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Review of  A Guide to Italian Language and Culture for English-Speaking Learners of Italian

Reviewer: Ivan Lombardi
Book Title: A Guide to Italian Language and Culture for English-Speaking Learners of Italian
Book Author: Barbara Gabriella Renzi
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Italian
Issue Number: 29.4545

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According to the introduction to A Guide to Italian Language and Culture for English-Speaking Learners of Italian: La Dolce Italia (Cambridge Scholars, 2017), editor Barbara Gabriella Renzi identifies her audience as adult learners who are studying Italian by themselves out of interest in Italian culture. In further detail, she targets tourists who plan to travel to Italy to taste the local cuisine, explore lesser-known areas of the country, experience local customs, and participate in musical events. While not stated in the Introduction, the title hints at speakers of English being the main audience. Level-wise, Renzi ambitiously targets the wide range of A1-A2, B1, and B2 learners. The textbook allegedly has its main strength in its recordings, which feature a variety of Italian accents. These recordings, however, were not made available for review.

Renzi’s textbook is divided into two parts. Part 1 (Chapters 1-20) covers a number of basic communicative acts and common situations, as well as a few grammar points. Part 2 (Chapters A-P) focuses on learning and discussing a variety of cultural topics: Italian areas and their history, local culture and food, Italian classical literature, and the biographies of remarkable Italian women. The textbook ends with a self-introduction of the author and her family, and no end matter (glossary, index, or other study aids).

For the sake of space, we will review here a subset of the 33 chapters of the textbook (Part 1, Chapters 1, 5, 10, 15, 20; Part 2, Chapters A, E, L, P). In the end, we will provide a more comprehensive evaluation.

Chapter 1 opens with a bilingual statement of its goals: “you will learn to say your name, the alphabet and the numbers” (p. 4). The opening dialog (text 1) is instead given in Italian only: “Mi chiamo Sirio. Ho qualche mese. Guarda, un piede della mamma! Tu come ti chiami?” “Io mi chiamo Barbara!” (“My name is Sirio. I am a few months old. Look, mom’s foot! What’s your name?” “My name is Barbara”). A photo of Sirio and Barbara’s foot is given for context, although vocabulary that is not a target of this chapter, like “qualche” (a few), “mese” (month), “guarda!” (look!) is not explained nor translated. This text cues eight exercises on numbers, although no number is introduced in the text itself. Exercises are nicely color-coded: ‘listen and repeat’ in green and ‘read aloud’ in red; their sequence gets the student to practice listening and reading numbers up to the tens of thousands. Text 2 introduces all the different ways for telling time, and is followed by two ‘read aloud’ exercises. Text 3 focuses on introducing oneself, spelling, and the Italian alphabet. One of the three exercises is framed as a pair activity, although this kind of exercises does not usually fit the paradigm of a self-study textbook. Text 4 is a collection of greetings, which are not practiced afterwards.

In Chapter 5 “you will learn to buy fruit and vegetables at the market and the relative vocabulary. You will also learn the use of the gerundio tense”. Indeed, the situations (dialogs and explanatory texts) take place at a typical local market. Unlike Chapter 1, all dialogs and texts are translated, and bilingual lists of market goods ranging from common to really specific items like Tropea onions and zucchini flowers are scattered throughout the chapter. Chapter 5 also has grammar notes, color-coded in blue, explaining about the present tense of the verb ‘to have’, indefinite pronouns and adjectives, and the gerund tense. At the end of the chapter, the reader is prompted to use the new vocabulary actively to write a recipe and a situational dialog.

In Chapter 10 students learn how to describe their daily routine and how to tell the time, with an additional focus on grammar – common verbs like “fare” (to do) and “mangiare” (to eat) in the first and third person, and common prepositions like “dentro” (in) and “fuori” (out). ‘Sirio’s day’, the opening text, is given in Italian only, and followed by comprehension questions and a bilingual grammar explanation on how to ask for and tell the time in Italian, as well as the simple present conjugation of regular Italian verbs. Text 2 ‘Sirio’s day in summer in the mountains’ is given in Italian only, and cues more verb conjugations and the study of common prepositions. Texts 3 and 4 introduce other recurring characters and their daily routine, followed by comprehension questions.

“People go to Italy to eat good food and drink good wine as well, so we think it is necessary to insist on the food” (p. 163) is the opening statement of Chapter 15, in which readers learn how to order food and drinks at a traditional “bar” (café). Not surprisingly, all dialogs and situational texts take place at a café at lunch time or aperitivo time, providing insights into both the traditional and modern Italian food culture. No new grammar is introduced, but rather new vocabulary for specific ‘bar food’, such as “tramezzino” (sandwich) and “succo di albicocca” (apricot juice), and reviews from previous chapters. In Chapter 15 listening and fill in the gaps exercises seem to be the main strategy adopted to practice both the old and new vocabulary.

