What would you say if we told you that you don’t have to learn a language to understand it? Sounds pretty absurd, right? But there isn’t any magic to it, just four simple tricks that you can use to follow in the steps of our three couples — and apply them to any foreign language. Let’s see how they managed to understand Italian without ever having studied it.
How Can 6 Non-Italians Suddenly Understand Italian?
We plunked German native speakers Juliana and Elisha, their British counterparts Danny and Lorne, and friends Pia and Hedda into an Italian-only situation. Does that sound mean? Well, actually we lured them with an offer they couldn’t refuse: Italian food! The only catch was that they had to cook it, using authentic Italian recipes written in Italian.
Our three couples all said they didn’t know any Italian beyond pasta and pizza. Still, they ventured into the kitchen without the help of an Italian speaker. How successful would they be at deciphering a foreign language without knowing it at all?
Trick #1: Determine The Language Family
Pia speaks Spanish and some French, so right away she saw she had an advantage in guessing Italian cooking instructions. Italian, like Spanish and French, is one of the Romance languages. All of the languages in this language family descended from Latin and have similarities in vocabulary, pronunciation, sentence structure and grammar.
When you come in contact with a foreign language for the first time, try to place it in its language family — but be aware of how this language family differs from the Germanic language family that English is part of. This perspective gives you a better understanding of the idiosyncrasies of the language you want to understand. Thanks to this trick alone, Hedda and Pia knew that Italian has certain characteristics, such as:
- vowels are very important
- verbs are conjugated by appending syllables to the stem
- the subject-verb-object word order is the same as in other Romance languages, like Spanish (English uses this word order as well)
This simple categorization makes it easier to make sense of the confusing mix of letters you see when first looking at a foreign language.
Trick #2: Use Cognates From Other Languages
Now that you’ve correctly classified Italian as a Romance language, it makes sense to use other Romance languages as a reference. This means that you, like a linguistic Sherlock Holmes, can figure out many words by comparing and excluding different possibilities.
Take a look at Pia, who regularly guessed the correct meaning while she was cooking. How did she manage that without speaking Italian? It’s simple — Pia looked for similar-looking words in other Romance languages. When she saw the Italian mescolate, for example, she thought of the Spanish mezclar and the French mélanger and came to the conclusion that if those two words both mean “mix,” then mescolate should too. In this way, she cooked up her Italian step by step.
But this isn’t exclusive to languages of the same family: Juliana realized that the Italian cavolfiore looked suspiciously like cauliflower. And what do you know — she was right!
Trick #3: Pay Attention To Context
We’ve probably all experienced this situation at least once: Someone comes up and talks to you in an airport terminal — but you don’t even know what language they’re speaking, let alone what they’re saying. Even so, you’re one step closer to understanding a foreign language when you’re aware of the context.
Imagine a well-defined situation, such as checking in to a hotel in Paris or the first meeting with German-speaking investors. In both cases there are types of words that you’d expect to hear, and they’re 100% predictable. The conversation at check-in will have to do with paying, rooms and vacation. Thanks to this trick, you’ll become a prophet of unknown situations! So what does this mean when you’re cooking? Well, you can expect a bunch of words concerning ingredients, utensils and directives.
Our special tip: always get to know the country-specific gestures. Depending on the context and culture, a hand gesture can speak volumes — especially in Italian!
Trick #4: Two Heads Are Better Than One
Admittedly, not all of our tips will automatically get you the right solution. If they could, we wouldn’t need any language learning apps, right? But we still have an ace up our sleeve!
The couple Juliana and Elisha already enjoyed cooking together, so they’re a well-rehearsed team. When puzzling over the cooking instruction “bollire in acqua salate,” the two quickly agreed that acqua means “water.” But what about salate? Well, Elisha saw a similarity with “salad” and thought it must be referring to a salad bowl, but before she started boiling the cauliflower in a salad bowl, Juliana interjected with a sensible solution: if you assume salate relates to “salt,” the noun phrase acqua salate, in a cooking context, makes more sense as “salt water.” So if you have two possibilities to choose from, take the one that’s most logical.
When cooking together, you can also check how much Italian you already know, whether it’s agreeing that bene means “good” or trying to count to 10 in Italian. And even if you’re totally on the wrong track when you’re wildly guessing — like Danny and Lorne, who thought the Italian dessert panna cotta was a cheese sandwich — you can at least have a laugh about it later!