Interview with Alexandra Turner – translator, writer, editor
Alex left her London life a few months ago to go and travel around the world. She is passionate about culture and languages and has traveled to 26 countries up to now. At the moment she lives in Stockholm, Sweden (and we deeply envy her for that).
EuroTalk: What made you start learning languages?
I started learning German and French when I started secondary school because it was compulsory. Straight away I loved both of them and they became my favourite lessons. Outside of school I was interested in watching movies or looking at books in those languages and continuing to learn (I know, so geeky!). Then two years later I started to study Spanish too as an optional subject for GCSE (the exams we do aged 16) and I loved that too – my lessons made me think about sunny Spain instead of depressing London 😛 I was starting to get pretty interested in languages so I also took Japanese lessons after school (again, yes, I was a geek…) So I kept on with those language for a few years. I started learning Italian just two years ago because I met my boyfriend who’s Italian, so I learned just by listening to him talking, by watching Italian TV with him and later on by going to Italy. Finally my other language is Ukrainian, which I started learning because I was living in L’viv, Ukraine, and I really needed the language to get around day to day.
ET: What gives you motivation to continue learning?
To be honest I mostly learn for fun. I am really fascinated by languages, how they are different and yet sometimes similar. If I have spare time I am as likely to grab one of my language apps or watch a foreign movie as I am to surf Facebook or watch TV. And in fact if I DO surf Facebook, Twitter etc, half my feed is in other languages anyway.
I also learn for work because I’m a translator and I feel like I need to keep improving. And travelling of course is a motivation because I need languages for practical things.
ET: What do you find to be most rewarding about language learning?
Earning money is one thing! But the best feeling ever is navigating a practical situation using one of your languages, or having a real conversation for the first (or second, third…) time. I get so psyched when I talk to an Italian person and they actually understand what I’m saying. Or just doing something simple like buying some tomatoes at the market in Ukraine, I feel pretty cool!
ET: What were some of the challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
Loads! When I was at school I found grammar boring and I just wanted to learn loads of words (I was pretty naïve!!) So later on my grammar was a total mess and I had to go back and try to put it into place. So I still have a pretty terrible knowledge of some fundamental things like genders in German, which can only be fixed by hard, hard study later on. So if you want to reach a decent level in a language, I recommend to get the grammar in place ASAP, which I’ve done with Ukrainian (older and wiser) and it’s helped soooo much. Also I now find grammar amazing, like doing a Sudoku puzzle 😀
Another challenge is that I am shy and afraid of speaking to new people in new languages. This is incredibly hard to overcome, but the only solution is, like Nike says, Just Do it! Start with easier situations like buying a beer or a stamp and progress to harder ones. Or stick yourself in an environment where you are forced to use the language. For me that’s spending time with my boyfriend’s family who speak NO English, or by living in Ukraine where many people know no English at all. Another helpful thing is to organise a language exchange or find a conversation teacher/partner who will give you one on one help. You gain confidence just by doing it over and over and over…
ET: Tell us your favourite word/expression in your favourite language.
Wow there are so many! There are loads of amazing expressions in Italian although most of them are too rude to write here now… The best things are the gestures, there’s a funny one you can do to show that you’re being left alone or ditched, where you make the shape of an artichoke (for some reason…) with your hand. In German I like the expression ‘das geht mir auf den Keks’ – ‘it gets on my biscuit’, which means something annoys you. I also really like using the word ‘pobrecito’ (poor thing) in Spanish whenever I’m being sarcastically sympathetic to someone.
ET: Any funny/weird/awkward situation that happened with a native or another speaker?
Too many awkward situations to count. At the moment I keep accidentally using Spanish words when I speak Italian, which is quite awkward when people stare at me and say ‘what does that mean?’ In Ukraine I had silly situations every day, such as trying to order food and having to make animal noises when I didn’t know the name of the type of meat, for example. Luckily people found it fun rather than being annoyed. Also I’d get really annoyed when I went into a продукти to buy milk or bread – I’d so proud that I’d remembered the right words, then they would ask me some silly question like ‘which type of bread?’ which I clearly had no chance of answering. Last time it happened, I replied to the woman ‘Я не знаю’ (I don’t know) in exasperation, and she laughed at me for about five minutes…
Did you know that you speak Italian?
No, really – you do. And we don’t just mean that time you ordered a pizza. Here are a few words you’ve probably used at some point, but might not have realised were Italian:
Longer than a short story, but not quite a full novel. Well-known novellas include John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) by Franz Kafka and Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decamerone (The Decameron). The word ‘novella’ comes from the Italian meaning ‘new’.
