What’s your ‘learning Italian’ problem?
It seems like just about everyone has one, or at least all but the most experienced language-learners.
Here are a few, and some suggestions.
“I’m not good at languages.”
Nobody is, at first. Keep at it and you’ll get better. It’s just a matter of time.
One useful tip is to always look back to see how much you’ve learnt, how far you’ve come, rather than looking forward at what’s still to do.
“I’ll never speak Italian as well as you do” is unhelpful. “Six months ago I didn’t understand a word, but now I’ve started on the second level!” is better.
“Spoken Italian goes right over my head.”
That’s normal. I’ve got an Italian wife and three teenage kids who speak Italian together. Often it’s just jabber. You’ll get used to it.
Try learning the Italian equivalents of “Can you say that again, please?” and “Do you mean…?” so you’re better able to ‘manage’ such situations.
“Everything about Italian is hard.”
It is, especially at the beginning. Later it gets easier, but – frankly – it’ll never be as easy as your own language.
Give it a year or two of regular study and you’ll no longer feel like you’re drowning.
But as I’ve said, always remember to look back at how far you’ve come, rather than comparing yourself to others who may be more proficient.
“I can’t remember new words, or old words!”
Being good at memorising stuff is NOT a good thing, so be grateful.
Because many of the ‘new’ words you read or find in a textbook are going to be of little use to you.
Your brain deals with this by employing a useful little algorithm: if you see or hear something once, your brain mostly ignores it.
Whereas if you keep seeing/hearing the same thing, it’ll pay more attention. If a word’s frequency is high enough, your brain just learns it automatically.
When you spend time learning lists of words by heart, you’re prioritising an activity which gives you no information about frequency or context.
You could, instead, be working on audio or written texts, or having conversations, all of which are packed with meaning which tells your brain exactly what needs learning and what doesn’t.
Here’s a thought experiment for you: list some cities you’ve never visited, that you didn’t study at school, and where you know no one.
They can be in your own country, in Italy, or in a country you choose at random.
Done that? Picked a country and listed the names of cities in it?
Now ask yourself, how did you ‘know’ those city names?
Finally, go look at a map of that same country (Google Maps?) and pick out some place names you’ve never heard of.
Why have you never heard of them, do you think?
‘Frequency’ information is fundamental to learning.
And time spent memorising list of words is rarely well spent because there’s likely to be no information about frequency.
I rest my case.
Use your study hours reading, listening or speaking, not learning lists of words.
And when you don’t remember something? Don’t panic. The alorithim is working on it..
“Italian grammar is a nightmare!”
I agree. But most of it is hardly used, if ever.
Ask an Italian, someone who isn’t a teacher, to explain the difference between the ‘passato prossimo’ and the ‘passato remoto’, or to show you some conditional forms, or simply what their plans are for the rest of the day, and you’ll see what I mean.
Spoken Italian uses a restricted range of high-frequency grammar and vocabulary forms.
Written Italian is much more complex, it’s true, but the grammar is often easy to guess. Italian texts can be very hard for other reasons – style, register, and so on.
And if the problem is that you don’t have the tenses to translate your thoughts from English?
English has about 14 commonly used tense forms, all with different meanings.
Listen to Italians speak and you might hear three or four.
So yes, if you’re trying to find the Italian equivalent to what you would say in English, you’re destined to fail.
Instead, listen a lot, interact, hear how Italians express themselves and start to do the same.
It’s frequency again, but this time for grammar.
“I can’t understand recorded texts.”
Well, that’s likely to be for one of two reasons.
Either it’s because you don’t ever do it, so it’s an unfamilar task and you don’t have the skills or experience to even attempt it.
Or it’s because the particular recordings you’re listening to (and let’s include broadcast mediums like radio, TV, film, Youtube and so on) are too complex for your current level.
You’ll need to build up to it, gradually.
“I don’t have anyone to practice with.”
I once met a really old man, at an opera, in Turkey.
He spoke English really well. He’d lived on a farm, he told me, couldn’t get Turkish state radio, and so had listened to the BBC on shortwave radio, basically his whole life.
