Studying a foreign language can get depressing. Especially endless new verb tenses, each with irregular forms to memorise.
Not to mention the “rules” on when and why to use them. Nothing is the same as in your mother tongue, and it seems to take for ever before you can use and understand each new verb form.
You ask yourself: “Will I ever be able to actually SPEAK this language? Surely all these complicated verb forms can’t really be necessary for me?”
Why Learning A Language Can Seem An Impossible Task
Students (and teachers) of foreign languages know that progress is slow and difficult, but often do not understand the two main reasons why.
Firstly, just how long did you spend learning your first language, your mother tongue?
I’m 45, so I guess I could say I’ve been learning English for 45 years.
I’ve lived in Italy for only the last 13 of those, so that’s 13 years learning Italian and 45 learning English. Which language do I speak and understand better? You guessed.
What your language school doesn’t tell you is: to get as good in a second language as you are in your first language, you need to spend a long, long time (and lots of money!)
The second reason? Well, at the end of the day, Italian and your mother tongue (English, German, whatever) are likely to be very different in the way that they are organised.
It’s natural to assume that if I say “I’m writing a blog post” in English, then when speaking Italian I’d want to use an analogous tense form (“Sto scrivendo un blog post”???).
But do tense systems in different languages actually work in the same way? Do analogous tenses even exist in all languages?
In short, no. It’s a sure thing that there are major grammatical differences between your language and the one you’re trying to learn.
Tenses Which Communicate Specific Meanings..
I’m not a linguist, but from years of teaching English to foreigners, I’ve noticed that in English we can communicate very specific things by choosing one tense rather than another.
For example: “I’m going to study this tomorrow” expresses your intention, whereas “I’m studying this tomorrow” suggests some sort of plan or arrangement, and “I’ll be studying this tomorrow” is sort of “forward-looking”, a sort of prediction.
All three are normal in spoken English, but each communicates something slightly different.
Are all languages like this?
No, in fact, some don’t even have tenses at all. “I go yesterday” and “I go tomorrow” are easy enough to understand without the use of past or future inflections of the verb, so why SHOULD a language have tenses?
The use of tenses is one possible way of communicating meaning, but certainly not essential to a language, and variations in how languages use tenses are quite normal.
And Tenses Which Don’t..
In contrast with English, in Italian, one tense can be used for a variety of meanings.
For example:”Vado spesso a…” (I often go to), “Ciao, vado!” (Bye, I’m going!), and “Vado domani al..” (I’m going to the xxx tomorrow”).
The same verb form “vado” is used to refer to general time, to “now/at the moment”, and to the future.
How does a listener tell the difference? From the context, of course, just like in the “I go yesterday” example above.
Written Tenses and Spoken Tenses
In English we don’t have different tense forms for speaking and for writing novels. More or less, we speak as we write, and vice versa.
In Italian, there are tenses which are hardly ever used in speech, but commonly found in past narratives, like novels.
So, when you’re just starting out with Italian, do you need to learn the past tenses for writing novels? Probably not.
Could you work out what they mean on your own if you ever decide to READ a novel. Probably. So, give yourself a break. Leave them off your study plan for now.
The 3 Tenses You MUST Know To Speak Italian
I speak Italian every day. I employ a whole bunch of Italian teachers too (I’m the director of a language school).
But I rarely (really!) hear or use more than three tense forms.
I recognise the others when I read or hear them. But I don’t USE them. Life’s too short.
So, at least at first, if you want to SPEAK Italian, I mean, actually have conversations with people, and understand what others say to you in return, the solution is to focus on learning just three tense forms as well as possible:
1. The present: Io vado – I’m going, I go
Use it for now, for the future, for routines. Anything really!
2. The near past: Io sono andato – I went, I have been
Essential for talking about things you’ve done or did. But, don’t worry! If you don’t know it yet, you can still have a conversation. Just use the present, and “ieri” (yesterday)!
3. The imperfect: Io andavo – I used to go, I was going, I went (repeatedly)
Whenever you want to talk about “the way things were”, or “what you were doing when something else happened”, this is the way to go. Use with 2. above for sophisticated narratives.
Is that it?
“And if I want to talk about the FUTURE???”
No problem. Use the present. Italians do.
Learn Italian Tenses Online And for FREE!
On this site you’ll find lots of free study material to help you with the three essential tenses I’ve listed above.
And if you need extra help, ask us in the Forums!
Tell us what YOU think!
Tell us what YOU think by leaving a comment on this post, or writing in our forums!