 20-25 minutes a day to study. I have not missed a day since I started, even during a week's hospital stay. My streak is currently at 1,730 days in a row, heading towards 5 years straight. I have done over 613,000 reviews (over a million including my other decks and Japanese) in 1,088 hours. My average interval is 2.6 years, so it takes a long time for a card to reappear. The longest interval is 14.3 years. My accuracy is around 66% for old cards, about 73% overall. I add new cards as I come across unknown words "in the wild." The other major change is now I usually study my cards at late at night instead of in the morning.

 

Still Have Skype Sessions Twice a Week

 

This helps a lot. Having regular contact with native speakers and talking about a variety of subjects keeps you on your toes. I am able to ask questions and get clarifications about things I don't understand. Any news words I come across during these sessions get added to Anki.

 

Stopped Reading Books

 

I don't like literature much in English or German, and not so much in Italian either. I read a few Reclam books, which have German explanations for some of the words, but only a few. I tried "I Promessi Sposi," a must-read for every student in Italy, but gave up after one page. Plus, I was learning a lot of archaic and literary words, things I suspect I will not use much in the future.

focus

Instead, I got a subscription to the Italian version of "Focus," a monthly magazine about medicine, psychology, the environment, science, and technology. The very first article I read was about sewers, which I found fascinating. As you might guess, this is much more to my liking than classical literature. I read the articles aloud to practice speaking, especially large numbers, symbols, chemicals, etc.

I have Anki open when I read, so when an unknown word comes up in an article, I stop and add it right away. Depending on the article, that might happen once or twice.

rai

Watch Italian TV

 

One benefit of living in Germany is I can get Italian TV on cable. We get only 3 channels, RAI 1, 2, & 3, but I watch some TV every day. The show I like the best so far is "Linea Blu," which is a travel show about the sea, underwater life, and coastal areas, mostly in Italy. I try to watch some news every day too. It's nice to get a different perspective on the stories of the day. The most useful bits to me are the "man-in-the-street" pieces, so I can hear "real" Italians talk, not professional speakers. I keep paper and pen at hand to write down new words or expressions I hear.

 

When you think of "weather girls" on Italian TV, you likely imagine people like these from the private channels:

weather

 

Instead, state-owned RAI gives you military officers in uniform:

rai weather

 

 

saar

Bildergebnis für uni saarland

Took a class in translation at the Universität des Saarlandes

 

In 2016, I took a class translating German texts into Italian at the local university. While I learned a lot, I decided not to take any more classes. First, I realized I don't like doing homework. I've done enough in my lifetime, and we had a lot in this class. Typically, I would wait until Sunday to start, and it would take me most of the day to finish. Second, it was a big chunk out of my day to participate. It was 40 minutes from my house to sitting in class, then 40 minutes back home. It was almost 4 hours in total. The class consisted of correcting homework only, with no instruction of any kind. We each had to read a German passage aloud, then our Italian translation. We went around the room, one by one, so I was either first or last. I guess I could've just done the first and 17th sentence of each assignment and saved myself some work. :) We did have a great variety of texts, from recipes, to newspaper articles, to legal documents, to literary passages, and more.

 

As expected, I was the oldest person in the class, with at least 20 years on the professor. Unexpectedly, there were only five German students. The rest were Italian Erasmus exchange students. They had no trouble writing correct Italian, but often they did not understand the German properly. The class was conducted in Italian, so I was able to hear different voices/accents in a live setting. I got a few chuckles hearing German spoken with an Italian accent.

 

Getting the "La parola del giorno" e-mail from Zanichelli

 

Just started this recently. So far, not much that is new, but you never know what will come tomorrow or next week.

 

parola

 

Still Reading Italian Calendars

 

I continue to use the Harenberg calendar I mentioned above every day, and added the Langenscheidt calendar a few years ago. There aren't many unknown words anymore, but I do come across idioms and sayings from time to time, as well as cultural notes, and those are useful. These take about a minute or so to review. Typically, I let the days pile up, then I read 15 days or so at a time. I really like them both.

