Catholic vs Protestant Cultures. Is Pardon the Right Thing? Yes, it is

Waldensian valleys in Piedmont, Italy. Click for credits and larger picture

Religion and culture

There are people raised in a Catholic or Protestant milieu who say: “I am an atheist, I am an agnostic, religion has no effect on me.”

I think it to be incorrect mostly. Religion is only a part of a culture but it is usually at the centre of it and it affects so many behaviours that it is difficult to escape its influence – no matter our religion or non religion -, unless we have the great power of the entirely detached sage, which is seldom the case.

Take my father. He was an atheist to the extent he died without any repentance. His family had been Waldensian (or Vaudois,) an evangelical movement close to Genevan Protestantism. Such a decent man, my father, though strict in a way hard to be found in Italy outside certain Western Alpine valleys (see map above.)

But most of all, my father could not forgive.

When I became a moderate, non violent communist – only 2 years it lasted, I was so young! – a portion of my father’s heart totally ruled me out. Those were ‘the years of lead‘ in this country. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I had to face the consequences of my act. My brother-in-law possibly. He knew all the military big shots. So when my military service days arrived I was sent to a sort of re-education military camp where they tried to break me, and almost succeeded.

For this and other reasons – such as a sunny good-natured Roman Catholic mother to whom redemption was always possible – I always had problems to accept any irrevocable condemnation.

The death penalty, for example, I consider it an unjustifiable act of barbarism, although, what a cruel irony, I’m a ruthless bastard in some corners of my soul because of this extra layer of Roman rogueness my father would have found less repugnant had he understood it was just a camouflage for something closer to him, ie related to the severe – and mostly but alas not totally extraneous to me – mountain culture he came from.

Large pitch-black eyes in the sun light

Italian grapes. Click for credits and a larger picture

I don’t want to think about this. My ancestral heritage is only partly from the austere West Alps. I want to think of where I’ve always lived.

Such a sea, such a sun – my Greek mentor now helping me to day dream – with young women vintaging in the fields, vine leaves at their temples, “their faces tightly wrapped in white wimples to keep them from being burned by the sun. They raise their heads when a person passes, and you glimpse nothing but two large pitch-black eyes flickering in the sunlight and filled with visions of men.”[Kazantzakis]

I’m bathed in the Roman country light. My life has been rich though hard and a bit tormented (which added some depth in my not so humble opinion.)

I take the responsibility for all my sins, for the good and for the evil, like every one should. Let me quote Dante albeit his verses are a bit disproportionate here (“horrible my iniquities had been” …).

Orribil furon li peccati miei;
ma la bontà infinita ha sì gran braccia,
che prende ciò che si rivolge a lei.

Horrible my iniquities had been,
But Infinite Goodness hath such ample arms
That it receives whatever turns to it.

[Dante’s Manfred von Hohenstaufen, the king of Sicily son of Frederick II, Commedia II, 3,121-123; Longfellow’s translation.]

By the way, what the hell happened to the Protestants? It seems to me they focused more on those early parts of the Old Testament when the Jews were not much civilized yet and worshipped a merciless, unforgiving God.

For, if ye forgive not…

I was yesterday reading Matthew (6,14-15) in the most beautiful language ever to me.

14 Ἐὰν γὰρ ἀφῆτε (for if you forgive) τοῖς ἀνθρώποις (men) τὰ παραπτώματα (the sins) αὐτῶν (of theirs,) ἀφήσει (will forgive) καὶ ὑμῖν (also to you) ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν (the father of yours) ὁ οὐράνιος (heavenly)·

15 ἐὰν δὲ μὴ ἀφῆτε (but if you forgive not) τοῖς ἀνθρώποις (men) τὰ παραπτώματα (the sins) αὐτῶν (of theirs), οὐδὲ ὁ πατὴρ (neither the father) ὑμῶν (of yours) ἀφήσει (will forgive) τὰ παραπτώματα (the sins) ὑμῶν (of yours.)

And, in the second most beautiful language to me:

Si enim dimiseritis hominibus peccata eorum, dimittet et vobis Pater vester caelestis; si autem non dimiseritis hominibus, nec Pater vester dimittet peccata vestra.

And, in the language of this blog, also extremely beautiful:

For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

PS. Bragging about language knowledge, I know. Need to be pardoned for that 😦

Natural Language Learning as Nonconscious Acquisition

Language Variety. Click for credits.

Second Language Learning

This is our third post on foreign language education (see 1 and 2) and we remind readers how we had stressed the importance of massive exposure to listening and to reading. It is the so-called input method: listening and reading extensively in the new language, input, will naturally lead to output, namely speaking and writing. The native language is often called the ‘first language’ (FL or L1), while the new language is called the ‘second language’ (SL or L2). L1 and L2 can be more than one.

