Thursday, June 07, 2007

Are Italian children geniuses?

I'd always known the time would come when I wouldn't be able to help my kids with their homework--when they start taking courses like high school chemistry, for example. So you can imagine my surprise when my ignorance showed up early--this year, in fact. With my 2nd grader. Ouch.

I do speak Italian, although I certainly don't speak like a native. But some things had me stumped this year. In the page below, my daughter divided up sentences into the parts of speech: subject, predicate and "expansion." Maybe it's me admitting my ignorance on a public forum, but I've never heard the term expansion used as a part of a sentence. So when my daughter asked me to help her with her homework, my response was, "Huh?" My daughter looked at me as if to say: "Didn't you learn anything in second grade?"
Luckily, she had the following page in her notebook, explaining that an expansion is the where, when, how and what of the sentence. "Oh," I said, trying to redeem myself in my daughter's eyes. "The expansion is the object of the sentence." She just rolled those eyes and shook her head. "Expansion it is, then," I said.
Then they started diagramming sentences, and naming the function of each word. In the page below, my daughter has written: Una cantante canta, which means "A singer sings." She labeled the subject and predicate, then went on to note that:
Una= indefinite article, feminine, singular (thank God we just have plain 'ol a or an)
cantante (singer)= common noun, feminine, singular (thank God--again--that all our nouns are androgynous)
canta (sings)= verb (later in the year she goes on to add labels like "third person, present tense")
Come on, people--definite vs. indefinite articles in 2nd grade? I don't know about you, but I never did this kind of thing when I was seven.
But that's okay--I know my parts of speech as well as the next Italian mamma, and was able to help her with this homework assignment.
Then came the nouns. Italian nouns that end with an "o" are masculine, and those that end with an "a" are feminine. Usually. But not always. And those exceptions are the ones that the teacher gives for homework, of course, sending me back to the dictionary time after time. By now, my daughter's wondering if I've ever been to school at all.
Then they started learning about the different verb tenses--the next page shows present and future. Again, simple enough--I know these. What I don't know is this crazy past tense called passato remoto that they use for things that happened a looooong time ago. You see it a lot in stories, and it's totally different from the infinitive form of the verb. Northern Italians don't use it when they speak, so I rarely hear it. I know, I know....I should read more.
And then you've got the subjunctive tense, as in: "If I were really fluent in Italian, I wouldn't have to keep running to the dictionary to help my second-grader with her homework." In that sentence, were is in the subjunctive. The only problem is that Italians use this tense for a gazillion other situations that we don't. For example, if I say "She is at home, " or "I think she is at home," I've used "is" in both cases. Not so in Italian. They use the subjunctive for the second sentence, because it expresses doubt. Just like I'm starting to doubt whether I sound half-way intelligent when I speak Italian, because I frequently forget to use the &$%/£* subjunctive tense.

Now, to cement my ignorance even further, I made the mistake of expressing my surprise when my daughter's teacher taught them to write in cursive at the end of 1st grade. When I was a teacher in the U.S., we introduced cursive in 3rd grade. Yup. 3rd grade.
And writing in pen. When did you first write in pen at school? I seem to think it was middle school, if I remember correctly. Here they use a special pen with the ink on one end, and a white-out type tip on the other end for covering up mistakes. And they use this pen for math. Mercy.
So then I get to thinking, why are Italian bambini learning all of this stuff so early? Are they geniuses? And then it hit me: There are no spelling tests in Italian schools.
That's it!
Italian is a phonetically regular language, so what'cha see is what'cha say. American kids have to slog through all of those word families and rules and phonics exercises so they can pass that spelling test every Friday.
Whew! I felt better already. We're not so slow, after all. Italians may have their tricky verbs, but we've got to figure out the difference between threw and through, pair, pare and pear, and ate and eight.
No wonder American kids don't write in pen.


Rilla said...