 

2017 calendar 2017 lange

 

 

 

Learned 1,000 Slang Words

 

Well, most of them. I bought this book and went through every page with Marco, to find out if they were common expressions, and to make sure I understood the nuances. Some I already knew. Sometimes Marco said he'd never heard of that expression. Sometimes he laughed out loud, especially at the very vulgar words. His son was often in the next room, so Marco didn't want to confirm what I had said over Skype. It took over 2 years to go through this book, two pages a week. I had to search to find pages without any vulgar words to post here. The blue check means Marco told me it was common, the red dot means I made a card in Anki for that saying. I tell Italians I learned these words so I can understand when I hear them in films or on the street, not because I want to use them myself. :)

 

slang cover

slang sample

 

 

Learned Lots of Idiomatic Expressions

 

Here's another good book. This one has over 500 pages and 8,000 idioms, many of which are uncommon. When I use this book, I copy the explanation onto the front of the card, and the expression is the answer on the reverse, so the card in Italian only, no English. I don't use this book that often, just when an idiom comes up in my reading. The red dot means I made a flashcard for that saying. This book helped me "wow" the Italians I met on our trip, which I describe below.

modo cover

 

modo di dire

 

Back in Italy after 24 Years

 

Finally, we made it back to Italy. We went to Puglia to meet Marco, my Skype partner, and his family. We’ve been talking to each other almost every week for close to five years, so it was good see him in person at last. He was taller and thinner than I imagined, based on seeing him on Skype. Of course, I only saw his head and shoulders on Skype, so I had no real idea what the rest of him looked like.

 

The most surprising thing about our trip was how much German I spoke. When you think about it, it should not be surprising. After all, P. does not speak Italian, so I had to translate for her. This was something new for me: simultaneous translation from Italian into German. At one bed-and-breakfast we stayed at, the proprietor seemed to want to do us a favor, and put us in the apartment next to a German couple. We often met them out on the patio, so again, I spent a lot of time speaking German instead of Italian. Of course, I would have preferred Italian neighbors, but I was not given the option when we got there.

 

The paradox of the trip was that Marco probably had more intense practice with English than I had with Italian. We spent a few days together, and again, since P. doesn’t speak Italian, we spoke English all day long. I spent my time reading everything I saw, and listening to people talking on the streets.

 

ital flag

Having Dinner with the Family

 

We had the opportunity to have dinners with Marco’s friends and family and enjoy the world-renowned Italian hospitality and generosity. This is the acid test for language learners, sitting at a dining table with nine people talking. Fortunately for me, I grew up in a family where we had nine people at the table every night, so I have a lot of experience in that situation. Still, there’s a lot of ambient noise, and you have to keep up with the flow of several topics at once. People were speaking some English with P., other times I translated into German. We had a real mish-mash of languages going on. The good news is we were outside, and not in a restaurant, which would’ve been even louder.

 

After I posted something on Facebook about the cliché Italian family dinner, the next day the head of the family declared that they would no longer all speak at once, but instead, each person would have to raise his or her hand before speaking, and he would call on them and then one person would speak. As you might imagine, this plan was met with a lot of laughter.

 

During our discussion of Italian stereotypes, I was able to contribute to improved international diplomatic relations and raise the level of discourse by introducing the group to the concept of the “wife beater” T-shirt, something they had never heard of.  For the uninitiated, here’s what that looks like:

wifebeater

 

I also showed them how we “man hug” in America.  None of that men kissing men stuff in the good ole USA! Here a pro shows how it’s done with his father: Click here to see the video.

 

One stereotype I can confirm: the most important word in the Italian language, at least for men, is in fact, “cazzo.” I didn’t hear any women use that word, but it appears to be a requirement when guys are talking. It seems to have at least 15 different nuances, everything from “This is delicious!” to “I hate your guts!”