If listening and reading are important, which of the two is preferable? Both I would say.

Listening is important for the correct pronunciation and for oral communication. Even if we don’t have the chance of talking often to foreigners, listening has become very accessible thanks to podcasts, satellite TV or DVDs where one can change languages & subtitles, etc. So why not plunging into it? Tunisians and Albanians have a decent knowledge of Italian thanks mainly to TV.

Reading for (Self) Improvement

Reading has though a few advantages in my opinion.

1) Easiness. Reading is easier at first. Understanding TV programs or films can be a beginner’s nightmare, much depending on how our mind works.

2) Availability. Despite the new technologies books or magazines availability and portability are hard to beat.

3) Path to complexity. In most cultures there usually is a difference in complexity between the spoken and the written language, up to the extreme of diglossia. The language that the Roman soldiers brought to the provinces of the Empire was different from that of Cicero or Seneca. Classical Arabic is more complex than the language spoken in the streets of Cairo. Tamil, spoken in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore etc., comprises this written-spoken difference plus adds further intricacy according to situation, caste and religion.

4) Path to language as art. Reading allows us a contact with the literature of a civilization. It is a wider concept than just learning legalese or IT English for our profession. Here language acquisition identifies itself with overall cultural acquisition. Literature (a) in fact is so well crafted as to transmit aesthetic pleasure – which requires some gradual initiation to be appreciated, as with wine (or Indian spices.) Literature (b) also transmits the deep values of a culture (sometimes of any culture,) a long story that can’t be discussed here.

[Well, we belong to a generation that did believe in literature as magistra vitae. It seems we’re not alone in this. Just check ‘literature’ out in dictionaries and encyclopaedias. The 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines literature as “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.”]

Book. Click for credits.

What to Read

In case we are allergic to literature what should we read? Well, ‘any content that interests us most’ is an answer. ‘Everything’ is another good answer, from crap to technical stuff to newspapers. Newspapers present the greatest variety of linguistic registers (from colloquial to literary) & jargons (language of sports, politics, entertainment, celebrities, sciences etc.) Same thing with magazines. I remember an English teacher telling us she had started as a child by reading every issue of Woman from A to Z. After one year her knowledge had jumped from elementary to advanced.

Should we use graded texts or ‘jump into the deep’? No predefined rule. Lichanos said here he got exhausted reading Balzac in French. I also was put off at first by English literary works. While some prefer a no-parachute approach, I stumbled upon the Longman graded books whose gradualism worked fine for me. It allowed me the pleasure of reading valuable texts even at a beginner’s level. I thence made use of the Bible in the same way, in lack of other easy materials, for the study of Latin and Greek. The Bible translation by Jerome (347 – 420 AD), the Vulgate, has for example great educational potential in my view being a marvellous mixture of vulgar and classical Latin. Since the Romance Languages (Italian, French, Spanish etc.) descend from vulgar Latin, the ‘vulgar’ proved an effective bridge to the ‘classical’ (here Latin Vulgate text.)

No Grammar then? Also grammar is useful, provided it is not the base of language study. Learning irregular verbs and plurals, analysing phrasal verbs etc., all is useful for mastering a language. Which grammar to use much depends on our taste and cognitive learning style. Often our old school-time grammar is better than any other grammar.

Old Books. Click for credits.

Writing. Style & Content

Ok. Let’s imagine we’ve progressed and our speaking and writing are now decent. This being a blog, we’ll focus on writing style.

If content is what you say, style is how you say it. There must be some balance between the two in order to avoid extremes such as dullness or affectation. Such balance can also vary according to the situation and the audience. To the ancient Romans concinnitas was the art of arranging the elements of a sentence with harmony and taste.

Developing a good style in a new language is such a daunting task! One trick is that of choosing an author whose style we consider suitable and read his/her works a lot. It can be a starting point for developing our own style. It’s the input method again, though at a higher level. Style and gusto are an art, and “every art is taught by example” – as Muzio Clementi, an Italian musician, put it.
Again I insist on valuable texts. Isn’t it like with dance? Would we learn from an inept or clumsy dancer?

But once more, as with grammar, style rules can help too: advices by writers – like Hemingway, who recommended to prune adverbs and adjectives -, the study of figures of speech or of creative writing patterns etc.

Ψ

As a conclusion, this post has focused on a natural approach to SL learning based on imitation, on a “subconscious” silent acquisition through input which favours language production and a feel for correctness (and for style), this being complementary to formal and “conscious” rule learning (check this web page .)