Chapter 20 focuses on talking about one’s family, age, and hobbies. Unusually placed so late in a book (namely, at the very end of Part 1), these topics are used to introduce the imperfect tense and its extensive use in Italian. The sample self-introduction introduces new words and idioms, which are not practiced – instead the only focus is on the new verb tense and how to use with regular verb and “avere” (to have) and “essere” (to be).

Chapter A is the first of Part 2 and shows a change of pace and general organization of the teaching style. Now the focus is on descripting pictures – in this chapter, the Amalfi coast and the island of Capri. No specific vocabulary is given at first – users of this textbook should use their own words, first in writing and then orally, to describe what they see in several photos of local scenery. Most pictures feature guiding questions (in Italian) for the activity, like “quale foto ti piace di più?” (which picture do you like the most?), and also questions to take the speaking activity beyond the description, such as “racconta la tua ultima vacanza! Sei stato/stata al mare?” (tell about your last vacation! Have you been to the sea?). Some new and quite peculiar vocabulary like “tortuose” (winding), “mozzafiato” (breathtaking), and “borghi marinari” (seaside villages) is introduced at the end of the chapter.

Chapter E has yet another change of style. There are no pictures to describe, but rather vocabulary lists and exercises and comprehension questions based on one main text, ‘around the city of Naples with Lea’. The text targets very specific words like “battistero” (baptistery), “neoclassico” (neoclassical), and idioms like “leccarsi i baffi” (translated as ‘to lick one’s chops’), and provides no translation. A second short text, giving information about Neapolitan writer Matilde Serao, prompts the reader to research and talk about folk tales, as well as other pair speaking activities on the topic of books and reading.

Chapter L “is designed to improve your speaking, listening, and reading skills” (p. 289) through an explanatory text, pictures to describe, and open questions on the medieval small town of Cave near Rome. There are also two main grammar foci: ordinary numbers from 1 to 20, and the conjugation of three regular verbs (“sorgere”, to rise, “scomparire”, to disappear, and “ripercorrere”, to retrace – although the latter two are not used anywhere in the chapter) in the present tense. In addition, difficult vocabulary (e.g. “sperone di tufo”, tuff spur) from the explanatory text is presented separately and translated.


As a general evaluation, one could say that Renzi’s textbook is quite unlike any other textbook on the market. Its most distinctive feature is a homemade, rustic character that is expressed by the many family pictures, situations, and stories that populate the first part book, as well as the genuine vacation photos taken by the editor and collaborators that guide most activities in Part 2. The kind of English used for translations and instructions is heavily influenced by Italian, further adding to this sense of “locally-produced” textbook. This choice comes with downsides, though, as it gives the textbook an unpolished and unrefined vibe. It is hard to deny that it looks more like a collection of handouts than the result of a linear pedagogical project, and unfortunately the “Microsoft Word” look-and-feel of each page does not help highlight the efforts made to put all of this material together. The numerous oversights and typos also suggest poor editing work, and in some cases they are quite serious. For example, Chapter E is missing from the table of contents, the introduction of numbers from 100 to 1000 skips 900 in Chapter 1, Chapter 13 uses professional maps of Urbino and Rome without citing the source, Chapter 15 has overlapping text that makes an explanatory text effectively illegible, Chapter 19 has a typo in the title, and minor typos are scattered throughout the textbook, both in Italian and in the English translations. For a book that comes with the hefty price tag of £67.99, the editing work is very approximate.

Renzi’s textbook is aiming for an extremely specific and narrow audience, which might explain the unusual topic choice and sequence. Although the front matters mention CEFR levels, it is not stated, nor clear from the text, in which way the CEFR descriptors inform the choice of situations and activities, and how these support the student in progressing from the A1 to the B2 level. In addition, it is debatable whether the types of activity are always adequate to the target. As stated in the Introduction, the textbook is supposed to be suitable for self-study, but about half of the exercises in each chapter require pair work or feedback from an instructor. Moreover, answers are not provided for fill-in-the-blanks and other productive exercises, and are also not available for download on the publisher’s website.

All things considered, what is here marketed as a textbook may not be a textbook at all. It could be instead seen as a reference book for readings (albeit very informally written) on mostly local Italian culture to use with adult learners in an Italian language classroom context. If the audio recordings are as high quality as advertised, they could also constitute a valuable resource in the same context. This still needs to be verified when the recordings will be made available, as they do not come with the book nor can be downloaded anywhere.
Ivan Lombardi is Assistant Professor at the School of Global and Community Studies, University of Fukui (Japan), where he teaches EMI courses in linguistics and second language acquisition, among others. His main research topics are motivation and autonomy in language learning. He is carrying an ongoing research project on autonomous learning of Italian as a foreign language with adult Japanese learners.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781527503038
Pages: 350
Prices: U.K. £ 67.99
U.S. $ 99.95