One thing that would almost certainly help you a lot with your Italian is to spend more time measuring your progress.
Many learners do this woefully badly.
They measure their progress according to how many chapters they’ve completed of the book they’re studying from, for example. Or according to the name of the course they’re currently taking (Beginners’ Italian, Intermediate Italian, Advanced Italian!) Or by how many gold stars they’ve collected from their favorite app.
They might measure how many tenses they’ve ‘learnt’, or how many words they’ve memorised, or how many days in a row they’ve studied.
In more traditional learning environments, such as a high school or college/university, progress might be measured in terms of grade averages, credits gained, or years of study completed.
Go ahead and click that last link and spend a minute or two on understanding what’s there.
Why should you bother?
Because if you don’t know your CEFR reference level, in language-learning terms, you are NOWHERE.
Would you be learning to drive without having understood how the concept of a mile/kilometre is used for measuring distance? And how that measurement, combined with a unit of time, gives us the yardstick of mph/kmph, so allowing us to understand roadsigns and avoid speeding tickets?
Thought not. The CEFR is basically the same idea, but for language-learning. With added GPS!
(Language-learning nerds amongst you could do worse than browse this 265 page document, which sets out the rationale for the CEFR, how it works, how it should be used, and much else besides.)
Got an Italian teacher, or an Italian app? Ask them or it what your CEFR reference level is in each skill (speaking, listening, reading, writing). But don’t be surprised if they look blank, or give you a vague answer. Cases of the blind leading the blind are far from unheard of in the language teaching/learning industry.
Talking of apps, online resources, and Italian courses, even the most famous ones, and especially the ones that are marketed as promising amazing, rapid and guaranteed results, one suspects that their avoiding linking the proprietary ‘levels’ to the standardised CEFR references is either due to an ignorance of modern language-learning best practice, or worse, to a conscious unwillingness to help students compare the results they get from the ‘methods’ to standardised benchmarks.
If they don’t include standardized, transparent ways for you to measure any progress you’ve made, why would you trust them to do a good job??
So anyway, one thing that would help you a lot learning Italian would be to spend more time measuring your progress. But don’t worry – that doesn’t mean that you have to take tests, do exams, or rely on expert evaluations, unless you want to, of course.
A ‘do-it-yourself-at home’ approach is perfectly valid, and has the advantage of being absolutely personalizable to your own learning preferences and goals. It’s certainly hugely better than no evaluation at all.
One thing I would suggest, though, is that you at least take the categories from the CEFR self-assessment grid as a basis for however you choose to measure your progress. They are:
Listening, Reading, Spoken Interaction, Spoken Production, Writing
Of course, if you want to use the grid itself, then fine, that’s more or less job done! Stop reading here.
But if you’d rather do it your own way, then what you need to ask yourself is how you personally could easily and quickly evaluate your progress in each category. With a little thought, you might find that there are lots of ways. At which point, pick one or more that suits you for each category.
Here’s how I think about my progress with the various languages I’m learning:
I try to listen to authentic, live radio daily. How much can I understand?
a.) Nothing at all
b.) Bits here and there
c) I can get the main points sometimes
d.) I can get most of a story or section sometimes, or some of it most of the time
e.) I find that I follow what I’m listening to without really noticing it’s not English
a.) I can’t or don’t
b.) I’m engaging with texts regularly, even if I don’t understand much
c.) I understand enough of the headlines and picture captions to know what the articles are about
d.) I regularly try to struggle through an article to the end
e.) I regularly read articles to the extent that I can understand the main points and enjoy reading them
a.) I don’t speak or interact
b.) I’m speaking and interacting, but need plenty of help from a supportive interlocutor
c.) Speaking and interacting (meaning the other person takes their turn, too) begins to approach a ‘normal’ pattern of conversation
d.) Native speakers I interact with quickly get past the fact that I’m a foreigner murdering their language
a.) I can give basic personal information, not more than that
b.) I have enough of the language to say broadly what I want to, though in a limited way
c.) I feel much more fluent now, though I recognise my huge limitations
d.) Long conversations with drunken native speakers are both feasible and enjoyable
a.) I can’t or don’t
b.) I can use the language’s special characters (for example in Swedish ö, ä, å) on both my smartphone and computer
c.) I can ‘chat’, in Google Hangouts or Whatsapp, without undue delay
d.) I can reply to an email, for example from a teacher or conversation partner, helped by Google Translate if necessary
e.) I can draft my own texts when I need to, perhaps using model texts and adapting them
Get the idea?
Those are just my own mental yardsticks. A personalised way of knowing where I am with each language.
As an example, writing:
I’m an e.) in Italian. Not perfect by any means, but I write long emails about technical stuff to the school’s accountant, and often draft marketing texts which are then checked by a native speaker (I’m married to one…)
Turkish is a funny situation, as I can’t read much, hardly at all, but would rate myself c-d for writing. My teacher and I do a lot of text-based ‘chatting’, which is also a great way to get comfy with the special characters (ç, ş, ö, ü, ı, i, ğ and so on…)
French I’ve known since school, and yet I don’t do the special characters at all, because I don’t ever chat, or write. So that’s an a.) then. My reading would be an e.) See how these things can be out of synch? That’s perfectly fine, as long as your learning goals and your progress are consistent. I don’t have any interest in writing French, but enjoy reading it, listening to it, and am keen to speak it better.
Spanish is the same as French, more or less. I ‘chat’ a little in Skype before the actual lesson, but haven’t figured how to do the upside down ? symbol, or any of the others, if there even are any – I haven’t got as far as to know. Speaking, listening and reading are my priorities.
Oh, and Swedish? Two or three years ago I passed the Swedex A2 exam with a minium of preparation, so here I’d default to the CEFR levels and say I’m now probably a B1, which would be a d.) in my personal evalutation system.
Final comment: I haven’t said WHY measuring your progress would probably help you a lot.
In no particular order:
- to benchmark where you are now, how far you’ve come, how far you want to go still
- as a way of deciding your learning goals (improve what? how much?)
- as a way of choosing learning activities (I want to achieve this, will that app help?)
- as a way of evaluating your choices (did the app, or course, improve my speaking as I hoped?)