Sometimes I hear people claim that Italians are not particularly good at English. This (perhaps sweeping) statement is supported not only by the plethora of articles one often finds in prestigious Italian newspapers such as Il Corriere della Sera or Il Messaggero, lamenting Italians’ poor performance in English and in other languages as well, but also by the results you can obtain – I think – if you get the chance to carry out very simple ‘tests’ at Italian train stations. – No, I haven’t gone mad! Let me explain.
I regularly travel to and from Rome and often go by train. So I also get to hear a lot of recorded announcements at several train stations scattered between the town of Tarquinia, where I live, and Roma Termini, the main train and bus station in Rome.
Here is one announcement in English I get to hear very frequently:
It is ˈstrictly for\/bidden | to ˈcross the ˈrailway \lines.
This utterance is wrong on two counts.
First, it just doesn’t sound idiomatically correct. English native speakers do not normally use the expression it is strictly forbidden to do something, but something is strictly forbidden, as in Entrance is strictly forbidden. Also, I would use tracks in place of railway lines here. So I would say something like Never cross the tracks or Do not cross the tracks.
Second, the intonation pattern used by the Italian lady making the recording is also unnatural. Pretending the sentence above were natural in English, native speakers would probably utter it using the following accentuation:
It is ˈstrictly forˈbidden to ˈcross the \railway lines.
or, I think,
It is ˈstrictly for\/bidden | to ˈcross the \railway lines.
So it’s ˈrailway lines, not railway ˈlines, unless, of course, you’re contrasting this phrase with something else, as in It’s the railway ˈtunnels I’m talking about, not the railway ˈlines.
Another interesting thing I notice while travelling on Italian trains is that the names of stations are not usually anglicised in announcements in English. So, for instance, when American and English tourists disembark and leave their cruise ships in Civitavecchia, one of the biggest ports in Italy, situated near Rome, they never understand where they’ve ended up. ˌtʃivitaˈvɛkkja is what Italians call it, but tourists often refer to it as ˌʃɪvətəˈvetʃiə or indeed ˌkɪvətəˈvetʃiə. The station announcements spoken in English do not use either of these pronunciations, so some of the tourists coming from the Eternal City on the train sometimes get lost and miss their ship because they fail to understand the name of the station where they have to get off. (Why don't they pay attention to the signs, I wonder?)
Next post in two weeks’ time.