A common question is “How long will it take?”
“How long will it take to learn Italian?”
“How long will it take until I can say whatever I want to in Italian?”
“How long will it take until I can understand everything I hear?”
(See Wednesday’s article for more on that last one.)
Questions like that betray the askers’ inexperience.
That’s because there’s no ‘finish line’ with language learning. If you want it to be, it’s a lifelong process. There’s always more to learn – you can always improve your skills.
As I replied to someone who emailed me yesterday complaining that she was demotivated by my admission that I often don’t understand my Italian kids when they talking to each other, or to their mother, anyone who tells you that they understand everything they hear in their foreign language (or languages) is lying.
Even elite instantaneous interpreters need to know in advance what will be talked about, need to prepare, and know that sometimes, perhaps only occasionally, they’ll miss something.
Without preparation, they’ll perform less well, and most of us are far, far below their level. Most of the time our understanding is limited, imperfect, incomplete. You just get used to it, that’s all, and get by as best you can.
A lot of the time ‘not understanding everything’ really doesn’t matter. But with experience, you learn to pay extra attention in situations in which it might. And to manage any uncertainty effectively. For instance, by asking the speaker to repeat or rephrase what they’ve said, or by parphrasing yourself what’s been said and asking the speaker if you’ve understood them correctly.
It’s totally normal that, if you take your mother tongue as a benchmark, in my case English, and compare what you can DO in your foreign language or languages, there will be big differences. That’s never going to go away.
Even bilingual people, such my wife and three kids – I’m the only person in the family that isn’t bilingual – have differing abilities in their two mother tongues. My wife understands both Italian and Swedish way better than me, of course, but she’s not better than me in every aspect of either of those languages. I’d tackle reading a contract, for example, or drafting one. She’d likely decline to try.
Sometimes it surprises me that, while I’ve been studying Swedish for nearly five years, and listening to Swedish radio on a daily basis, I find listening to French, which I haven’t studied for forty years, much easier.
Then I remind myself that French is similar to Italian, which I know better than Swedish owing to the fact that I’ve lived in Italy for many years.
See? The differentials between my benchmark (English) and what I can manage in my other languages are larger or smaller, and the reason for them is usually fairly obvious.
But there are always differentials. Anyway, back to the ‘How long…?’ questions. More experienced language learners tend to ask more specific questions, such as:
“How long will it take me to reach the level needed for the citizenship language exam?”
“How many hours of one-to-one lessons do I need until I start to feel more comfortable in conversation with a native speaker?”
See how those questions reveal the person’s objective? Their reason for doing what they’re planning?
Personally, I don’t ask questions at all about my own language learning, as I have no specific goals and I’m not stressed that while my Italian is ‘advanced’, my Swedish, French and Turkish are only ‘intermediate’, and my Spanish is not much more than elementary.
I just read, listen, and sometimes speak those languages, because I enjoy doing it and because being a learner makes me a better teacher.
But I do have other questions I need answering. For instance, about learning to cut down on my workload after a recent adverse health event.
“After working my butt off for thirty-five years, how do I do less?”
“How do I just sit and read a newspaper when there’s so much still to DO?”
“How long will it take me to adjust to not working fourteen hours a day?”
I think I’ve made a start (though it’s been more than four months since the stroke) by admitting that things need to change.
But as you can see from my questions, I’m in unexplored territory. Like a beginning foreign language learner…
When giving advice to students or potential students who ask impossibly vague or ill-defined questions (see above), I’ll often counter with “To do what with?”
Q: How long will it take me to learn Italian?
A: To do what with?
Q: To chat with my neighbours in Tuscany and understand what they say to me.
A: Well, that sounds like you’d be aiming for around a B1/Intermediate level, perhaps a little less. Maybe a couple of years of self study and evening classes? Or head to an Italian language school and study ‘full-time’, in which case allow three months or so. That should do it!
See how that narrowed things down? Firmed up the objective?
Guess I should apply the same technique to myself:
Q: After working my butt off for thirty-five years, how do I do less?
A: To do what with the time?
Q: To enjoy life more, to spend more time with my family, to exercise, to eat heathily.
A: Why not weigh any potential work project or task against the non-work activities you listed, before deciding whether or not to take it on? If something isn’t essential or fun, don’t agree to do it. Keep not-taking on new things until your workload is more manageable. Oh, and leave the computer switched off from eight at night until eight in the morning. And only use your smartphone for reading newspapers, listening to the radio and messaging the kids. No email in bed!
And now it’s your turn:
Q:”How long will it take until I can understand everything I hear in Italian?”
A:”To do what with?”
Q: “To not feel excluded from Italian conversations, to be able to watch Italian TV programs and get the gist of what’s happening, to be able to make phone calls,.. Lots of things!”
A: “A couple of months of intensive listening practice with graded materials would be a good start. Minimum half an hour a day, more if you can manage it. Use the free materials for your level on the club website ( A1 | A2 | B1 | B2 | C1 | C2 – scroll down to find the listening sections), subscribe to EasyItalianNews.com and, if you have a budget, buy our ‘easy readers‘. With those, start a level or so below your current ability, read and listen to a chapter a day, and step up, half-level by half-level, only when you feel ready to do so.”
Q: “Thanks, I’ll give that a try!”
A lunedì, allora.
Here’s a final reminder about this week’s new Italian easy reader ebook, I racconti di Canterbury, part of a new series of simplified versions of world literature classics.
Right now ‘I racconti di Canterbury‘ is 25% discounted, so just £5.99 instead of £7.99, but that offer ends on Sunday night.
Do please look at the FREE sample chapter (.pdf), that way you’ll know that the level is suitable (or not), and that the format works on the device you plan to use it on.
For those who prefer Italian literature, we’ve also discounted our six Italian literature easy readers. This week they’re just £6.79 each!
Le avventure di Pinocchio (A1/2) £6.79 Download FREE sample (.pdf, .epub, .mobi/Kindle)
I Malavoglia (B1) £6.79 Download FREE sample (.pdf, .epub, .mobi/Kindle)
La coscienza di Zeno (B1) £6.79 Download FREE sample (.pdf, .epub, .mobi/Kindle)
I promessi sposi (B1/2) £6.79 Download FREE sample (.pdf, .epub, .mobi/Kindle)
Decameron (B1/2) £6.79 Download FREE sample (.pdf, .epub, .mobi/Kindle)
Uno, nessuno e centomila (B2) £6.79 Download FREE sample (.pdf, .epub, .mobi/Kindle)
Find them on the Italian Literature page of our ebook shop.
Or browse our ebook Catalog.
Have you read/listened to Thursday’s bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news?
It’s free, so if you haven’t seen it, check out the website (click the logo on the right to go right there.)
Or why not subscribe? That’s free, too.
Subscribers get the three weekly bulletins of ‘easy’ news (text plus online audio) emailed to them, on Saturdays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. Gratis!