I recently linked to one of my own articles, modestly entitled ‘How to learn Italian (or any language)‘.
If you read it, you might have expected language-learning ‘tactics’, but in fact my experience of language-learning (and language-teaching, which is my profession) has been that, given that it’s a long-term activity, the ‘strategic’ side of things is much more important.
‘Tactics’? ‘Strategy’? you might object – asssuming you’re not a soldier or a chess player – and it’s true that the terms are often confused, misunderstood or just seen as synonymous.
But bear with me – this is directly relevant to many, many discussions on the ‘how’ of language-learning.
I like to think of the word ‘tactics’ as referring to a specific action or actions aimed to achieve a known result.
If you were a general, you might for example look out for the opportunity to have part of your army go around the side of your enemy (or over them, or under them) so ‘flanking’ them and gaining an advantage by attacking them from behind.
Tactical reasoning equates to: do ‘this activity’ and ‘that’ might/should/will happen – bring your teacher an apple and she’ll be less severe when she finds out you haven’t done your homework.
When ‘studying’ a language, you’ll be faced with tactical decisions all the time. For example, whether or not to stop reading/listening in order to look up an unknown word.
If you interrupt your reading/listening to check the unfamiliar term, you might/should/will understand the meaning of the sentence better.
But ‘strategic’ reasoning might suggest otherwise.
A flanking manoeuvre, or stopping what you’re doing to open a dictionary, are specific actions intended to facilitate a known result – an advantage in battle, increased understanding at sentence-level.
But they could also have costs: by dividing the army, holding some units in reserve in case a chance to go around the enemy’s main force opens up, the general may weaken the attack or defence; by breaking the ‘flow’ of your mental reading/listening processes to focus on one specific term (which may prove irrelevant anyway), you risk that your ability to understand the text at a more general level (based upon your memory of what has come before and your hypotheses regarding where the writer may be taking you) is undermined.
Strategy gives the general a context in which tactical decisions are made: follow ‘this approach’ in choosing what and when to do things and it’s more likely that ‘that’ will happen.
If this is the final battle, then risking all by dividing your forces in order to gain the advantage of surprise and bring the battle to a swift end may be the master-stroke which gets your name in the history books.
Or it may not.
But if this is just one battle in what you expect to be a series of encounters, then conserving your troops, minimising risks could be a wiser decision.
Is this one word, or exercise, or webpage, or app, or grammatical structure fundamental to your eventual success or failure in learning Italian?
If not, then why let the tail wag the dog?
If your strategy is, for example, to do lots of reading/listening with the idea that this will help you by improving your comprehension skills, consolidating the grammar you’ve studied, and showing you (indirectly, sub-consciously – because of information in the text about ‘frequency’) which words you really need to know, and providing a context in which to learn them easily…
If THAT’S the plan, then it’s OK to ignore tactical opportunities (stop to look up a new word) so as not to distract from the strategic objective (read/listen as much as possible so as to improve your more general understanding).
Now there’s no one way of winning a battle, nor of learning a language, and in any case people will disagree about the ‘how’ and the ‘what’, and even about the ‘why’.
However, whether you’re a general or a language-learner (or both!), having an understanding of which decisions are ‘tactical’, which are ‘strategic’, and where the overlap might be found, will help you.
“Yes, I would understand this sentence bettter if I checked the meaning of the words I don’t (yet) know. But my ‘strategic’ approach is to not do that, and to concentrate on the more general meaning of the text. Which means that I am focusing on the ‘skill’ of reading rather than on each item of vocabulary.
The result? I get through texts quicker, which in turn means I have time to do others. And the more I read, the more it becomes obvious which words/grammar structures are frequent, and therefore useful. And, as a bonus, because I see the same unknown words frequently, it becomes easier and easier to figure out their probable meaning WITHOUT opening my dictionary.”
You may disagree with this approach, which is your right.
But do you see how the strategy (read extensively) informs the tactic (check unknown words in a dictionary)? That’s important.
Beh anyway, all this was prompted by an email from Erin who wrote:
Hello! A while ago, you recommended Rai play radio. I downloaded it, listened to the indie stations, then gave up because I felt like I wasn’t learning. Well, I have an Italy trip coming up next May, and decided I needed more listening practice (I think you also mentioned it again lately, which brought it back to mind). I’m finding it much more useful than I had before, as, besides the regular news and sports, it offers podcasts and a few audio books! (Like the Italian translation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved- here called ‘amatissima’. It’s surprisingly easy to follow.) So thank you for recommending such a great app, and I hope others give it a try.
That link and others can be found on our ‘Other Resources for Learning Italian’ page.
That might strike you as a disorientating list of alternatives to club materials, but I’m not trying to confuse you, or to send you away. It’s inutitive that, when it comes to language-learning, there ARE many alternatives, and also clear to most of us that it’s not easy to know which are better and if or when to use them.
But doubtless it’s not easy to be a victorious general either.
And generals probably start off as young lieutenants and so have time to learn their trade, from the bottom up so to speak, and appreciate the pros and cons of various tactics, before eventually learning about the strategies which will enable them to make more significant and coherent decisions.
Why did I pick out Erin’s email for you?
Because she wrote this:
“A while ago, you recommended Rai play radio. I downloaded it, listened to the indie stations, then gave up because I felt like I wasn’t learning.”
And then this:
“I’m finding it much more useful than I had before”
Some tactics/strategies are inappropriate to some situations (learners at some levels, with particular goals), but when the situation changes, one would hope that the general would be smart enough to change his or her mind about what to try next.
Which brings me back to the title of this article: ‘Now here’s a winning language-learning strategy!’
And the strategy is?
Making a habit of listening/reading in Italian, for example Erin’s use of RaiPlay.it.
Which is, of course, a STRATEGIC decision, and one which has all sorts of positive implications for your chances of ultimate victory!
It’s what I’ve been trying to encourage with our thrice-weekly (and FREE) bulletins of ‘easy’ Italian news.
You’re free to ignore them, of course.
Perhaps they are, for the moment, too difficult.
Maybe you don’t enjoy listening to the news, even in your own language, or you just don’t have time.
But if a tactic or strategy isn’t right for you now, it might well be exactly what you need at some future point (brava Erin!)
Generals who don’t learn, or who ignore opportunities, or refuse to listen to advice, are likely to end up as mere footnotes in the history books.
And here’s that article again: ‘How to learn Italian (or any language)‘
Another Dante, for those who are following it: Canto XI
Links to the others in series can be found on our Literature page.