A few theories have been developed around this natural method. Stephen Krashen’s (Comprehensible) Input Hypothesis is probably among the best known. Krashen, from USC (University of Southern California,) is a language guru whose work has stirred many disputes. I find his work stimulating although he made like a religion out of it, evidence being he has become a full-time activist of his ideas.

Although I always was fond of the input method I am convinced that best results can be achieved by combining various methods of learning.

Ψ

Related posts:

Experiences of a non Mother Tongue Blogger
Some Language and Reference Tools Utilized for this Blog
Power of Reading
Guess What is Better than Prozac
Books. Our Own Film Inside Our Head
Books, Multimedia and E-learning
Locking Horns with a Young Roman
Merry Saturnalia! And a Roman New Blog

Some Language and Reference Tools Utilized for this Blog

A part of MoR's Home Library

Here is a list of the tools I use when I write in English. They are not the best tools but only the ones I like, so any suggestion from readers is welcome. I have also added a few reference tools and encyclopaedias, due to the nature of this blog.

Whatever help one can find in a dictionary, a thesaurus or any other resource, it is our mind & taste that have to make the appropriate choice, so here again a good reading experience of valuable texts is the key to decent writing.

Bilingual tools are also included. Why? Aren’t monolingual tools better?  Yes, they surely are since they force us to think in the new language, but here in my blog the protagonist is not a language, but ideas, history, philosophy etc. even though expressed in simple ways. Sometimes I need to brainstorm in Italian when topics become complex, thence the need of a few translation tools.

Bilingual tools

  • Wordreference.com. A good web resource I use daily with bilingual dictionaries of Italian, English, French, German, Greek, Romanian, Russian etc. Much quicker than any paper dictionary (which is unfortunate, because I love to leaf through dictionary pages).
  • The Lexilogos translation web portal, a French (French Canadian?) resource with automatic translators for almost every language on earth (Chinese, Arabic and Indian languages included). I dislike computer translations for their total weirdness and I seldom use them, but they can suggest unexpected solutions. Again, the right choice depends on us. The site comprises the Reverso.net, Google and Yahoo Babel fish translators. I’m told that Power Translator is also a good software for automatic translations.

Monolingual tools

  • The Merriam-Webster pocket dictionaries. Many years ago I stumbled upon an excellent Merriam-Webster paperback edition (based on the Collegiate edition, if I’m not wrong). Since then I am a Merriam-Webster aficionado and do not regret it. That magic compact book, now lost, helped me effectively with any text, from comics to English and American literature.
    I now use the Home and Office Collegiate-based paperback edition of 1995 (the second from the bottom left in the picture above).
    Merriam-Webster is to me THE monolingual dictionary, with word definitions written with admirable concinnitas.
  • The huge Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Dorset & Baber 1972. I bought it in Boston in 1993 for a bargain price. A sort of monster, or bambinone (big boy.) The link is to the latest edition.
  • The dictionaries page of Lexilogos, a web portal again from France, with tons of links to almost every on-line great dictionary, such as Oxford Oald, Cambridge, Oxford Compact, Collins, Etymonline, American Heritage, etc.
  • The on-line Cambridge dictionary. Another daily resource which helps me to contain mistakes with prepositions, such as to, for, of, in, by, on etc.
    English and the Latin languages use prepositions in a very different way. For example, which of the two is correct: Participate *to* a discussion or *in* a discussion? Italian and French prefer the former, English the latter. When my language experience is not enough, I need these (time-consuming) checks.
  • The Gnome Dictionary on Linux. An excellent tool I’m addicted to. It is a DICT client written by the Italian geek Emmanuele Bassi. I use it when I’m on Linux, which I can dual-boot on my mobile as an alternative to Windows XP. It allows quick access to numerous dictionaries including the fascinating Webster 1913 edition. I wonder if I’ll ever find a Windows version.
    Update:
    here is the Dict.org web page, which is of course platform (OS)-independent. Great tool, also for English mother-tongues I believe, and a way of tasting Linux software big power.
  • The Thesaurus.com web page, which also has a dictionary and a reference section (Ask.com). The Roget’s Thesaurus is a classic for synonyms I used a lot in the past, but I now prefer this on-line resource based on the Roget’s Thesaurus II. I also possess the Webster’s Thesaurus in book form (the first from the bottom-left) but I don’t like it much. A searchable on-line Roget’s Thesaurus (1911) can be found here.
    Synonyms are a treasure for writing, like the word thesaurus suggests, but they are of little help if you don’t “feel” which is the right word among a long list of synonyms. Experience, again, matters.

