Ciao, I’m Daniel, ‘founder’ (I hate that word…) of OnlineItalianClub.com.
As a long-time teacher of English as a Foreign Language I’ve lived in several other countries and interacted with people from all over the world.
I once spent a year teaching classes of Japanese school children, for example. Now I specialise in Italian managers…
Along the way, I’ve tried and failed to learn a variety of languages. Some I’ve made decent progress with.
I now live in Italy, where I teach English, run an Italian language school, and learn Swedish and Turkish in my spare time.
Here’s my advice on how to learn Italian (or any language for that matter).
1.) Where are you starting from?
Have you ever learnt a foreign language before?
Just the one, at school? Or several, over the course of your long and interesting life?
Your answer should tell you a lot about how to proceed.
If you’ve only studied at school, for example, you may have little or no idea as to how to organise your own studies, and what to prioritise, using which resources.
If you’ve previously learnt a language with some success, then you’ll already have a body of experience which you can refer to, and probably preferences as to how you like to learn.
Let’s assume you’re a beginner, with no significant experience of learning a foreign language.
Know that, starting out, you might make bad decisions – pay for materials that don’t suit you, for example.
Know also that most people beginning with their first foreign language will soon give up.
Setting inappropriate goals is typical (“I want to understand everything I hear”, “I need to be able to speak fluently!”).
Acquiring a new language to the point in which you are able to function autonomously takes time, perhaps two or three months of full-time study, or two or three years part-time.
You’ll certainly need hundreds of hours of lessons, and/or of focused and effective self-study.
If you were thinking more ‘today’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘next week’ – don’t be surprised if you fail to achieve fluency…
The trick to language-learning, if there is one, is to establish a sustainable routine of useful study activities that you feel able to continue with for the time it takes for your brain to sort itself out with the new skills.
A simple solution, assuming you’ve not done this before, is to sign up for a ‘proper’ course – by which I mean one taught in a classroom by an actual teacher.
You pay your money, and the teacher makes all the decisions for you, which partly solves the problem.
Assuming the teacher is at least minimally-competent, after (say) an academic year, you should have improved perhaps a ‘level’ and you’ll be one significant step along the path – without having taken any decisions other than to trust the teacher!
But courses of this type are a ‘collective’ solution, and won’t suit everyone. You may not enjoy them, for a start, and so might not stick it out until you see the benefit.
Or the level might be wrong for you, or the day and time, or there simply may not be any good course options in your area.
So, if not a ‘proper’ course, then as a beginner with little or no language-learning experience, look out for online or offline solutions that are:
a.) Interesting enough that you think you’ll be able to make a habit of using them
b.) Free, or reasonable value for money, or if expensive, then at least you get a trial period, or a money-back guarantee, or whatever
Whatever you choose, whether it’s a ‘proper’ course, or some alternative, be aware that progress is likely to be slow, that there will be ups and downs, and that you should measure your progress in months or years rather than in tasks, lessons, days or weeks.
And if you’re NOT a beginner? (And beginners who make good decisions soon won’t be either…)
Then look at the next point.
2.) Where do you want to get to?
Blah, blah, understand everything, express myself fluently, blah, blah.
Heard it all before.
It’s nonsense, because these goals are too subjective, generic and long term.
Do yourself a favour and set some better-defined near-term goals.
Start by taking a long look at the CEFR self-assessment grid (.pdf), which synthesises the level-system and the abilities which are typical of each level. It’s used by schools, universities, publishing houses – basically everyone these days.
Click the link CEFR self-assessment grid (.pdf) and you’ll see a grid with six columns, representing the six ‘bands’ – two ‘A’ bands (elementary), two ‘B’ bands (intermediate) and two C bands (advanced).
Look at the one on the left, which is A1, the ‘lowest’.
Scan down to see ‘descriptors’ which tell you what you should be able to do at this ‘level’ in these categories:
- Spoken Interaction
- Spoken Production
Read them and you’ll see that the ‘descriptors’ are basically ‘can do’ statements.
Note that A1 is the first band of six, so what you read in that column would be the goals for a beginners’ course lasting between 80 and 120 hours.
If you’re just starting out, you won’t be able to do any of these things, yet!
But these five boxes in column one make a great set of goals, for your first year (part-time) or month (full-time) of learning.
They’re much more ACHIEVABLE then the more subjective and over-ambitious goals that I mentioned above.
For example, A1 Spoken Production:
“I can use simple phrases and sentences to describe where I live and people I know.”
If you’re just starting out, then that seems managageable, don’t you think?
Ditto with the others – focus your learning on acquiring the language components and the PRACTICE you need to do these things, to the point when you can read the descriptor and say, yes I CAN do that.
Wherever you’re starting from, beginner or otherwise, a practical and free goal-setting process is to identify your current ability in each of the five skill areas, then look at the next one up and decide something like…
“OK, I’m a B1 at speaking, which means X, and my next goal is to be a B2 at speaking, which means Y, and that should take me approximately a year of part-time study, or much less time if I focus only on that, so what I’ll need to do is…”
3.) What resources/opportunities do you have?
Here’s a rule of thumb for evaluating learning opportunities, which could be anything from a course to a website like this one.
You could choose, pay for, prioritise any one of a number of options.
For me, whatever I spend my ‘learning’ time and money on (I don’t ever ‘study’), has to be:
- APPROPRIATE – it has to work for me, in the sense that if I don’t click with it I’m unlikely to continue using it. And it has to get me closer towards my goals
- AMPLE – there needs to be lots of it! Say your goal is to improve your listening, or learn irregular verbs. One exercise, or a dozen, is a start. A hundred, or five hundred is better
- and above all, INTERESTING – boredom is the enemy! Look at people who are successful in their field, whatever that may be. Invariably, they find it fascinating. If you want to get better at something that takes time to learn, choosing the most boring learning opportunity is not a good bet
OK, here’s an important tip…
Assuming you have different options – say a course, various apps and websites, a bookshop full of learning aides – which should you choose?
