Jason Goodwin: The century-old language learning course that teased and intrigued me beyond endurance

Learning Italian sends Jason Goodwin down a route he'd never have expected — and his life is all the richer for it.

I once took a short course in Mandarin at the Beijing Language Institute, hoping to secure a student card that would let me travel around the country. The teaching method was straight out of Mao’s Little Red Book, all of us in class reciting phrases in unison. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘I am from England.’ ‘How many people in your family?’ ‘I have five: father, mother, Big Sister, Little Sister and Third Sister.’

When I was released into the community and began to travel, it turned out that the phrases we had been blandly reciting were precisely suited to the questions people would ask. The Big Sister, Second Auntie schtick took me from Tsing-tao to Kunming and I developed a respect for quaintly outmoded methods of language teaching.

There’s a joke about a man whose wife asks him why he is speaking so quietly around the house. He says he’s worried that Mark Zuckerberg is listening to their conversations and the wife laughs. The man laughs. Alexa laughs. Siri laughs. Sure enough, when I told Kate I planned to work on my Italian, my phone was onto it faster than you can sing la donna è mobile. Instagram filled with adverts and apps to make learning Italian painless. I signed up to an app with complicated credit-card instructions, incessant emails and a story. What a story! It features an IT specialist called Paul who works for a multinazionale Americano and lives in suburban London.

“The app is a grown up Peter and Susan with marital problems; Genzardi composes haikus and his characters breathe the quiddity of existence”

I’ve written stories and all I know is that this is no way to start. Like Kingsley Amis, I want a story to begin ‘A shot rang out’ or better. A 30-something divorcé with no children, Paul is merely a Key Stage 20 Kipper with a dead-end job. He doesn’t ignite my inner Italian. In tandem, therefore, I am consulting a my-postillion-has-been-struck-by-lightning sort of book called The English Tourist in Italy, published by N. E. Genzardi before the First World War, that expounds ‘a practical and easy method of learning and speaking Italian with a correct pronunciation’. It moves quite logically through the grammar and vocabulary, but its sentences and examples are gloriously off the wall.

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One of the first words we learn is uno Scozzese, a Scotchman, which adds a definite flavour to the unseen translations. The daughter has sold a cupboard. Has she a flower? Have they seen the Scotchman? Well, have they? Genzardi leaves it hanging, like a master storyteller. Over on the app, Paul plods on and makes a friend in Milan, but I don’t care. Who dyed your hat? The English Tourist makes friends his own way.

To dip into the world of Genzardi is to be teased and intrigued almost beyond endurance. An exercise in plural nouns? She has very large feet, but very white teeth. And how about this Hitchcockian dialogue with the hotel landlord: Do you have a good dentist? There are not any here. That is very strange, when there are dentists everywhere. What is Genzardi implying? Why would the landlord conceal his dentist? Every page is a story. Why did you not give your shoes to that poor man? The answer is unexpected: because I was ashamed.

Paul on the app is a grown up Peter and Susan with marital problems; Genzardi composes haikus and his characters breathe the quiddity of existence.

The attentive reader will see that there is very little actual Italian in this column and may suspect that I am spending too much time with the English part of Genzardi’s magnificent book. But, as the author himself might say, dal detto al fatto v’è un gran tratto. Say it together.