January 5, 2010 | Italian

Child Labor

I am tutored by children.

Over the past three days, I have had three Italian tutoring sessions, first with my niece Sophie, 7, and then with my nephews Charlie, 12, and Peter, 10. As I have mentioned previously, they are the children of Brandt’s sister and are in the midst of a two-week stay in New York. Payment for tutoring services: a $5 Barnes & Noble gift card per hour.

Me, Charlie, Peter, and Sophie

The first tutoring session, with Sophie, was two nights ago. I asked her to teach me to say the alphabet aloud, something I never learned to do properly in either Russian or Arabic. In those two languages, I learned the sounds associated with the various letters much better than I learned the actual letter names.

Although most people don’t often stop to consider this point, a letter’s sound(s) and a letter’s name are two different things. The former is much more critical, especially when you have only two months and you have to choose wisely how you will spend your time. After all, you can’t read a word if you don’t know how to pronounce the sounds in it.

The latter skill—being able to say letters’ names—becomes more important if you need to spell something out loud, or if someone is spelling something out loud for you. This kind of thing doesn’t come up all that much in normal conversation, but the problem is, once it becomes apparent that you can’t spell orally, people tend to disregard any other linguistic achievements and assume you are incompetent.

Although Sophie is only seven, she was very good at telling me what to do. First she went through the letters one by one with me. Then she made me say the alphabet all the way through. Then she said I should do it again, faster.

Then faster!

Then faster!!

Eventually I met her exacting standards, and we moved on to part two of the lesson.

Sophie, 7, Italian Tutor

Sophie had brought her Italian homework with her, so together we read a story about a little boy, his father, his grandfather, and a snowstorm. Occasionally there was a word I would help her with, and she would look at me with great astonishment and say things like, “How did you know that?” or “You are a genius!” (There is nothing like admiration from a seven-year-old to make you feel great.) From the snow story, I learned words that I had not previously encountered in any of my books—for example, pupazzo (snowman) and una battaglia a palle di neve (snowball fights). I guess these are not viewed as high priorities for adult learners.

That was two days ago. Then, yesterday, Charlie tutored me, and today I had a third session, with Peter. All three children were wonderful teachers; I would have to rate this tutoring idea a total success. And, as an important side benefit, I got to spend extra time on my own with my niece and nephews.

When you live on different continents, there aren’t all that many opportunities for that kind of thing, so it was pretty special.

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