It must have been about this time four years ago when I decided that, as I hadn’t done any significant language-learning for more than a decade, I would have a go at teaching myself Swedish over the Christmas holidays!
Digging back through our archive of articles like this one, I found ‘How I started learning a language using only an easy reader‘ from Dec. 5th 2016, and ‘Proof I Studied & 3 Free Italian Exercises (it’s been a while!)‘ from Dec. 7th 2016. It must have been a quiet week…
I’ve been teaching English as a foreign language since 1991, which, looking back on it, is an awfully long time. But, apart from having picked up some Turkish in my ‘first country’, enough Japanese to score a table-tennis match during a year spent teaching Japanese kids in Britain, and dismally failing to learn much Polish, besides the basics of ordering beer and telling taxi drivers where to go, during 1996’s incredibly cold and snowy winter in western Poland, I didn’t much bother with teaching myself.
Until, that is, I fell in love with an Italian and, without much enthusiasm, relocated to Bologna, at which point it became a quasi-necessity. But at THAT point, there was a living to earn, and to cap that, babies popping out each year for what felt like forever. So I admit, I was as half-hearted about learning Italian as I had been with the other languages, though with good excuses this time. For instance, that we spoke, and still speak, English at home, to promote bilingualism in our kids (an excellent investment, as it turns out.)
Anyway, four years back, the kids were grown, things were quiet on the work front, and I found myself in search of a new challenge. “I know”, I thought, “I’ll learn a language! It’ll be good for my teaching, at least. And here’s an idea, I’ll let club members vote on which language I should learn!” If you search through this rather long article, you’ll find the part where I announced my grand plan.
You guys chose that I should learn Swedish, my mother-in-law’s native tongue. I guess you were winding me up, or trying to. So how am I getting on with that, four years later?
Beh, not too badly, actually. A couple of years back I took the A2 (second level) Swedex exam at a language school in Milan, and passed with flying colours (I’d had many hours of online conversation by that point, which helped massively.) My idea was to then get the B1/B2 books, which I did, and go for the B1 (third-level exam) the year after, and maybe the B2 (fourth level) the year after that.
But the school in Milan found it wasn’t making any money organising Swedex exams, probably due to a post-Syrian-refugee-crisis crackdown on migration, and so stopped. No other options were available, which was a shame, and meant I had to find another way to motivate myself.
I’d already got far enough with the language that I’d discovered the various ‘easy reading and listening’ options the Swedish state was pumping out for newcomers from the Middle East, and was learning to make use of them (the inspiration for our very own EasyItalianNews.com a year or so later!).
At some point after that, I stopped with the simplified stuff and began listening to the ‘real’ radio each day, which mostly I still do. I also get thirty minutes of Swedish conversation each week, with a club member.
The result? Without having studied much (my B1/B2 books remain unopened), and with greater or lesser difficulty, I can read news stories, listen to news bulletins, and chat for thirty minutes about the virus. I’d guess I’d easily be good enough to get through the B1 exam, were it to be available, which places me somewhere in the B2 band. So say about half-way between beginner and proficient.
Four years of part-time ‘study’ to go from zero to (semi-) hero? That’s about par for the course, as any language teacher could tell you. No miracle necessary. I could probably have done the same thing in as many months if I’d studied full-time in a proper language school, though that wasn’t an option.
Nor was I particularly prioritising Swedish because, as regular readers will know, a couple of years back I concluded that it was a shame never to have made more of the French I got at school, so started reading in that language, too. And then, way back at the beginning of pestilent 2020, after my wife received two plane-tickets to Spain as a Christmas gift from her mother, I figured I’d better learn some Spanish, at least.
It’s a bit addictive, this language-learning thing. Once you get the habit of it, at least. So the current state of play is conversation lessons on Tuesday (French), Thursday (Swedish) and Friday (Turkish and Spanish). Plus listening to Swedish radio (every day), French and Spanish radio (some days), and Turkish (weekends, after a few beers). And reading news apps most days, too. I STILL don’t read in Turkish, after nearly thirty years of not trying very hard, but I can figure out articles in the other three languages well enough, and try to make at least some use of the Le Monde subscription that I pay for each month.
What about Italian, I hear readers muttering. After all, this is a website about learning Italian, right?
Well, yes, I suppose it is. Certainly, all the materials at OnlineItalianClub.com are for people learning Italian, that’s clear.
But if I’ve learnt anything over the last few years, it’s been this: anyone can download an app, buy a book, or sign up for lessons or a course. But that the majority of those who do, don’t get very far towards their goals. Which is a shame, don’t you think?
What’s missing, in my humble opinion, is a focus on ‘how’ to learn, and in particular the parts that don’t involve memorising new words or reading grammar explanations, which just about everyone was exposed to at school at some point.
How to build relationships with teachers and conversation partners? How to get plenty of (reading/listening) input so as to keep your brain engaging with the new language? And most importantly of all, how to stay motivated over what is inevitably a very, very long period?
Probably it’s those things that these articles mostly dwell on.
I could go study Spanish grammar (or learn to read in Turkish, or find a place to do a Swedex exam) any time I felt like it. But priority number one is to keep myself interested in the languages, to keep listening to them, reading them, and at every opportunity, speaking them.
Or what’s the point? Learning is life-long, not just for Christmas, even though that’s always the time when I make grand plans (that I am often unable to stick to when things get busy again…)
This holiday season, in particular after teaching ends on Dec. 17th, my objective is to reinforce the language-learning HABITS, which have paid off so well for me over the last few years. Things I started doing, enjoyed, found useful, but haven’t kept up with. Stuff like that. What about you?
I won’t be beating myself up over Christmas/New Year if I don’t find the time or mental energy to study. But I will try to focus on exploring interesting things to read and listen to, and seeking out chances to use the languages I’ve been learning.
I may even talk to my mother-in-law, though she always pretends not to understand what I’m saying. No matter, I still get to listen in on her formerly private conversations with my wife, which is satisfying!
And who knows, perhaps in 2021 we’ll be in a position to travel again?
Don’t forget this week’s Christmassy, half-price ‘eBook of the Week’, Natale a sorpresa. At level B2 (upper-intermediate), it’s ideal for anyone with a few years of Italian under their belts. Especially as this week it costs just £3.99, instead of the usual £7.99.
It’s December and Christmas is coming! Normally Matteo spends the festive season with his family, but this year they’re visiting relatives in Australia. So it looks as if he’ll be celebrating alone.
Don’t forget to read/listen to Tuesday’s FREE bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news, will you?