September 6, 2013 | Review Period

But I Don’t Want to Be a Dummy!

To my annoyance, darn it, I am initially liking a language book in the "For Dummies" series.

I have my entire adult life studiously avoided books from the For Dummies and Idiot’s Guides series. 

For Dummies books come from the publishing company Wiley. Launched in 1991, this reference series now has more than 1,800 titles on topics ranging from computers to music to sports to…language.

Italian All-in-One for Dummies, from Wiley

Italian All-in-One for Dummies, from Wiley

They offer language-learning books based in languages other than English, too, such as Sprachführer Französisch für Dummies(Funny, see how “dummies” in the title doesn’t get translated? I guess Dummköpfe doesn’t have quite the same ring.)

The Idiot’s Guides are published by Alpha Books, which is an imprint of DK Publishing, which is part of Penguin Random House. (Figuring out publishing company structures is like playing with Russian nesting dolls.) This series, too, covers many different topics, including foreign languages.

Recently I decided that it is time for me to overcome my prejudice against these ubiquitous intelligence-insulting books, so I am in the early portion of Wiley’s Italian All-in-One for Dummies. The “all-in-one” is because it supposedly contains the contents of six books. I can in any case confirm that it is substantial, with a total of 648 pages. It is a good thing the paper is lightweight or I would already be walking at a tilt.

What is striking me so far, from where I am sitting on page 23, is the intelligence of how the material is delivered. Yes, the intelligence of this Dummies book. 

Just as an example, I really enjoyed a lovely section on page 19 about “Differences between dialects and the Italian language,” which explains the diversity of language in modern Italy and offers 10 different ways one could say ragazza, meaning “girl,” from one region to the next. (For the linguistically curious, these include carusa for Sicily, fiola for Umbria, and vagnona for Puglia.)

Of course, this is the first Dummies book I have checked out, and I am only on page 23. Anything could happen. But the book has also consistently provided translations and easy-to-follow pronunciation advice for the words it has introduced. The writer’s voice isn’t cutesy or gimmicky (which I was frankly expecting) or intrusive. The explanations have been careful and clear.

One beef: I don’t see a lot in the way of exercises. I will have to report back on that later. That could be a problem for me. I am a grammar-exercise addict.

Anyway, why do I object to the branding of Dummies and Idiot’s books? Some people might read that as humorless and tell me to chill out. The idea, of course, is not that these series are written for morons, but rather, that they present information in a simple, clear way. I get that.

And yet, the brands still touch a nerve for me. I already feel uneasy about American culture as it is reflected around the world. Aren’t we Americans a little too proud of our ignorance? I think we need a For People Who Give a Shit About the World Around Them series.

In the meantime, though, I am going to keep reading (and learning from) my Dummies book.


Comments (4)

Alex • Posted on Sat, September 07, 2013 - 1:46 am EST

For all those who are not dummies, they have this printed across the cover (back cover in your case, perhaps): “A reference for the rest of us!” So take comfort, Ellen. They thought of you. ;)

Farschied • Posted on Sat, September 07, 2013 - 3:22 pm EST

I had one of these, but I was embarrassed to use it in a public library! Everyone was staring at me like I was a real dummy! :D.

I think this title damages the learner’s ego!

” But I Don’t Want to Be a Dummy! “,  totally!

Charles • Posted on Tue, September 24, 2013 - 11:43 pm EST

Not only does the word “dummies” not translate in some foreign language editions, sometimes they don’t use the word at all.  I remember in the 1990s when the Dummies books first came out—they were all computer related then—I was in Taiwan and my Taiwanese friends wouldn’t even touch the books.  They found it very insulting. When the Chinese editions of the books came out, any indication of “for dummies” was also removed from the title.  I think its interesting that in French they have “Culture generale pour les nuls”

Kris L. • Posted on Sun, September 29, 2013 - 3:04 pm EST

Do they have one of these for Spanish (All-for-one)?  I’m sure that there have to be many differences in the different areas of Spain along with other countries that have Spanish as their native language (central America, South America, etc.).

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