 

An observation for my fellow students of Italian trying to master all those verb forms: I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I heard someone use the subjunctive. Yes, it was just a brief trip, but still. I used to joke: "gli unici che usano il congiuntivo siano gli stranieri." Seems accurate.

 

Showing Off

 

Marco enjoyed showing me off to his friends and family, sort of like I was his trained dog doing tricks. He would say things to me like, “Give them some quotes from ‘I Promessi Sposi’.”  (Okay, “Quel ramo del lago..” or “Questo matrimonio non s’ha da fare!” or “Addio, monti sorgenti dall'acque...”  etc.) Then, “Give them some quotes from the ‘La Divina Commedia’.”  (Okay, “Per me si va nella città dolente…”) Sidebar: I have never read nor do I plan to read either of these works; I just memorized the most famous lines.

 

Marco complain-bragged he was Dr. Frankenstein and had created a monster (me). He warned people to be careful, because I was a wisea** (parac***). When he said that, my reply was, “No, I’m just a poor devil, a mere cipher” (No, sono un povero untorello). This answer was designed to deny his claim superficially, while at the same time confirming he was correct by using a literary reference.  Marco’s sister-in-law did give me a gesture as a compliment, the famous “furbo.”

furbo

 

The thing that seemed to impress Marco’s friends and family the most was hearing me use Italian idioms. For the benefit of any Italians who might be reading this, here are some I said to them:


Fare come i caponni di Renzo


Paese che vai, usanza che trovi


Tutto a posto, niente in ordine


Braccini corti


Mangiare pane e volpe


Piove, governo ladro


Donna al volante, pericolo costante


Siamo alla frutta


Tarallucci e vino


A tutta birra


Lavorare senza tregua

It’s not that my examples were all very uncommon, but I suspect it was surprising to them because they did not know what to expect, or had low expectations, and therefore any kind of idiomatic expressions caught them off guard. It impressed them because I was able to use them at the right time in a nine-way conversation. Sure, I was showing off too. After all, what’s the use of studying all those hours if you don’t get a few compliments in return? :)

You know I have flashcards for all of these sayings. How else could I remember them?

 

It’s great to get compliments for your language ability but if people say nothing at all, it can be even better, because it can mean they accept you as an equal in the language (or you’re so bad they don’t have the heart to tell you). Think about the people you know who have learned English as a second language. How often do you compliment them on their English skills? Typically, only the first time you meet, particularly if they are young people. If you run into a ten-year-old who speaks good English as a second language, I suspect most of us would immediately start offering compliments. When you are older, people automatically assume you’ve been speaking the language for many years. When you’re 14, it’s usually more impressive to new people you meet. This is backwards. As I wrote above, it’s far more difficult to be able to speak fluently at 60 if you started learning at 55.

 

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Out in the Wild

 

While traveling about, no one switched to English when I stumbled with Italian. As much as I would like to attribute that to my superior language skills, I suspect the more likely reason is Italians just prefer to speak Italian. Italians have the reputation of being happy when a person tries to learn their language, so if you show even the slightest ability, they will babble away at you in Italian. Unlike the Germans, who are famous for switching to English the second they notice the slightest hesitation or struggle with German. I imagine the situation would have been different had I gone to Florence or Venice.

 

Actually, one person did switch to English with me. When I went to return the rental car at the airport, I went into the office, and the clerk asked me in Italian what I needed. At that moment it occurred to me that I did not know how to say, “I am returning a car.” I stood there racking my brains, trying to figure out or to remember how to say that. After some seconds of silence, the employee looked at me, and said in English, “Can I help you?” I stood there for another few seconds trying to remember how to say, “I am returning the car,” but nothing came. Instead, I mumbled something about a car in Italian, and we went outside. Later on, I realized I didn’t know how to say “I am returning a car.” I know now, but at the time, I didn’t.  It’s funny, because I know words like electron microscope, muskrat, eye shadow, fungicide, freeze-dried food, and gall bladder, but not, “I am returning a car.” 