Reference & Encyclopedias

  • Enciclopedia Italiana dell’Istituto Treccani, 1939, which I find among the best for topics regarding the humanities. La Piccola Treccani, 1995, is more up-to-date but it is much smaller.
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. I have the 1965 Edition, 23 volumes, quite good. I sometimes prefer the 1911 Britannica although this on-line version contains lots of errors. The on-line Britannica is excellent, always up-to-date and not too expensive yearly.
  • The Wikipedia. I am a great fan of this remarkable tool, possibly the biggest encyclopaedia ever created (see a discussion in the comments section).
  • Answers.com. A very good on-line tool, both a dictionary and an encyclopaedia, with excerpts from the Wikipedia as well. I’m getting addicted to it also because of the add-on for the Firefox browser (Answers), which enables to alt-click on any word for dictionary and encyclopaedia immediate reference.

Note. Links on this post are not provided for commercial purposes.

Experiences of a non Mother Tongue Blogger

American, British, French and Italian flags in New York City. Click for credits

This blog is written in a language that is not my own. They say that the older we grow the closer we get to the womb. While I was more drawn to the Germanic languages in my youth I now prefer my mother tongue or any Latin language. Writing in English is hence sometimes a pain to me although English being the first foreign language I got into in my adolescence it’s like a first love one cannot easily forget.

Toiling with Words and Sentences

At times I write directly in English without any problem. Other times I also directly write in English but I am unsure of myself. I continuously correct and rewrite sentences in blog writings and comments. I often paste a passage into a new clean white page, which refreshes my imagination. Sometimes it takes many new white pages to reach a passage that satisfies me, although I’m never satisfied. When I’m tired or when I’m writing something complicated I first write in Italian and I later translate all into English. This also happens when, afraid to let an idea slip away, I quickly jot it down in Italian.

Languages Contain Elements of a Culture

I have stopped blogging in both Italian and English although it has been an instructive experience. Working tightly with two languages was a little bit like thinking with two brains. A language contains elements of a culture. A language brings along a mentality, it brings along attitudes, values and also phrases often with no equivalent in other languages. It is also one good example where the whole is more than the sum of its parts, since for instance – and focusing only on two varieties of the same language – the lexicons of a cultivated American and a cultivated British are almost identical, but the choice of words and the way they are assembled produce something different, one feels it clearly, which is evidence of a different culture underneath. Of course with globalization such differences are getting less evident.

Latin Words in English

English contains a lot of Latin words, but its core is Germanic. The return to the Latin womb brings me to prefer English words from Latin, although I cannot always predict the effect they will have on my readers. ‘Comprehensible’ instead of ‘understandable’ sounds warmer to me, but the effect is formal instead. I mean, it’s not that easy to control the colouration (connotation) of words in a foreign language. Even the main meaning of a word (denotation) can be a problem. The same Latin words in English and Italian are sometimes false friends, namely words that are similar but have a different meaning. Actual for example means real in English but up-to-date in Italian (attuale), while preservative is an additive in English and, well, a condom in Italian (preservativo).

Prose and Rhythm

Writing is hard discipline in any language

I like prose with a rhythm. It is something beautiful which I can hope to attain in my language, not so much in a foreign language I learned through toil. At times I rewrite my English sentences until I find a rhythm that satisfies me. Reading good prose can be of great help and classics are always the best. Which brings me to the last point of this writing, the natural learning of languages.

The Input Method

When I was 14 I flunked English so I had to spend a bitter summer studying. For some weird reason instead of studying grammar I started reading American comic books (Superman) and the Longman series in easy English (now probably absorbed into the Penguin Readers graded collection). I discovered a new world!

I was absolutely delighted by colloquial American English and by these great English literary texts made so easy. My progress was sudden. I therefore applied this method to the study of ancient Greek and Latin by reading the Bible, the only easy text available in these two languages at that time. My progress here was amazing as well and my marks boosted up, much to my schoolmates’ astonishment.

A few years ago I was surprised to see that some people had sort of made a theory out of all this. It is sometimes called the input method in language learning. One learns a language by constant exposure to language input (reading and listening): texts, possibly good, and movies, TV etc. Output (writing and speaking) will come out naturally. It is after all how babies learn a language: they silently listen a lot, then they start speaking as if by miracle. Grammar can be useful at a later stage, to sort out things a bit (and in fact children later go to school). Some people even skip grammar. I once met a French-Canadian who was fluent in 9 languages: “I’m proud I didn’t touch any grammar“ he said.

