Getting to grips with la bella lingua's passato remoto

Italian Demystified. Author Marcel Danesi. Edition First. Publisher McGraw-Hill. Pages 432. Price £12.99. ISBN 9780071476591.

May 22, 2008

This is a helpful and flexible textbook, although the purpose for which it is most prominently offered is the one for which I would least recommend it: if someone is "to learn the basics of the Italian language without taking a formal course", at the very least they need some accompanying audio material.

Nor would I recommend it for use at the other end of the scale, as the main textbook in an academic course for undergraduates in Italian, because those students will need a more thorough and precise knowledge of grammatical issues and terminology than what is on offer here. But it can usefully complement these and other forms of learning activities.

As explained in the introduction, this can be used as a textbook, with the student going systematically through each unit, or as a reference book, for additional clarification and practice on specific points. It covers roughly the same ground as the more comprehensive beginners' textbooks (it goes as far as the conditional but not the subjunctive), with the addition of combined object pronouns and the passato remoto.

The general layout of the book, which is divided into four five-chapter sections, furthers its stated purpose of gently easing the student into a decently competent knowledge of Italian. Chapter headings ("Using the imperfect tense", "Talking about the future", "Making comparisons") reinforce the sense that this is about active communication rather than abstract theorising, and the titles of the four sections tell students exactly where they're at, from "Basic skills" through "Expanding on the basics" and "Building competence" to "Extending competence". A brief grammatical explanation of each topic is followed by a list of examples to read out loud, and a gap-filling exercise, with English translations provided throughout.

There is an open-book quiz at the end of every chapter and a closed-book test at the end of each section, plus a final exam. Acceptable scores in these are given as 80 per cent for the quizzes and 75 per cent for the tests and the exam. In fact, while maintaining an upbeat and encouraging stance throughout, this book does not shirk from emphasising "grammatical accuracy and knowledge", or from telling students that "languages are not easy to learn. They require time and effort." The subsequent claim that "the way in which this book is organised allows you to absorb each concept of the Italian language in small pieces" seems therefore equally reasonable and realistic.

Who is it for? Anyone (at beginners' or lower-intermediate level) who needs a little extra help or motivation in learning Italian. In particular, it might alleviate pre-exam revision panic.

Presentation - Attractive and user-friendly. It includes a two-way glossary, an answer key and a full index, making it possible to use the book as a basic reference grammar.

Would you recommend it? Yes.

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