 

We were in a shop in Vieste and I asked for a “burrata in foglia,” from the cheese section. I don’t know what I actually said, but the woman behind the counter burst into laughter and said, “That’s okay, I understood what you wanted.” Most people learning a new language have had this experience where you don’t know what was so funny. All you can do is roll with it, so I laughed too. Hey, if I can make her day a little brighter, that’s fine by me. Afterwards, it occurred to me that I should’ve asked what she heard me say. Too late. This is what burrata in foglia looks like:

burrata

Marco had taught me how to say “how are you” in the Pugliese dialect, which I pronounced something like, “ciu sci disce, tutt a posto?” Obviously, my pronunciation is off, but it never failed to get people smiling. I have had the same experience in Germany when trying to say something in a dialect. For some reason, it’s guaranteed to get people laughing and grinning. I guess it must be like a little kid learning to speak and getting it wrong. It makes the “adults” laugh.

 

I made an effort to talk to as many people as I could. I would strike up conversations with shop owners, taxi drivers, waiters, anyone I ran into. My standard conversation with shop and restaurant owners went something like this:


Me: “How is business?”


Shopkeeper: “Meh”


Me: “Better than last year?”


Shopkeeper: “A little.”


Me: “I thought the Italian economy was improving.”


Shopkeeper: “Ahhhhh!”


That would usually do the trick. They would then go into a long explanation about how the government was no good, taxes, and all the other issues they were facing.
Speaking of government, I did not run across anyone who liked the government in Rome. The next time I go to Italy and want to strike up conversations, I will just ask people, “Is the government making your life easier?” I’m pretty sure that will be enough to get them talking.

 

japan

Japanese Is King

 

Japanese is my primary focus at this point, so my Japanese studies continued while I was in Italy. I spent about two hours a day studying Japanese. Probably 2/3s of that time is just learning how to read. I also continued with my Italian flashcards (about 20 minutes/day), to maintain my streak (closing in on five years straight). Because the days were so busy, this meant I often had to study late at night after P. had gone to bed. Sometimes I would sit on a stool in the bathroom or stand in front of the fridge with my tablet on top until 1 o’clock in the morning to finish up my daily load of studying. I can tell you, a big dinner with wine beforehand does not help. Wanikani (Japanese kanji flashcard system) is a pain in the neck because the intervals start at four hours, meaning there are flashcards to study throughout the day. I do stop adding new cards when I’m on a trip, except for Wanikani, where I continue to add new cards at a reduced rate, because I have the Japanese exam coming up in December, and I want to continue my forward momentum.

 

Every day of the trip I was using four languages. Of course, that’s true for every other day of the year as well. P. says one day my brain will explode and leave a big mess on the wall. :)

 

ital flag

Still a Ways to Go

 

Overall, I think this trip left me wanting to improve my Italian even more. As I wrote above, I compare it to my abilities in German, and it still falls far short. I suppose until I get to a level where I can express myself without hesitation or grammatical errors on any topic, I’ll remain dissatisfied.

 

Homestay 2018

 

When I first came to Germany in 1977, I stayed with a family for a few weeks before I went on to the university. I found that very helpful in activating my German knowledge. I thought I would try something similar in Italy this year. While I wanted to stay with the family, I was unable to find a family available for the time I wanted to travel, so I wound up staying with the woman I will call V. I will not give any particulars about the location either so as to not influence anyone who might want to stay with her. Your experience would likely be quite different than mine.

 

Things started off poorly and didn’t really improve much. Two days before the trip, I came down with a bad cold. (No, it was not possible to reschedule). Being sick on a trip reduces the fun factor by at least 50% and makes everything harder. Furthermore, it rained a lot. Walking around in the rain without an umbrella when you’re sick is even less fun (I had incorrectly assumed my host would have an umbrella. I wound up buying one from a street vendor.). My number one piece of advice is not to get sick on a trip.