The use of this term to describe photo-journalists who follow and take pictures of celebrities can be traced back to a character in Federico Fellini’s 1960 classic movie, La Dolce Vita. Reports vary as to why Fellini chose this name for the independent photographer in the film, but one version of events claims it’s a word from an Italian dialect describing the annoying noise made by a small insect.
Anyone who’s seen Pitch Perfect will know that a cappella means singing without any musical accompaniment, but its literal meaning in Italian is ‘in the manner of the chapel’. And it’s not the only Italian word used in music; the list is seemingly endless but a few examples are piano (quiet), allegro (lively and fast), crescendo (getting louder) and lacrimoso (sad).
The first spiders to be called ‘tarantulas’ were named for the Italian city of Taranto, where they were first found. Interestingly, these weren’t the hairy beasties we call tarantulas today, but what are now known as wolf spiders. (Not that we’d want to find either of them in our house.) Many people in southern Italy during the 16th and 17th century believed that a bite from the spider would cause a hysterical condition called tarantism, which could only be cured by dancing the tarantella.
Graffiti comes from the Italian word ‘graffito’, which means ‘scratched’, and in art history the term is used to describe work created by scratching designs onto a surface. The word dates back to the 19th century, when it was used to describe inscriptions and drawings found in the ancient ruins of Pompeii, and today has taken on a mostly negative connotation – no matter how skilful the artist, graffiti is generally considered synonymous with vandalism.
There are plenty more examples of Italian words that have found their way into other languages – among them:
Stiletto: from the Italian word ‘stilo’, meaning ‘dagger’.
Mafia: its origins are uncertain, but many believe it to be from the Sicilian word ‘mafiusu’, which means ‘swagger’ or ‘bravado’.
Extravaganza: a spectacular theatrical production, which takes its name from the Italian word ‘stravaganza’ (extravagance).
Quarantine: derived from ‘quaranta’, the 40 days of isolation required to try and halt the spread of the Black Death in the 14th century.
How many Italian words have you used recently…?
Italian is our language of the week, in celebration of an annual tradition, Il Palio, which dates back to the 12th century and is held on the 16th of August.
This is a horse race unlike any other, and is all over in 90 seconds. It’s held in the beautiful city of Siena, where the 17 districts compete against each other for the glory. Amazingly a district can still win if the horse loses their jockey during the race, as long as they’re over the finish line first (this has actually happened 23 times since records began). If you have a chance to visit Siena while the Palio is on, you should go – the main square is filled with flags from each district and there is an incredible atmosphere throughout the whole town.
If you want to see just how much the Palio is celebrated in Siena have a look at this…
Here are some of the best things we’ve discovered this week about Italian:
- One of the longest words in Italian is ‘precipitevolissimevolmente’ which means ‘extremely quickly’.
- This Italian tongue twister: ‘Trentatré Trentini entrarono a Trento, tutti e trentatré trotterellando’… which means ‘thirty three Trentonians came into Trento, all thirty three trotting.’
- The word ‘Gelato’ means Italian style ice cream (different to normal ice cream for a number of reasons; firstly it is made with a higher proportion of milk to cream, secondly it has a slower churning process and finally it is served at a slightly warmer temperature than ice cream). Gelato is potentially one of the most important words to know in Italian, as the ice cream cone is an Italian invention and Italy is famous for its Gelato. There’s even an ice cream university in Bologna (Carpigiani Gelato University).
- Italian is a Romance language, meaning it has a Latin origin. Gesture could also be considered important to the Italian language, as messages are often conveyed using hands and facial expressions. When in Italy, you’ll probably hear people saying ‘Ciao Bella!’ to each other as a friendly greeting – but if you don’t want to be too familiar, you may wish to stick to ‘Buongiorno’ (good day) the first time you meet someone.
- The Italian alphabet has twenty-one letters in it. It does not include the letters J, K, W, X and Y; these letters can only be found in foreign words that are common in everyday Italian writing.
- To wish someone good luck in Italian, you should say, ‘In bocca al lupo!’, which translates literally as ‘In the mouth of the wolf’. The correct response to this expression is, ‘Crepi il lupo!’, which means ‘May the wolf die!’
Do you have a favourite Italian word or phrase? We would love to hear from you, so feel free to comment below, tweet us @EuroTalk or write to us on Facebook! And if you’d like to learn some Italian, why not try our free demo, or download our uTalk app to get started.