When I asked him who he’d practised speaking with, he told me that I was the first English-speaker he’d ever met.
Take that as you will. It was a long time ago, maybe I’m making it up.
But the point, I hope, is clear. A lot of preparation for conversation comes from listening to others do it, just as, when you were a child, you heard people around you using language to communicate for years before you were able to do so yourself.
“I’d like to study Italian more but don’t have time.”
Want to lose weight? Drink less beer, eat less ice cream. Fill up on vegetables and fruit instead.
Want to improve your Italian, like radically, in just a few months, but don’t have time?
Cut out something else that you do each day.
You could, for example, delete ‘English’ apps from your smartphone or tablet and replace them with Italian.
You could stop watching TV in your own language and watch Italian-language TV series instead.
Net effect on the amount of time you have in a day?
Net effect on your Italian?
Try it and see.
“I want to be able to join conversations in Italian.”
Then you’ll need to practice, ideally but not necessarily with a sympathetic native-speaker.
A mass of listening practice helps, as does learning some key phrases for managing the conversation.
Be willing to speak less at first. Nod and smile a lot. And don’t fret when you don’t understand something. Not understanding is absolutely normal.
Remember watching TV with your dad and mum when you were small? Did you understand everything you heard in their favorite programs? I bet not.
Did it bother you? You were proably more concerned about being sent to bed…
Learn to be a good listener, too.
I have a Swedish teacher who just rants, the whole lesson.
I love it, as I can understand what he’s going on about, mostly.
Every now and then, when he pauses, I’ll interject something, maybe move the conversation along to the next topic, and off he goes again!
This isn’t exactly a recommended teaching technique, but it’s great preparation for boozy conversations about politics with native-speakers.
So there, some ‘learning Italian’ problems, sorted.
You can teach yourself Italian, if you so choose, and for free!
I’ve suggested how above.
Don’t forget, there’s a mass of free materials on the club website.
But if you don’t have the confidence to teach yourself?
Or if you’ve a budget to blow, and are looking for ways to spend it that might speed things up, make things a little easier?
What I would do, if I was learning Italian from scratch, knowing what I now do, is this:
- Make a provisional study plan, which shows what to do and when. Doing at least something each day is important, as is variety. After all, you may not yet know what works for you, or what your priorities are
- Book some one-to-one lessons, perhaps just a few at first. If they feel good, do some more. If not, get a different teacher. Finding the right teacher can be trial and error… Work out what you want (speaking!) and insist on it. Don’t let yourself be distracted by grammar study, which you could do on your own, or just skip. Use the native-speaker’s time to work on your communication skills – frequent tenses, frequent words, lots of chat! Ask them questions about themeselves, get them talking, build a relationship. And again, if the teacher doesn’t play along, get rid of them.
- Do some regular study, perhaps from one of our grammar workbooks. Aim to finish a level in three to six months. Build some momentum if you can, rather than staying too long on any one topic. You don’t have to know everything perfectly. Get that snowball rolling down the hill, then let gravity take over.
- Use graded reading/listening material, such as our easy readers. Start below your current level to feel more confident, and step up a level only when you feel you can. Read AND listen to build skills. Working with texts and stories will also help consolidate the grammar and vocabulary that you encounter elsewhere.
- Introduce ‘authentic’ materials gradually at first, then make them a habit – online newspapers, TV, that sort of thing. It’ll be hard to start with, but will get easier
- Review your study plan and progress regularly, say after two-three months, and make changes as necessary. Your needs will change, so don’t get stuck in a rut!
Beh, that’s what I’d do, and in fact am doing for other languages.
But there are as many approaches to learning a language as there are people.
Just remember one thing – you brain is DESIGNED to learn languages.
But it won’t bother unless it sees the need. I daresay you and it also have other priorities…
Kickstart the process by putting your brain in situations in which it has to make sense of Italian text and audio input.
Neurons will fire up!
Don’t expect miracles at first, but keep at it. In time, you’ll see the effect.
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