 

ital flag

 

When we first met, V. said to me, “For the first few days we’re going to use the formal “you” (Lei) with each other so you get the practice. After a few days we’ll switch to the informal “you” (tu).” Fine, no problem. The funny thing is after about 15 minutes, I noticed she used the informal “you” with me. I mentioned this to her and she switched back to the formal “you” for about another five minutes. The next time she switched over to the informal “you” I just let it go. I had to chuckle though. I cannot imagine a German teacher giving up so quickly on the formal “you.”

 

V. is a nice person who has lots of experience teaching Italian, more than 25 years. She’s worked at a number of different language schools, and done solo work, but does not have degree in education or training. She told me she didn’t like schools because they wanted her to follow the lesson plan or the book, while she preferred to wing it. I can’t speak to her skills as a teacher, as we did not really have lessons. We conversed most of the time. We did some exercises. We listened to an audiobook line by line. After each line, V. would stop the audio, and asked me to repeat the sentence using the same cadence, intonation, and prosody as the speaker in the audio track. We did this for at least an hour.

 

V. wanted me to do things that are typical for beginners, such as ask for directions, buy bus tickets from the tobacco shop, or ask the merchant at the market if he had round tablecloths. These are all relatively simple tasks, so I don’t know why she wanted me to do them. My suspicion is because that’s what she does with all students. The same with bill paying: she had me look over her bills, decide which ones she should pay first, then we went to the post office to pay in cash.

 

I told her I didn’t really need to study grammar anymore. Seriously, I have studied a lot of Italian grammar. I also practice it every day with my flashcards, so what I really needed was to use it in regular conversations, and not just study the rules.

 

 

fish

 

When we were out walking around town, she would say to me, “Tell me what you see.” I would describe the buildings, the people, the signs, etc. I saw. Once we saw a fisherman. Pointing to the fishing rod, V. asked me, “What’s this?” I said, “I know what that is, but I can’t remember it right now. Let me think about it for a while.” We kept walking and I tried not to think about fishing rods. I let it sit in the back of my mind and trusted that my brain was working on it. Maybe 10 minutes later, I stepped over a piece of bamboo in the street, and in an instant, the word popped into my head: canna da pesca.

 

When I got stuck and couldn’t remember a word or didn’t know how to say something, I never broke down and asked in English. I would always try to circumscribe it with the words I knew or would say something like, “What’s the opposite of dark?” Many times I would make V. wait while I tried to remember a word. I remember doing the same thing when I first came to Germany: I never used English.

 

One day while we were walking, V. asked me to give her a summary of the crime show we had watched the night before using the passato remoto (past absolute). According to her, the passato remoto is the most elegant way to talk about past events. Typically, it’s used in writing about events from long ago. I can read it with no problem, but I never use it in conversation.

 

So here we are, dodging people on the sidewalk, there’s traffic noise, I’m sick, trying to remember the story line, and convert everything to passato remoto on the fly (and using the trapassato remoto for things that happened before other things in the past [Don’t ask]). I made a lot of mistakes. V. corrected every one. My mistakes piled up, and things went into a downward spiral until it got ridiculous. I felt like a boxer on the ropes, unable to defend himself, just taking a beating. The whole thing reminded me of someone saying, “Okay, I want you to juggle four balls, sing a song, and hop on one leg in a counterclockwise circle.” It’s a great mental exercise, but not very useful.

 

Another issue that popped up was the ratio of speaking to listening. Like many Italians, V. chatted a lot. However, she did not ask a lot of questions. I would say in many situations when we were having a “conversation,” she talked 90% of the time. There are two reasons for this, in my opinion: one, that’s just the way she likes to talk, and two is something I’ve noticed before: when Italians realize you understand everything, they seem to just let loose. They no longer have to make any effort to speak more slowly or enunciate clearly. They take their foot off the brakes and step on the gas. Now I realize it would’ve been up to me to say something to her such as, “You’re talking way too much. I’m the one who needs practice. You should let me talk more.” Part of me was just so exhausted from my cold and the rainy weather that I just didn’t have the energy. The second reason is I’m pretty sure even if I had said that, after five, or maybe 10 minutes, she would’ve fallen back into her old ways - you can’t change the tiger stripes.

