No Speaking Maccheronic

From the heinous corporate drones at the Wall Street Institute – ubiquitous in Italy and, perhaps at this point, the world – comes a new advertising campaign aimed at getting Italians to improve their English: NO SPEAKING MACCHERONIC.

NO SPEAKING MACCHERONIC will be launched officially on “Maccheronic Day” (September 23, 2006), a celebration of the tried-and-true academic technique of embarrassing people into learning.

What’s funny … well, there’s an awful lot that’s funny. First, maccheronic is, itself, maccheronico: That is, it takes an Italian word and tries to make English out of it without changing the Italian spelling. Presumably, that’s exactly the kind of thing the WSI wants to protect the world against, but no one in their marketing department apparently bothered to check a dictionary. There, they would have found the correct English word: macaronic.

My personal wish is that the Wall Street Institute, a subsidiary of megacorp, Sylvan Learning, which has created a monopoly in the after-hours tutoring that public school districts began to adopt in 2003 in their desperation not to run afoul of Dubbya’s draconian “No Child Left Behind” legislation (it might better have been named “No Child Left”), might be a little embarrassed about how it approaches the teaching of English, but I wish in vain for this, as for so many things.

In 2004, while I was still in San Francisco, I was hired by Sylvan as a tutor and dutifully reported for brainwashing indoctrination training. Said “training” consists of handing you a binder the size of the OED in which every single lesson and virtually every single word is scripted, literally on a minute-by-minute basis. You’re encouraged — no, you’re required — to use their Pavlovian system of rewards, which involves giving students tokens for good behavior or taking them away when they don’t “learn.” The tokens can then be exchanged for the useless, dimestore goods that are available in the “Sylvan Store,” which teachers are also charged with operating.

Lesson: the purpose of education is to create consumers, but it’s not like we didn’t already know that from watching TV. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was a Sylvan Learning washout: I walked out on the training before I’d finished the second day.

Once in Italy, before I knew that Sylvan and Wall Street Institute were two heads of the same Hydra, I interviewed at one of the WSI centers in Rome, where I discovered that students spend their initial 2-4 “lessons” in front of a TV screen, watching videos. Only when they are thus “prepared” are they allowed to see an “instructor,” who is, in the Sylvan tradition, supplied with an enormous binder of pre-digested lessons that s/he is expected to “deliver.” The mannequin-bland and aggressively calm personage with whom I interviewed (calm in an “I’ve got a scorching Oxycontin habit” kind of way), in fact, never once used the verb “to teach.” Students are “exposed” to materials which are “provided” or “delivered” by the WSI robot corporate shill Stepford professor instructor.

It ain’t no way to teach English, buddy. Unfortunately, Wall Street spends a crap load of money on advertising — it sure isn’t spending it on teachers’ salaries, I can attest to that — and Italians seem to be easy prey for the plush carpeting, modular furniture, and corporate surroundings of the WSI centers, all of which seems to promise “success.”

If you’re dumb enough to believe that nice furniture and Laura Ashley window treatments mean “success” or even “qualified teachers,” of course, you probably deserve exactly the kind of con-job that WSI is pulling.

On the other hand, Wall Street and its ilk (the British Institutes franchise is WSI’s main competitor in Italy) are also responsible for one of the most destructive myths about English in Italy — that it’s an “easy” language to learn. In Rome last Christmas, we saw billboards in the subway that promised you could “Speak English in 6 Weeks.”

Well, no, you can’t, neither. Don’t shoot the messenger, but there it is.

All of that said, I’m only human, and I readily admit that I don’t mind poking a little fun now and then. When I was at the Università per Stranieri in Perugia, for example, there was a set of fire-emergency instructions posted next to the extinguisher — first in Italian and then dutifully “translated” into English. Indeed, in the case of an actual fire, you’d have burned to a greasy little cinder if you waited to decipher what it meant to “estrange oneself from the fount of peril first while maintaining tranquil the next.”

Here in Livorno, meanwhile, they don’t use translators; it’s beneath them. But this menu from a Livorno restaurant (for which I thank Anna Beria, of the it-en list, who found it somewhere in cyberspace) is a great pick-me-up. The image is a little murky, but it’s worth the effort. Next time you’re carrying spaghetti to the clams or considering offering your pasta to the angry one, think of your friendly neighborhood underpaid and underappreciated ESL teacher.

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Posted on 15 September 2006, in Crimes Against Translation, English Scorned, Betrayed, and Abused and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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