Yeah, but Indian kids do, or did, in the long ago century that I grew up. No fancy white-out tips either. We had fountain pens, with brass slit nibs and refillable inkwells that held INDELIBLE PERMANENT black ink...mmm. Very useful indeed. What if you wanted to splatter that beautiful white, starched uniform blouse of the unsuspecting student seated in front...nothing to it...thwack. What if you wanted to splatter the oh so white starched shirt of the biology teacher as his face was turned to the board...nothing to it...thwack... or what if you wanted to add to those cute polka dots on the English grammar teacher's sari...nothing to it...yeah, that's right...thwack! Ah the days of fountain pens and penned painful grammar...thank for taking me back Natalie ;) Want to ink out that ridiculous subjunctive ...nothing to...thwack!

Rose said...

Hey, German children still use fountain pens. (Ours use blue ink, though.) Not until second grade, though. Our kids' teachers were agog and aghast that they didn't know how to use fountain pens. Never mind that my grandfather, who used to make them professionally, was born in the NINETEENTH CENTURY, hello! In the States, fountain pens went out of style along with you know, cuneiform.

We get that weird kind of expansion thingy in German, but also in English. I don't know why teachers can't just call the things nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. It's got to be annoying to have to learn two names for the same thing. (No, don't think about that too much, especially if your kids are bilingual...)

BTW, your posts always crack me up, Natalie. I live in Germany and my sister is married to a Japanese man, and I guess this is my source for news of the third, uh, club member.

cynjay said...

We use pencils, but I hit the wall this year with my 4th graders math. I was...gulp...teaching an advanced math class to some of the kids in his school. It was serious pre-geometry and pre-algebra and I had to be sure that I'd gone over the workbook carefully before each session so I would have even a basic understanding of what I was talking about. Safe to say I'm not a math person.

I was watching an 8th grader do his math homework the other day,so I asked him if his parents could still help him with his homework and he started laughing. That made me feel better.

debi in holland said...

Oh. My. God.

I'm impressed that both you and Rose can keep up with your kids' reading, nevertheless the grammar!

My 7-year-old is reading at a much higher level in Dutch than I am (I still try to read the one-word pb's with the 2-year-old! I think she's passing me up, too).

And they use fountain pens in Holland, too. I still can't write properly with one -- I keep twisting it or something so that the writing surface gets all wonky.

In Ireland, the kids weren't allowed to bring pens to school at all! My son's supply list had a pen on it, so I bought it and sent it to school with him. It was immediately taken away, and he was given detention for having a pen! Even though it was requested! On the list! I even pointed it out to the teacher . . . (don't get me started on her, though . . . she's the type of teacher all the horrible stereotypes were modeled after).

Natalie said...

Hey Rilla,
Boy, am I glad I never sat in front of you in class! ;-)

Hi Rose,
Fountain pens? Ugh. I guess I need to stop complaining now. :-) I think your kids should get extra credit for having descended from a maker of fountain pens! I'm glad you're enjoying the posts, and thanks for stopping by!

Hey CynJay,
Okay, so I have two more years before I need to start brushing up on math, then. Hmmmm. I taught 6th grade for a year, and I remember having to brush up on the math lessons before I taught them! Not only had I not done those kinds of math problems in years, but now they teach everything a different way. Sigh.

Hi Debi,
A pox on your child's Irish teacher! How awful! And keep on keeping on with your Dutch...the first year I was in Italy, I taught Kindergarten at the international school here. The lessons were all in English, but all the kids spoke Italian on the playground, which is where I picked up a lot of handy phrases, such as: "Ew, gross! Francesco mushed that spider!" or "Teacher! Guilia is picking her nose, and you said we had to use a tissue." You know, phrases I could then go out and use in public. ;-)

Rilla said...

Oh Natalie,
you needn't worry about me...sigh, I was the victim, not the perpetrator ;( I once had a classmate write an essay on my back in Hindi, coz it was Hindi class, about how I was a donkey! I didn't feel a thing, he was so careful, and of course, it was written in INDELIBLE PERMANENT black ink ;(

Margo said...

I just happened on to your wonderful blog through the Blueboards. As a TCK who grew up in Italy (till I was seven) and who still loves to visit and tries to keep up with the language (not in pen!), I am really enjoying your stories of what it is like to be an expat with children in la bella Italia! Thank you for sharing your wonderful experiences. Il mio cuore e ancora italiano.