 

The result was, when I wanted to talk, I had to interrupt her, at which point I could squeeze in maybe one or two sentences before she would start up again. The only time I spoke extensively was when we were out walking around town, and she would ask me to describe things, or asked me to give a summary of the TV shows we watched.

 

ital flag

 

V. said to me, “I’ve never met anyone who had a vocabulary as extensive as yours.” “OK. Have you ever met anyone with almost 24,000 flash cards? Or someone who systematically learns six new words per day?” She told me most of the students she has are A1, to maximum, B1 level. This was something we discussed more than once. I mentioned how her impressions were based on a limited number of people from a certain subset of learners. If she never runs into more advanced learners, how would she meet someone with a large vocabulary? I pointed out there are over 300 million Americans, so I cannot possibly be the only one with a large Italian vocabulary. She noted I knew words she didn’t. My standard answer is, “Sure, but you don’t make any mistakes when speaking, while I make many.”

 

V. mentioned she was impressed by my ability to finish sentences for her when she got stuck and couldn’t remember word, or to make suggestions about possible endings to her sentences.

 

This is the third time this is happened to me: I used the expression “short little arm,” (braccino corto) which means someone who is tight-fisted. V. burst into laughter and said, “In 25 years of teaching, I’ve never heard anyone say that.” Based on her reaction and the two previous times, “short little arm” is now going to be my go-to idiom I’ll try to work into every conversation with Italians because it seems to make them laugh and impress them.

 

V. noted my pronunciation was bad. I found this curious. Out of dozens of Italians I’ve talked to at length, including teachers, this was the first time I heard that. It might be true. Maybe the others were too kind to tell me the truth. It seems unlikely, but it’s possible. I guess I’ll ask this more often in the future. She also said I used the imperfect tense in a German, not Italian, way.

 

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V. told me I was the most advanced American student she’d ever had. Well, she did say most of her students are beginners or low intermediate level. As I pointed out more than once, people who are advanced in the language typically don’t take classes. They probably won’t be doing a homestay either, they’ll be just interacting normally with everyday Italians. So the issue was she had no exposure to people like me because it’s unusual for a person at my level to do what I did, as far as I can tell.

 

As I wrote before, language classes are like a pyramid: lots of beginners at the bottom and few advanced students at the highest levels. I cannot remember seeing C2 level classes at a language school. If you are at the C1 level, you’re able to read most native materials, and you probably don’t need to spend time in class. Secondly, there are just fewer students at that level, so it’s unlikely there’ll be enough to form a class.

 

I noticed my level was high because I did not get tired of hearing Italian all day long, unlike Japanese. Now I was tired because I was sick, but I didn’t get that sensation of “I can’t stand it anymore, I want to speak English.”

 

I did have some trouble with interference. Strangely enough, it was German, and not English that caused the trouble. I had to stop myself more than once from replying to V. in German. Although truth be told, I also answered in Japanese at least once. I don’t know why that is. I think it’s similar to the situation we had with my mother-in-law when she visited us in the United States. While there, her brain realized she wasn’t in Germany anymore. Since she didn’t know any English, her brain defaulted to the only other foreign language she knows anything about, and that was French. She would randomly blurt out things in French, which she doesn’t do in Germany. I think something similar might’ve been at work with me: my brain realized I wasn’t in the United States, and the next best foreign language is German.

 

pizza

 

V. said most of her students are Brits. Most are female. Some come to stay with her every year. She told me the worst students are Australians, followed by Americans. She had little respect for Americans of Italian descent, who were often arrogant and stubborn, in her experience. They would say certain things in Italian, and she would tell them it’s incorrect. Their answer was, “But that’s what my mom says.” Her reply: “I don’t care, it’s still wrong.”

 

V. told me most students break down and cry around the third day. It seems after the initial high of being in Italy, surrounded by the language, the thrill wears off. After the third day crash, thinks improve again. I confess I did not cry at all while I was there.

