Thanks to the various club members who emailed me with their reactions to Wednesday’s article Different expectations when ‘coding’ and ‘decoding’ Italian, and in particular to Andrew who left a ‘comment’ (meaning that other people can read his ideas/questions).
I’ll reproduce a section of what Andrew wrote here, for those of you who get these articles by email but don’t hang around on the club website. The part that interests me in particular is in bold:
I’ve been learning Italian for just over two years and I find the process of answering a question in Italian by thinking of the answer in English and trying to then translate it literally into into Italian quite difficult. This is undoubtedly due to the number and variety of English answer options available. I’ve never really thought of English as being a difficult language to learn in that regard. Anyway, I’m slowly converting from a grammar junky into someone who listens and reads more. I find a strange comfort in rules and feel that checking them off the list signifies real progress. It’s hard to quantify progress otherwise – any ideas?
Well of course, Andrew! I ALWAYS have ideas.
To summarise the question though, if you’re thinking of following my oft-repeated advice, to read/listen to more Italian (for all the reasons I have given on other occasions), and so de-focusing on ‘learning’ grammar structures via the route of intentional, direct study, how exactly will you then be able to see whether or not you are getting anywhere? If not by ticking tenses or grammar structures off a ‘grammar to do’ list, then what?
A great start is to set yourself the task of actually defining ‘benchmarks’ and setting targets. Which level can you comfortably read/listen to right now? How long does it take you at the moment to, say, read a chapter of an ‘easy reader’ at your current level, or read/listen to one of our thrice-weekly bulletins of ‘easy’ Italian news?
And having established some benchmarks for yourself (“I read at A2, I can finish an easy reader at that level in a week, I can read listen to the EIN bulletins with a ‘comfort level’ of 5/10”), what are the goals you would like to reach NEXT?
You might resolve, for example, to complete a B1 ‘easy reader’, or to read/listen to the EIN bulletins with a comfort level of 6/10, or 7/10, or without looking up any words.
You should then specify WHEN you could reasonably expect to reach that goal or goals and HOW you will measure your progress (you could do it in different ways – see below.)
So you now know:
- where you currently are, for each skill level (if you’re not sure, use the invaluable and free CEFR Self Assessment Grid)
- where the next milestone/goal on your learning path lies
- how long you will reasonably need to get there
- how you will monitor progress
But what CRITERIA could you use to guide you, and to measure how far you’ve come (other than refering often to the CEFR Self Assessment Grid)?
Here are a few ideas:
- read/listen to an article/text without looking anything up in a dictionary, or with a limited number of look-ups
- read/listen in a fixed time, or a certain percentage faster than your benchmark (time yourself a few times now, then aim to do it faster – continue timing yourself until you reach your milestone, then set a new one)
- assign a subjective ‘difficulty’ score, from 1-10, or whatever you decide on. Then, each time you read/listen write it down (date/text/score)
- base your measurements on the QUANTITY of articles/texts you manage to read/listen to (per day, per week, per course, per term, per school year?)
- measure your progress by the ‘level’ of simplified articles/texts read/listened to (if the ‘level’ is available i.e. with ‘easy readers’ or with material from a texbook designated as suitable for students at a certain level). Allow yourself a couple of months at a level, then plan to move up
- base your measurements on the TOTAL TIME you spend reading/listening to a particular type of material (our ‘easy’ news bulletins, but when you grow out of those, an ‘authentic’ text i.e. a newspaper article). Thirty mintues a week? Thirty minutes a day? An hour a day? Three?
I’m sure there are other things you can think of.
One thing I would add is that this type of ‘learning by doing’, just like ‘learning by studying’, benefits HUGELY from establishing habits.
We might, in the normal and banal course of events, join an evening class, and by doing so resolve to ourselves that we will attend each lesson. There! You’ve created a ‘learning habit’ (which may or may not result in progress towards your goals, depending on the value of the course, the expertise of the teacher, and other factors.) Now all you have to do is stick to it long enough!
I don’t do ‘courses’ for my own learning (in part because I am working in the evenings when the courses I might choose to join take place, and in part because I’m a terrible student.) So I focus on creating habits that mostly relate to consuming media – radio, newspaper articles, and so on.
I listen to Radio Sweden’s selection of the day’s most important news stories EVERY DAY, or chastise myself for not doing so.
I read an article in French from Le Monde (I pay for a subscription) each day. Well, most days. Or at least, I browse the headlines, most days… Sometimes, when the wind is behind me, I read several articles. In the year or two I’ve been trying to establish this habit, my French has un-dusted itself. My assigned subjective level of ‘difficulty’ reading authentic articles has plummeted from 7-8/10 down to 3-4/10, and it’s now one of the ways I get my news, rather than just a thing I do to improve my French.
Ditto with El Pais. I have the app on my smartphone. I’ve joined their various mailing lists. Once or twice a week I try to read the Spanish emails they send me, and occasionally click through and read the full article, picking out topics that interest me.
I KNOW these things will do me good, but a lot more good, cumulative good, if I can manage to establish them as habits. And so my own benchmarks and goals are all about that – how many ‘profitable’ learning habits I can manage to establish, without neglecting others.
Ideally that would be one unmissable, daily thing for each language. Currently I do English and Italian (obviously), Swedish every day, French most of the time, Spanish about half of the time that I know I should, and Turkish relatively rarely (it’s the hardest), mostly only at weekends, mostly only when I’m drinking wine and cooking.
So start by evaluating what you currently do, or more probably don’t do.
Set ‘easy to achieve goals’. You may need to experiment a little until you find what works best for you.
Let some time pass, then measure your progress against those goals.
Set new goals.
And via, you’re away on a ‘new’ learning journey!
Two other things:
1.) When you’ve created a habit and know you’re able to maintain it, try to add another, more-challenging habit. So reading/listening to the ‘easy’ Italian news three times a week would be a start. When you feel you can do that comfortably, set yourself the goal of reading one of the authentic ‘source’ articles on which our simplified bulletins are based. Then later, two, or three. Then maybe go buy yourself a subscription to a newspaper app, as I have. The fear of wasting cash is a powerful motivator!
2.) Don’t forget ‘stop doing’ goals, which may help you as much, or more, than ‘to do’ goals. For example, and again using our ‘easy’ Italian news bulletins as an example, a lot of people insist on stopping the audio every few seconds to look things up or to listen again, which is actually a dreadful idea and one which totally defeats the point of the FREE material that I am so generously providing for you. If you suffer from this affliction, aim to cut it out entirely, or at the very least, limit yourself to only stopping the audio a certain number or times for each bulletin. Then, periodically, reduce that number, until you reach zero. The same for using a dictionary while reading. If the goal is to learn BY reading (rather than, say, to learn a million new words which you will inevitably forget), then anything that prevents you from building more efficient comprehension skills is a hindrance, rather than a help. Work on eliminating the dictionary use in the same way you might reduce the junk food in your diet, and for the same reason.
Hope that helps, Andrew!
Comments on this article are welcome.
Click through to the website, or Google it, and look for this article on the homepage. Click on the article title to visit the dedicated article page, where you can also read the comments – if there are any – then scroll down to the comments box at the bottom to add your own.
I’ve mentioned our FREE ‘easy’ Italian news bulletins a lot today. You’ll find the website link below, along with a link to our online shop, where you can buy ‘easy’ Italian readers, or just use the FREE sample chapters (look on the shop’s catalog page) to benchmark your reading/listening skills.