Sunday, November 24, 2019

Extensive Reading Is Great

This past year, partly as a result of trying to teach Latin in The Netherlands, I have become very much impressed with Stephen Krashen's work in general, and certainly with the concept of Extensive Reading (which other people have taken on, of course). It has pushed my own language teaching even further to the left, so to speak. I was already convinced of reading, but I still thought grammatical exercises were important, very important. If I were teaching a class again now (and if I could do what I wanted), I really think I would ditch grammar exercises altogether and focus even more on reading. Tons of it. And good stories!

Not only am I more aware now than, say, a year ago, how (in retrospect) I learned German and Latin for sure, probably English to an extent, and even French mostly through extensive reading, i.e. reading (more or less) copiously, meaning that the material has to be easy enough for one's level and that the stuff one reads has to be interesting enough to keep turning the pages. More importantly, I've made an attempt to finally learn Italian beyond the absolute basics for the last few months.

In early August, I went to a bookstore to use some vouchers I had gotten as presents. I didn't know what to buy, but I was guided to the foreign languages section (this is in Maastricht, The Netherlands) and found a few easy readers in Italian, which seemed nice enough, so I bought them. And started reading. And reading. And reading.

Basically, I read a reader a day or so, for a couple of weeks. After moving to a different area of Germany and finding a decent bookstore, I picked up more readers. All in all, I think I have read between 30 and 40 of them, some more than once. I may write a bit more in detail about my experience, but I really think I've gotten quite a good idea of what's out there for easy readers in Italian.

Anyway, next thing I know, I'm in Italy. Just for a few days, to see friends (not Italians). Some interesting experiences. I am quite aware that, while my spoken Italian is still not terribly impressive, it's much better than it was even four months ago. Of course, I visited a few bookstores and picked up some real books--nothing easy or anything, just real Italian novels and non-fiction. 

Finally, on a brief stop in Udine, after walking around the old city in the rain (a charm all of its own in Italy), I did walk into another generic bookstore. Many, many books, but one was crying out to me, almost literally. It's a recent translation of a 1968 novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, possibly the greatest of all Yiddish novelists: Il Ciarlatano. The book was written in Yiddish (of course!) and serialized in the Forverts, as many of Singer's novels. Then, somebody prepared an English translation (I think Singer's nephew sometimes did that, but apparently this one is anonymous), clearly intended for publication as a book, which however never came about, for some reason.

So this brand new Italian translation is actually the first publication of the novel as a book. In other words, if I wanted to read this novel by Singer that I didn't even know existed, I have no choice but to read the Italian translation.

And guess what: I am.

I realize that those three dozen of easy readers (levels A2 to B2, whatever that really means) in not even four months have enabled me to now read this fantastic novel in Italian without serious difficulty. I don't know every single word, but (I am proud to say) I really never look anything up. I understand the story in pretty much every detail (I think anyway). And, I have to say, I totally and utterly love it.

The book. And the fact that I'm reading it in Italian. Singer's New York jewish characters, each of them crazy in their own way, all immigrants from Eastern Europe, with Yiddish as their main and sometimes only language--now speaking perfectly idiomatic Italian! Singer is rolling over in his grave--with laughter, that is!

Also, as a by-product, I'm thinking of going back to learning Yiddish......... 

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