 

According to her, the best students are Israelis and Russians. Once again, I pointed out she has only seen a small subset of Israelis. If we selected 1,000 Israelis at random, I’m sure not all of them would be experts at learning Italian. V. did say German students were often very diligent and would reach high levels in the language because they persisted more than other nationalities. What also surprised me was she said she had many male Japanese students, apparently because they want to learn how to cook Italian food. Speaking of which, I showed her some pictures of what is considered Italian food in New York. She had never seen spaghetti with meatballs, or Sicilian pizza, which is thick and generally rectangular, as seen above.

 

ital flag

 

We had a little contest of wills during my stay. V. created an exercise where she wanted me to write a summary of another TV show we had seen and use the passato remoto to do so. I replied I was not interested in writing anymore. I had done enough writing in the past. I would probably not write in the future, and I wanted to go for a walk because it was sunny and I wanted to go outside. She said, “I am the teacher and you’re going to do what I say.” Now I didn’t say anything out loud, but in my head, I was thinking, “Are you out of your mind? I am the client here, the person paying you to help me. You can suggest things to me. But I decide, not you.” What I actually said was, “No thank you, I’m not interested in writing anything. I’m going for a walk.” So I went for a walk by myself, coughing the whole time.

 

Because this was a homestay, V. prepared all the meals for us every day. What that meant was, we would go out in the morning and take care of some chores, go shopping, or walk around town, then we came home, and she would prepare lunch for us. While she prepared lunch, I would read aloud to her from an Italian magazine I had brought with me. She would correct my mistakes and pronunciation. After lunch, I would take a nap. In the afternoon we would then either go for a walk or have a discussion about some topic, or watch TV. For dinner, it was the same routine: she would prepare the food while I would read aloud in the kitchen.  So it seemed much of the day revolved around getting, preparing, and eating food.  Just what you’d expect from Italy, right? :)

 

pasta

 

Speaking of food, the first night I was there we had meatloaf. For the rest of the week, we had no meat or fish. This was so different from America or Germany, where meat is often the centerpiece of the meal. I ate some things I never had before, for example pasta with artichokes and pecorino (pictured above), or pasta with white beans. We had no food with red tomato sauce. We ate lots of cheese. We had salad and fruit every day. Again, because I was sick, I did not have much of an appetite, and couldn’t really appreciate the food.

 

lionfish

 

This little guy above is typically called a lionfish. V. was surprised I knew the Italian name, but it’s not surprising at all. She didn’t know the name, and most Italians don’t know the Italian name. Most Americans don’t know the English name either, because they’re not interested in fish. I have actually been eyeball to eyeball with this fish in the ocean while scuba diving. This fish is an invasive species causing a lot of damage in the Western Atlantic and Caribbean. The point here is it’s not unusual at all if you’re interested in the subject to know those words. There are plenty of subject areas where I don’t know the English terms.

ankilogo

Like many language teachers, V. had never heard of Anki (but she did know Reverso Context). I showed her how I studied Italian vocabulary, and some Japanese as well. To her credit, she did download the software and a few decks to try out herself. I’m fairly certain she stopped two days after I left. She claimed conversation is the most important thing for learning a language. While I agree in some aspects, there’s no way conversation can cover all the vocabulary in a language. As I pointed out, I never used a single flashcard to learn German. However, I have been speaking German with a native speaker every day for 40 years, and have lived in the country for more than 18 years. That’s a huge difference from learning Italian in the United States. So I stick to my claim there’s no way you could maintain or increase a vast vocabulary without flashcards, particularly if you don’t live in the country.

 

I still studied my Italian and some Japanese flashcards while I was there. I drastically reduced my Japanese studies, and am paying the price now. I am so far behind, I’ve been buried by an avalanche of overdue cards. It’s going to take quite some time to get through the backlog. My biggest takeaway from this week was the shock at how many kanji I forgot. I guess I didn’t really know them well in the first place if I forgot them after a week.