ψ

I’ve talked a bit about my English blogging experience and about my relationship with this beautiful language. In 3-4 days I will provide infos and links about the tools I use everyday in order to produce decent enough English texts. Hard toil, yes, but great fun as well.

ψ

Other related posts:

Some Language and Reference Tools Utilized for this Blog
Natural Language Learning as Nonconscious Acquisition

This Blog’s First Birthday

Today is my blog’s first birthday. A year exactly has elapsed since I started this new experience. I am awful at celebrations, but I’ll say one year has passed quickly enough, though sometimes my blogging hasn’t been the easiest to me because of this language, which is not my own, and because of my topics, complicated at times even to the writer (can you imagine to my average reader).

On the whole though a beautiful experience. I had the great pleasure to write, joke, talk or seriously discuss with people so various, which was one of my aims.

I know that in the post Are we going anywhere? I had promised a thorough evalutation of my first blogging year, but now I don’t feel like it. Is it so important? In any case, and since that post (April 15 2008: 35,000 hits, 47 posts, 395 comments), my blog’s traffic has doubled (September 9 2008: 74,000 hits, 70 posts, 741 comments) despite an access slowdown during July and August 2008.

People have stumbled upon my blog searching for these things (sorted by num. of views):

India, Anna Magnani, jungle, Roman sex, Dionysos, Stonehenge, Bob Dylan, buttocks, Indian people, Roman woman etc. etc.

Other popular search terms have been (unsorted):

old books, trojan horse, res3ia, young Roman boy, espresso, pompei fresco erotic, Roman limes, Prozac, ancient erotic art, Porsche 996 Carrera, Aishwarya Rai, marble Roman ass, love words etc. etc.

Some terms I am not so proud of, not because sex is to me something to be ashamed of, no, not at all. It’s only because it is too easy to get hits through it. My first Sex and the City of Rome post produced wholly more than 9000 hits! I also confess here aloud my vile sin of playing a bit with tags in order to attract readers.

Other terms used in search engines puzzle me instead: I can understand ‘buttock’, but why is ‘jungle’ so popular? Plus I didn’t know that our Roman actress Anna Magnani was so well-liked around the world (admire all her strength, passion and dignity in the picture below).

I dropped the Italian pages, lacking the time and being more intrigued by an international audience. The tone of my writing has at times become serious and complex, I know. Well, I’m sure my flippant side will pop up again, now and then.

A little bit I think I have achieved as regards my research on Roman-ness even though deep inside I feel that I have ‘tasted only the outer crust’ of it. We are going to see.

Charming discoveries have been the Indians, people from North America of Italian origin, one Chinese woman, Americans and Britons living in Italy and in Europe and other people I cannot list here.

I thank whoever has read anything I have written and above all I thank all my dear commentators, with their ideas, jokes, support and warmth.

I finally hope this blog has been useful to someone, even just one single person. It would be the most important thing of all.

Ups and Downs

Piccadilly today. Fair use

London is such a bright, electric place today, so different from the London of the Sixties, gloomy and depressing (apart from the pop & rock music scene, absolutely fantastic at that time: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Shadows, The Animals, The Who, The Kinks, Donovan, Pink Floyd etc.)

I remember a melancholy evening at Piccadilly Circus, August 1967, I think. It had been such a rainy day I was wondering why the hell I had decided to spend my much-awaited vacation in such a miserable climate.

Suddenly this guy came up to me asking cautiously if I wanted any blue movie. His face was so unusual since he was weirdly blonde but his skin was dark, this dirty offer making him look even more fishy (the colour combination struck me: I had seen only black Africans so far but surely no blonde guys like that.)

Italian scooters mass production (Lambrettas)

Well, that suspicious person’s episode in Piccadilly Circus became in my young mind like the symbol of a society I found decadent, static, conservative: everything looked old, demodé (cars, doors and windows handles, and those incredibly small houses with two floors and wooden creaky stairs.)

Italian society was instead very fast-moving at that time (see pictures above and below.) It had recently experienced its post-war boom together with Germany and Japan: the three big losers of WW2 had economies weirdly thriving, while the winners (in Europe) were stagnating.

Italy for instance was Europe’s China in some ways (although on a smaller scale) and produced very good (and cheap) products which swept the European and World markets. Italian cars, it is an example, were both inexpensive and excellent and were sold everywhere, from Europe to Russia and India.

Italian economic boom

London now, quite reversely, is not any more annihilated by the loss of her empire and is so future-oriented. Such a great capital again, London.

Italy, instead, struggling desperately to be once more dynamic is ending up in just stagnation.

The ups and downs of life.