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Chicken Little goes to Italy

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April July 4, 2008 02:21 PM

From my multilingual friend Wahyd Vannoni comes a link to a tale of a language-testing scandal in Italy, as reported last month in Corriere delle Sera, along with a summary in the language I actually read:

An official English-language exam organized by Italy's tourism ministry was full of spelling and grammatical mistakes. Apparently the official responsible for selecting the text copied and pasted an article written by a Yemeni journalist who interviewed two German-speaking hotel owners in Namibia. The three spoke English, because it was their only common language.

My opera-and-pasta Italian wasn’t equal to the original, though I knew that the phrase “Gravamente insufficiente” was bad news. Luckily, the newspaper website includes an English translation of the tale, explaining that the “gobbet” of text lifted from the Web came to the attention of Jean Woodhouse, an English teacher in Italy, and propelled her into high dudgeon. "If the examiner had been one of my pupils I would have failed him or her," Woodhouse told Corriere della Sera. "Frankly the text should have been thrown in the wastepaper basket."

A retired professor in Venice chimed in too, telling the Times of London that the text was "a kind of pseudo-English, or what was once called pidgin English. Even the average waiter in Venice speaks English more correctly than this."

Well, I’ve seen the text -- rather wildly marked up by Woodhouse -- and all I can say is, Really?


Here’s a bit of the "pidgin English":

Swakopmund offers a variety of accommodation for all tastes and budges. Owned by Tinkie and Johan Cornelisson, Villa Wiese is a guest lodge with a difference. Multi-colored walls take up most of a block and house of Villa Wiese, but once inside enormous wooden beams support the gothic ceilings of the dining room, where one can enjoy a tasty breakfast in the mornings.

Yes, there are typos (budges for budgets, Eal for Seal) and syntactical oddities ("What kind of atmosphere offers Villa Wiese?"). Yes, Italy probably has higher standards for mastery of foreign languages than the US (who doesn’t?). Yes, of course, a text for a language comprehension exam should be clean and correct.

But I've seen first drafts from native speakers of English that needed more work. "Almost incomprehensible"? The critic who rendered that judgment either doesn’t read English, or he just can’t resist joining in when Chicken Little says it’s time for a parade.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column “The Word” since 1997. E-mail her at

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