 

ital flag

 

I think home stays are a good idea. You can’t let the fact I was sick this time detract from the overall benefit. I would say staying with a family is a much better idea than staying with one person. You’ll get to hear the interactions among the family members, and they’ll be speaking regular Italian and not modified Italian for foreigners. You’ll hear different voices, points of view, and opinions.

 

V. did not appear to have a large social circle, so I didn’t get to speak with a variety of people, which was my main goal for this trip.  In retrospect, I think it would have been a good idea to check with other students about their experiences before going.  In my case, I wanted to travel at a particular time, so that limited my options.

 

We did go out to eat one night with her friends, to have the seven Euro pizza with drink special. This is the most challenging language comprehension situation, in my opinion: a noisy restaurant, with many people talking, music in the background, and multiple conversations going on at once. I’d like to say I understood everything the guy across from me was saying, but I didn’t. It didn’t help that he usually had his hand in front of his mouth, or talked with food in his mouth, or spoke with a low voice. I strained my ears as much is possible, but I would guess I probably understood 30% of what was said. It didn’t make me feel bad, because as I said, it’s the most difficult situation of all for language learners.

 

I’d say it’s possible to re-create 80% of what I experienced in your own home. You could watch videos with subtitles in the language you’re studying, and schedule six hours a day with online tutors, without having to spend the money on plane tickets or food. Yes, you’d miss the other information you get by walking around, talking to shopkeepers, and reading signs or studying food packages in the supermarket, but you could get a great deal of the personal interaction by scheduling time with tutors. And no jet lag or lost travel time, if the language you're studying is spoken in a country far from your home.

 

upward

 

Did my Italian get any better during the week I was there? I have to assume so. I cannot say I noticed any particular change. When you are already at a high level, each increment of improvement will be small and likely take more than a week. Still, it seems impossible to spend so many waking hours with a language and not see some progress. However, I think any such change is short-lived. Without constant reinforcement, it tends to quickly fade again. Being sick made everything harder. I told V. it felt like I had fog in my brain, and had to work through it to speak, and she was hearing me operate at less than 100% capacity.

sicily

Sicily 2018

 

Just a few notes to add about our trip to Sicily in 2018.

First, based on my many interaction with Sicilians, I again noticed that Italians seem to prefer to speak Italian, even when they know English. We stayed in Taormina, a city full of tourists from around the world. You would expect the Italians to be used to speaking English, and they were. However, as during other trips, once I started speaking Italian, they willingly switched to Italian. I suppose they just felt more comfortable, or were better able to express themselves. Again, I believe they took it as a compliment that someone wanted to talk Italian with them.

I did run into one or two people who continued to speak English to me, but I just responded in Italian. No problem.

Unlike our trip to Puglia, on this trip, the law of unintended consequences struck. The waiters and I happily chatted away in Italian, while poor P. just sat there listening. I did not notice this until she pointed it out, but she was more or less ignored by everyone. People spoke to me in Italian, but did not speak English to her. When waiters explained the specials of the day, I had to translate afterwards. Most of the time I couldn't remember everything that was said, so she had to make decisions based on incomplete information. We both noted again how difficult it is to be the only person in a group who doesn't understand the conversation or jokes. There's really no way to beat this problem without learning the language.

Because many of my conversations were brief, I had to be at full capacity as soon as I starting talking. Many times this was difficult for me. I had no warm up, just straight into the conversation. When I have Skype sessions, we talk for at least 30 minutes, so I have some time to get into "Italian mode" in my head. Once again, this is hard to eliminate if you don't live in a country where you have these brief interactions every day, and you develop a set of automatic questions and answers. I still had to think about what I was going to say. It didn't always come out right the first time.

In addition, my Skype conversations don't involve ordering food or asking for directions and other tourist conversations, so I have little practice in those areas.

 

If you want to read about how I passed the German C2 exam, you can read about that test here.

You can read my comparison of the two tests here. I explain why I found the Italian test more rigorous.

Back to the top of the page and the beginning of the story in 1973.