So I’ve jumped on the bandwagon and I’m taking part in the New Year uTalk challenge too.
It took me a while to finally decide on Italian. I was going to attempt Arabic or Mandarin; however given the time frame of just one month, I thought the challenge would be too great for myself. However I will attempt either Arabic or Mandarin at some point next year, you can hold me to that!
So why Italian I hear you say? Well there are many reasons.
I often go skiing in Italy and it’s very different to skiing anywhere else in Europe, as not many people speak English. It can be quite a struggle sometimes, so hopefully by the end of January with my newfound Italian it should be a breeze.
Near the office there is an Italian delicatessen, which sells some seriously good food. When you enter they’re always talking to you in Italian, and as I speak none I feel slightly embarrassed that I can’t respond in their own language. My goal by the end of January is to be able to order my food in Italian, as well as have a conversation with the employees there.
My final reason is that there are many beautiful cities that I wish to visit over the next few years in Italy. Even though it is a given that I will do the ‘touristy’ things whilst I’m there, I would also like to think I may be able to go off the beaten track and find some true wonders hidden from the tourists. I also don’t want to be a typical tourist and ignore the locals; I want to be able to interact with them and get a real feel for the city.
So those are my reasons for learning Italian.
Anyone else going to join me?
Ever wondered what us language geeks do for fun in our spare time? Reading books about languages, of course! Well, not all the time – but I recently read the very interesting Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher, and would recommend it to anyone else who is interested in how different languages work, and how our mother tongue affects our thoughts and behaviour.
Through the Language Glass is all about the ongoing linguistic debate about whether our native language affects our perception and the way we think about the world around us. A large portion of the book is dedicated to a rather in-depth discussion about the differences between colour vocabulary in various languages. You might already know that Russian and Italian have two words for ‘blue’ (light and dark blue). But you might not know that the famous Greek writer Homer didn’t have any words for blue, and instead used mostly red and black to describe the scenes of the Iliad. This led to a long debate about whether people in the past lacked our modern ‘colour sense’ and saw the world in only a few shades. You’d probably have to be pretty dedicated to trying to understand the evolving debate on the development of linguistic terms for colours to plough through this rather long section, but it is rather interesting if you’ve got the patience.
The rest of the book moves on to some interesting discussions of smaller tribal languages in Australia and elsewhere, and how their unique features either reflect the requirements of the society/location, or affect the behaviour of the speakers. For example, the Aboriginal language Guuguu Yimithirr has no words for left and right. Instead, speakers must develop an acute sense of North, South, East and West, as it’s impossible for them to say ‘the tree is on my left’ – instead they must say ‘the tree is North of me’. Experiments have shown that even if speakers of the language are driven to new locations blindfolded, they retain their incredible sense of direction and can still describe location based on the compass directions.
And how about grammatical gender? For us English speakers, referring to a table as ‘she’, as a Spanish speaker would (la mesa), or a girl as ‘it’, as a German would (das Maedchen), seems rather odd. But for most Europeans, using a blanket ‘it’ for everything doesn’t really feel right either. So what does this mean for all those speakers of languages with grammatical gender? Do they somehow see a table as girly and feminine, and a phone (el teléfono in Spanish) as macho and masculine? Well of course not… that would be silly! But there may be subtle ways in which these distinctions affect us. Think about how we can tell a story in English being vague about the gender of the person involved. Yesterday, I had dinner with my friend. Whether that friend is male or female is none of your business! But in Spanish, you’re rather forced to disclose that ‘la amiga’ was of course a girl.
We might find the idea of a ‘gender’ for inanimate objects strange and funny, but Deutscher traces this back to at least an original logical starting point. It might surprise you to know that there are many more genders in language, beyond the masculine, feminine and neutral genders you might already know. Some languages even have a ‘vegetable’ gender, which even includes things like aeroplanes. Why, you might ask? Well, it’s simple really. The ‘vegetable’ gender may have started off for only plants. This would have included wood, and anything made from wood, such as a boat, perhaps. It’s then not such a jump to having other vehicles in the same gender.
If any of this sounds intriguing and you’d like to know more, I recommend that you pick up Deutscher’s book. It’s not quite beach reading, but it’s accessibly written, not an academic tome that’s only for linguists. I can guarantee that you’ll learn something new about languages and maybe gain a different perspective on how your native language affects your perception.