Overcoming personal struggles and reaching new heights in language acquisition is at the heart of your journey to fluency. In a series of interviews with italki partners and polyglots, you will learn about personal stories from these language learning experts and be able to access novel and insightful language learning tips from those who have ventured on this journey.
Tell us about yourself, what do you do?
Hi! My name is Raffaele and I like to think that I'm a world citizen with an obvious crush on languages. Literally, if you talk to me, the subject will come up in the first 30 seconds in one way or another. I'm from Naples, Italy, and this wonderful city in the south of the country is still the place that I call home and where I work as a Tour Leader and a Language Coach. Last but not least, I just recently joined the italki team, and you will understand that this is something pretty exciting for me.
What languages do you speak? What language(s) are you actively learning now?
My native languages are of course Italian and Neapolitan, the language of my hometown. The first foreign language I learned was English, then after high-school I started learning new languages at a pace of one new language per year. I was on a roll learning Spanish, Portuguese, and French, but then I hit a roadblock when I started learning German. So I took a break from languages, then after some time I started again with Catalan, Dutch, Greek, and Japanese, which all took me a lot more than a year.
Currently, I am studying Japanese, German (again), Dutch, and Greek everyday. This is because I'm not happy with my [language] level for all these languages, and because I know that if don't continue to study these languages then I will lose them.
If you have been keeping count of the languages I mentioned, it adds up to eleven. If by chance you see me in person somewhere around the world, please don't ask me this question: I'm never sure if I have to play it down so that I don't sound arrogant, or if I have to tell the truth and sound like a language nerd (and I know I probably look like one in my polyglot video on YouTube).
How do you motivate yourself when learning a language, and what do you expect to achieve?
- My motivation since I was a little kid has always been one: curiosity.
All the rest just falls into place and were decisions I made about: languages, travelling, books, food, cultures...or anything I do in life. I have always been fascinated by foreigners speaking their native language, and the fact that I couldn't understand them used to drive me mad. So I would say that I still take motivation from the wish to understand people and truly connect with them. My goal as a language learner is to learn as many languages as possible, and striving to be as good as I can. I just think back to the quote "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars", right? Realistically, I would love to get to 20 [learned languages] one day, and all to at least a basic conversational level.
How has language learning changed your life?
Maybe this statement is too strong, but I would say that language learning IS my life. I wouldn't be who I am, I wouldn't do what I do, I wouldn't be where I am right now (I'm at italki's HQ in Shanghai China at the moment while finishing this interview). I can't picture a monolingual version of myself: I would probably have a boring job and very little awareness of the world outside of the borders of my country. You see? That couldn't be me...
What are your favorite ways of improving your speaking abilities?
There is only one way to improve speaking skills: by speaking! This doesn't mean you have to go and talk to random people on the streets. You are speaking even when you repeat out loud, for example, “Buongiorno” several times before getting it finally right. Of course, the more you learn, the more you can say, and when you are comfortable enough, you can engage in real conversations with people. Additionally, there is an amazing website that helps you find language exchange partners, tutors, and teachers for you to get better and better with your speaking abilities. Who else said italki?
But what if you are a complete beginner, and does not feel ready to speak to others yet? Speak to yourself then, I do this all the time while in the shower, while washing the dishes, or driving my car. All of these are perfect practice opportunities to make use of dead time. By the end of it all, you will use this practice to help you feel ready for real conversations!
How do you feel people can use their language skills to benefit their community or those around them?
We live in a world where there is too much "we" against "they". My opinion is that there is no "they". "We" are all on this planet together. You could learn a language to help integrate locals and foreigners, through interactions and exchange of our habits, cultures, and languages of course. We need more communication and less misunderstanding. But even on a smaller scale in your local community, if you can help someone learn a foreign language which might help him/her get a better job, then by extension you can make one person's life better, and you should feel good that you already did a lot.
What is an important learning activity that you absolutely do (daily) to keep yourself going even when times are busy or the willpower to learn is low?
If I have extra time, then I would sit down and read or book a conversation practice lesson. But if I'm busy, I’d still make sure I go through my languages every single day, or I won't go to bed. During those hectic days, you can limit your activities to something easier or more appealing to you, like listening to the radio or reading just one article in your target language.
Do you recommend learning multiple languages at the same time? Is it preferable to study languages from the same language family or different language families?
When you learn languages from the same family you have a great advantage, and that is of course the shared vocabulary, words that are very similar in the other language. But at the same time this similarity will cause interference and you might start mixing the two languages.
I think the best way to avoid this from happening is to learn them one by one, and learn one to a very good level before you proceed to the next one. Think of similar languages as skipping stones: you don't want to jump with your feet landing on different stones. Jump once, then when you are ready for the next one, jump again.
A lot of language learners ask about the importance of pronunciation or accent. What would you say to them?
When I start a new language, I like to start with phonetics:
- What sounds does this language make?
- Can I replicate them?
Then once the pronunciation rules are clear, I make sure I listen and read very basic words and phrases A LOT. Then I try and mimic those sounds. You don't have to be perfect, but you don't want to be bad either, and if you just play along this "imitation game", you will be fine.
Getting rid of an accent can be the icing on the cake. But you can be perfectly fluent AND have an accent, and it will be OK. Accents tell stories, and I like stories.
After every learning session, what do you do to retain the information / knowledge you’ve gained so that you’re able to recall it long-term?
Most apps these days will tell you that "Spaced Repetition" is your best friend when it comes to learning a language, and yes, I tend to agree. But at the core of it, this is nothing new: it is all about reviewing. You don't learn a new word by repeating it a couple of times and then never seeing it again. You learn by doing baby steps, then going back very often and go through the same steps again: you will reinforce what you already know, and you will (little by little) learn what you don't know. Reviewing might actually be the most downplayed activity in language learning.
How do you overcome the plateau of learning a language if you’re not making progress anymore?
If you learn a language because you have to, or because somebody wants you to, you will never truly learn it because this automatically feel like an obligation for you -- which you won’t be interested in doing. But if you really want to learn, then you can make it fun by using it in combination with your passions and hobbies! See a foreign language not as a school subject, like math or science, but as a tool. You like sports? Well, you can read sports news about your favorite team in your target language!
In regards to this inevitable “plateau”, it is easier than you think. If you feel that you're not taking any steps forward, take a step sideways:
- Change your learning routine.
- Do different things and see how it goes.
Sometimes the best way to overcome an obstacle is to just walk around it.
For you, what is the difference between maintaining a language and making progress in a language? How do you know when you are doing either?
Struggle is generally a clear indicator of progress: if you struggle to find words, or to complete a sentence, it means you are progressing. Or if you read a text, and you have to look for words in the dictionary once or twice, this means you are still learning, and that's a good thing. Progress of any kind should really be the most important indicator when you learn a language. Even if you make relatively small progress every day, you're on the right path.
Maintaining a language is something I constantly do, because if one of my languages is not "independent" yet, I'd rather spend 15 minutes a day and maintain it rather than leave it for a year, only to find that I have lost it completely.
What final inspiration would you like to share to our readers?
If somebody would tell you that it is possible to travel the world by simply making new sounds with your mouth, would you believe him? Well, you should, because it is true: in many ways languages are keys to the doors of cultures around the world. And I can't wait to open the door to as many of these cultures as I can!
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