So, you’ve decided to learn Italiano! Fantastico! You sign up for a language class and before you know it, you are weighing anchor and setting sail to discover how to speak la bella lingua. At first, your voyage progresses well. You quickly learn a multitude of new words like “buona giornata!”, “ci vediamo”, “ho fame!” and “ti voglio bene”. It is smooth sailing until the evening class ends and you find yourself back at home trying to keep your new language afloat.
All of a sudden, your initial enthusiasm takes an uncharted course into the doldrums. Left to your own devices, language progress slows down. It becomes increasingly difficult to find time to study your new language while juggling work and personal responsibilities.
After a while, motivation comes to a full dead stop. Weeks go by and you are dismayed when you can’t remember how to conjugate a verb or which preposition to use. When pronouncing words with double consonants, you forget where to place emphasis and you can’t quite fit all the vowels into your mouth to enunciate clearly diphthongs and triphthongs. Your newly acquired vocabulary is rapidly floating away and you can’t hear the nuances in words like “casa” and “cassa” or “pena” and “penna”. Your ship is adrift; instead of moving forward, you are alone and languishing on the open seas.
This is a normal scenario for almost any language learner. When left to their own devices, students often lose focus and become marooned. They also despair and give up when a software program which hypes fluency in just “ten-minutes-a-day-thirty-days-or-less” doesn’t deliver on its promise. What they need to realize is that language learning requires motivation, and loads of it. Keeping your boat afloat requires hard work, dedication and lots of paddling.
Learn from the pros: Babies!
Each one of us learns differently and at our own unique pace. Our brain retains only that which it is ready to receive. To process new information and to forge long term memory recall, it is important to create unique and personal associations with the new information. Generally, it takes prolonged exposure to language before we are able to form these connections and rewire our craniums to grasp the subtleties and nuances of a foreign language.
Forcing the learning process doesn’t make sense and is counterproductive, and it is precisely this kind of learning that causes us to rapidly forget what we have already learned. So, be kind to yourself; accept the fact that acquiring a new language takes time and learn to relax and enjoy the journey.
New humans take at least three years before they become sophisticated linguists. But long before a baby utters his first word, he is learning the rules of language and the art of communication. How does he do it?
For starters, an infant is constantly surrounded by the sounds and rhythms of language. It begins in the utero and after birth a baby begins to experiment with consonant and vowel combinations, what we know of as babbling. As an infant grows into a toddler it tries to imitate adult speech patterns and, through assimilation, begins to increase vocabulary and fine tune complex grammatical structures.
Infants don’t study and cram for tests. They absorb language in a natural organic way. If adult language learners can also find a way to wrap themselves in their target language, instead of jamming information into their heads through forced memorization, they too will begin to absorb language in a more intuitive way.
I can hear you say: “But I don’t have time to work on Italian every waking moment of my day.” That’s true. We all lead busy lives. We don’t all live in the country of our target language, where at any given moment we can walk out the door and have a conversation with a native speaker. However, if you make language learning a lifestyle choice—and by that I mean incorporating Italian into the daily activities that you already do—in no time at all you will be flexing your linguistic muscles throughout your normal busy day.
Making a Language Immersion Program
To begin fashioning your language immersion program, you need to incorporate activities that require listening, reading, writing, speaking, and grammar. It is important that you choose things that are interesting to you, because if it isn’t fun, you aren’t learning.
In the beginning, make a list of what you plan to do each day. If an activity is written down, there is a better chance that you will commit to doing it. Remember to change up your routine frequently. What you do one day doesn’t have to be repeated exactly in the same way the next. By adding new things to your repertoire you will keep things fresh and interesting, and you won’t burn out or get bored.
An easy way to begin assembling your program is to incorporate active listening into your routine. In so doing, you train your ear to the sounds of your target language. Listen to a podcast, tune into the radio, watch a Youtube video, or pick up an audio book and start letting the sounds and accents flow around and into you.
Don’t despair if you find the native speakers talking too quickly. With daily exposure to Italian accents, you will begin to make subtle distinctions and your auditory skills will improve. I suggest you watch movies without subtitles. In this way you are forced to concentrate on the sound of the language and not be distracted by reading the English translations.
Finding time to read each day will broaden vocabulary and grammar. Choose books with easy subjects. Beginners will get discouraged if they choose heavy topics like Dante’s Inferno. Instead choose, mysteries, romance novels, children’s books like Harry Potter, or comics and fashion magazines.