Well obviously it needs to be appropriate to where you are now, and where you hope to get to.
But besides that?
Nobody knows, including you.
Try stuff, see if you like it.
If you do, then keep doing it. Feel free to ditch anything that bores you, unless it’s really, really necessary.
4.) When/how long to ‘study’?
The more hours you put in, the faster you’ll see results.
But whatever you do has to be sustainable, or you won’t keep it up, in which case you’ve wasted your time, or at least will need to find a viable alternative.
Start slow, then add more as and when, is one way around this.
Plan one or two ‘learning sessions’ a week, which could be something traditional like grammar exercises or more groovy like listening to Italian music and learning the words (remember your learning goals, though…)
If you have extra time, use it to find other learning opportunities that might also work for you. As well as X, try Y and Z.
Maybe Y is a bore, but Z could be cool, so plan a session of Z each week as well as your existing two sessions of X.
Let your learning activities grow naturally to fill the time you have available.
One thing that’s worked REALLY, REALLY WELL for me is to ‘substitute’ things I do in my normal life in English, such as for example reading the newspaper and listening to the radio, with the same or similar activities in the languages I’m learning.
So instead of listening to the BBC while I’m cooking Sunday lunch, I’ll listen to the national radio station of the country whose language I hope to improve.
The idea being that no ‘extra’ time is required.
Does it work?
Is it easy?
Nope, especially not at first.
I really missed the media in my native-tongue, and found it hard to adjust to another country’s output and style.
But in time, I got used to it. So now I learn while I wash the dishes and prepare the kids’ lunches.
And people wonder at how much progress I’ve made!
You read it here, first.
5.) What’s working/not working?
Some study systems, let’s call them, work well for a while, say when you’re a beginner. But you might get so into them that you miss other opportunities.
Perhaps your learning behaviour is so shaped by the app you use or the course you take that you lose sight of the fact that, while you may have ‘earned’ lots of ‘points’ or ‘finished’ a course or a ‘level’, you may not actually be any further towards speaking and understanding the language.
I see this all the time online, especially with people who made great progress as beginners using a certain learning tool. When it comes to real-life language use they’re still nowhere, but don’t realise.
No ‘learning opportunity’ (app, course, book, radio show) keeps paying out forever, however valid they are.
As you learn, you’ll change, you’ll become more able at certain things and so will need a greater challenge. You may need to focus more on areas that you’re weaker at.
The time will come when you’ll need to ditch what isn’t working so well any longer, to try something new.
Personally, I think of myself as having a ‘portfoglio’ of learning activities, which ideally I’ll keep adding to and refining as circumstances and opportunities change.
Just like an investment portfolio, it needs to be looked at occasionally and decisions made.
6.) How much progress have you made?
It AMAZES me how few people test themselves, rather than say relying on feedback from a teacher or an app.
But as virtually everyone these days uses the CEFR levels, it’s not hard to find out if you’ve made progress, and how much.
Forget grammar for the moment – there’s always more of that to worry about and you’ll never get it 100% right anyway…
Focus on the skills.
Can you understand? How well? What sort of texts?
Can you read? Ditto.
Can you write? What sort of texts?
How confident do you feel doing these things?
The grammar is a component, but it’s what you can do with it that matters.
Here are a few simple ways you can measure your progress:
- Self-evaluation – put a note in your diary for a date in, say, six months’ time to go back to the CEFR checklist and self-evaluate. When that time comes, be as objective as you can. Can you do these things? And these? Write down your ‘level’ in each skill area. Now set another note in your diary for six months further on. Repeat twelve times (six years…) By now you should be advanced, so stop.
- Course books – these are designed for specific levels. Maybe your local library has some? Take a look to see if there’s test material (and answers, obviously). Test yourself at level X, then Y. If you got 70% in either, the next one up is the level you should be working on
- ‘Easy readers’ – simplified texts for learners, usually with audio. The audio is a particularly useful resource. Try easier levels first to ‘tune in’. Work up gradually. You’ll likely know when you get beyond what you can comfortably do. Step back a level, that’s where you are now. The next level up is what you have to aim for
- Exams – international exam bodies often have free sample papers to download. Use them to test your reading, listening, grammar, etc. at each level
- Ask a teacher – if you have one, and if you don’t, private lessons don’t cost a lot. Don’t assume that the teacher will actually give you an intelligent, valid answer, though. Narrow it down a bit for them, say by downloading the ‘speaking’ section of an international exam at your level. Then ask that that be the focus of the lesson. Try it, with you as the candidate and the teacher as the examiner. Ask for feedback. Were you succcessful? If not, why not? What do you need to do to improve?
7.) What should you do next?
If you’re already learning, then great. Keep right on with what’s working and drop anything that isn’t.
Plus, set a note in your diary for a day six months from now when you will evaluate your progress and rebalance your ‘learning portfolio’.
You’ll be fine.
But a lot of people reading this aren’t currently learning Italian, though they aspire to.
Starting can be hard, but is often the most exciting, stimulating and fun part.
You won’t (yet) know what’s best, which materials and approaches will work well for you, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and so on.
But if you keep at it, you’ll figure it out – both the language itself, and the best way to keep improving your skills in it.
Once you begin, it’s just a question of time, and approach of course!
Try something, drop it if it’s boring and try something else.
Evaluate your progress.
Look for opportunities that will help you move ahead.
Above all, have fun!
Otherwise what would be the point?
(Comments on this page are welcome but will be moderated before they are published, so be patient!)