Want to learn Italian (or another foreign language)?
In your initial enthusiasm, it’s possible that you might be unrealistic about how quickly that’s going to happen.
Aiming too high means you’ll risk disappointment or demotivation.
Setting too fast a pace, like beginning a marathon race with a sprint, almost guarantees you’ll run out of puff and give up.
First, choose a realistic goal
The concept of ‘level’, though artificial, is central to language teaching and learning.
Knowing your level, whether that be ‘complete beginner’, ‘intermediate’ or ‘advanced’ helps you choose appropriate goals and materials, and gives you a way of measuring your progress (more about that later!)
So if you’re not familiar with the CEFR level system, take a few minutes to find out about it.
Once you have an understanding of how many levels there are and where you currently find yourself, you should ask yourself what level you’d like to get to.
But this is where the word ‘realistic’ comes in.
If you’re a beginner, best not to think of how cool it’ll be to speak fluently and understand everything said to you.
That’s not going to happen for a long, long time!
Instead, aim to get into the habit of learning, to reach the end of your current level, and perhaps to take a test or exam to certify what you’ve learnt (at least to yourself.)
Then, once you’ve reached your first realistic, achievable goal, you can set another!
What time period?
A rule of thumb at our language school is that a student will complete a ‘level’ in between 80 ad 120 hours of ‘study’.
For simplicity, we count the hours spent in class and ignore homework, self-study or time spent interacting in the language.
But anything extra speeds things up, just as doing nothing other than attending classes will result in more minimal progress.
How quickly you learn also depends on how similar the language you’re studying is to your native tongue, or to other languages you know.
Spanish students, for example, learn Italian much more quickly than native-English speakers.
A further rule of thumb is that studying ‘intensively’, as you would if doing a ‘full-time’ ’20-hour per week’ course in Italy, will see a typical student move up a level every four to five weeks.
Whereas an evening class student (think an Italian learning English, who does a three-hour evening class once a week) will make similar progress over the thirty or so weeks of the academic year.
Study a month full-time in Italy and improve around a level. Or three hours a week from home, with the aim of improving a level in a school-year.
But when you’re just starting out, don’t think in terms of years. It’s best to keep the time periods short and the goals clearly visible on the horizon.
Give yourself a break – choose something easily achievable!
How to measure progress?
Measuring your progress will flag up when something’s not right, and give positive feedback when you’ve actually learned something, which in turn will help your motivation.
If you’re studying from a book or formal course, use any ‘end of chapter’ -type tests that are available.
Other level-specific material may also offer a way of monitoring your learning.
Suppose, for example, you’re learning elementary level Italian.
‘A1 – Beginner’ -level easy readers may be an effective supplement for your study program.
But when you’ve completed one, don’t just forget it.
Instead, make a mental note to come back to it in a month or two’s time.
Add that to your study calendar, if you have one.
And when you do, does it still feel hard as the first time you read/listened to it?
Or are you amazed at how simple the material now seems?
Here’s another idea for measuring your progress.
For many languages there are formal, perhaps international, exams available.
These can be expensive and may not be available where you live or when you need to take them.
Some exam boards offer free samples on their websites.
And books or downloads of ‘past papers’ (or books designed to prepare you for an exam at a specific level) are likely to be both affordable and immediately available.
Doing a ‘past paper’ for the level you are studying offers an excellent way to get feedback on your progress.
Look out, in particular, for listening test material.
As a language teacher, I’ve noticed that a student’s success or failure in completing a listening test task at a given level is a reliable indicator of their ‘real’ level.
How to know if you’re ‘doing it right’
Make sure you’ve set realistic, achievable language-learning goals by asking yourself these questions:
- Are you able to stick to your plan without too much stress or sacrifice? (Good.)
- Do you get a sense of satisfaction when you reach the end of a chapter or topic? (Good.)
- Or do you find what you’ve studied hard to remember? (Bad.)
- Do you look forward to studying? (Good.)
- Or have to bribe or threaten yourself to sit down with your books? (Bad.)
Realistic language-learning targets will ensure sustainable progress, maximise your motivation, and so minimise the risk of giving up when you hit the invevitable difficulties.
And if your target turns out to be too easy, or too hard?
Find a pace that works for you, settle into it, and enjoy learning!