I recommend that you read without a dictionary, but rather glean the meaning from context. Another great tip is to read along while listening to an audio book. In so doing, you are forced to keep pace with the narrator and you are less likely to get discouraged by slow progress and thus will be motivated to finish the book.
Make time each day to write. Start out by making a grocery list and then expand to keeping a journal. Record your mood, the weather or a news event. When writing, do use a dictionary to look up words and find synonyms.
Make Facebook and Twitter friends in your target language and start messaging and tweeting with them. Twitter is a great way to practice, as tweets are short and sweet!
In your daily routine, don’t forget to speak out loud. Even if you don’t have a language partner, you can improvise by talking to your dog or cat. Don’t be shy! Loosen up those vocal cords and record yourself reading from a book or simply speaking your grocery list into voice recording app. It is a helpful exercise and gives you incentive to pay critical attention to your pronunciation and accent.
If you need help with learning how to say a word, go to the Forvo site to listen to speakers pronouncing words in their own language. You can also find other language learners in your area on Meetup, or find teachers and language partners on sites like italki.
Last but not least, carve out a few moments each day to focus on grammar. With online sites like Duolingo and Memrise, grammar becomes a fun competitive challenge, much like a video game. Find a couple of good grammar books and once a week take a few minutes to tackle one grammar idea, like how to use il passato prossimo or l’imperfetto. Afterwards, while you are busy doing other things, let your brain actively marinate on the grammar concept. Other engaging ways to practice grammar are online word games, quizzes and puzzles, like the on-line scrabble game Aworded.
Living the life
I have made learning Italian a lifestyle choice and I am very pleased with the results. A day doesn’t go by in which I don’t listen, read, write, speak, or work on grammar exercises in Italian. The more I am exposed to the language, the more that vocabulary and grammar become second nature and I become a more confident Italian speaker and writer. Interested to see how one of my days might unfold? “Date un’occhiata a questo scenario!” Take a look at this scenario!
I wake up. Get out of bed. As I brush my teeth I start thinking in Italian. I look down at my beagle and say: “Sei pronto per fare colazione? Andiamo!”
As the espresso pot begins to simmer, I fire up my laptop and scroll to Facebook. Because I have friended many Italians and have already “liked” a slew of their pages, there are many messages to read and respond to in Italian. I click on items in the on-line newspaper Corriere della Sera and read a couple of articles.
Sometimes, a Facebook friend pops into instant chat and we exchange greetings in Italian. Before heading off to work, I take a quick peek at my Twitter feed and compose a message in Italian for my Twitter peeps.
At work, I’m tuned into an online Italian radio station. I receive an email from a friend who suggests that I take three minutes to watch a video on her Youtube channel Learn Italian with Lucrezia. Over the lunch hour I challenge my Italian grammar skills on Duolingo. I take a break in the afternoon and go to the italki site where an Italian teacher is waiting to chat with me.
On my way home from work, I pick up my headphones to listen to the latest podcast from News in Slow Italian or one of Alessandra Pasqui’s “Al Dente” programs. Back home in my kitchen, I find an interesting Italian recipe on the Giallo Zafferano cooking site and start preparing the evening meal following instructions in Italian. While waiting for the pasta to boil, I compose a grocery list in Italian, remembering to write down “pomodori” and “pane”. I don’t know the word for “tin foil”, so I do a search on WordReference.com and add “carta stagnola” to the list. I repeat the word a couple times and realize I have also just added a new word to my vocabulary!
After dinner, I get comfy on the couch and, with a glass of red wine in hand, begin to watch an Italian DVD from Netflix. Before going to bed, I take five minutes to make several plays in my on-going Italian scrabble games on Aworded. It’s getting late, so I read a page or two of the Italian novel that I downloaded onto my iPad, and then I turn out the light. “Spegnere la luce” is the last thought I have as I fall asleep.
It really doesn’t take much to incorporate a little listening, reading, writing, speaking, and grammar practice into your average day. Once you make the commitment, before you know it you too will have made a lifestyle choice to immerse yourself in your target language and you will soon be setting sail for fluency! Full speed ahead! Andiamo! Avanti!
For additional language learning tips and suggestions, visit the Studentessa Matta website at www.studentessamatta.com. Click on the tab “Learning Ways to Improve your Italian” and you will find more learning resources, websites, YouTube channels, blogs, books, and music ideas to spark your interest and help you practice Italian.
All Images Created and Provided by Author (Melissa Muldoon)