I have been learning Italian for approximately 8-10 months now since I met my partner who is from Italy, with varying rates of study. Sometimes I’m able to study intensively, sometimes I learn casually/passively and when work gets busy I can go weeks without much learning at all. He speaks fluent English but I firmly believe that learning his native language too is only fair! Learning a language is also interwoven with learning about a culture and vice versa so that’s another important reason for me.
I’ve been off work for the last 2 weeks for the Easter break so have had much more time to focus on learning Italian. In the UK we have been in a third national lockdown for the last four months due to the Covid-19 pandemic which means there hasn’t been much else to do during this time off! I feel I’ve made a noticeable amount of progress over the last fortnight so thought I would write a blog entry tracking where I am after 8-10 months and what I have done so far. The idea is that I will write another entry in around 3-4 months so I can look back and track how I’ve progressed as it is often hard to gauge. My hope is that international travel will resume this summer and that we will be able to get over to Italy in August (4 months from now) and that I will be able to converse on a basic level with locals in Italian.
One thing I knew from previous language learning was that whatever your learning style, it needs to be multi-sensory, frequent and as immersive as you can make it even when not in a country where your target language is commonly spoken.
Methods Used So Far
My starting point knowledge was pretty much food words (pizza, pasta, spaghetti, funghi, vino, al fresco, al forno, panini, focaccia, ciabatta, tortellini, formaggio and a few more) and basic greeting words from a brief trip to Lake Como in 2018 (grazie, prego, buongiorno, ciao, arrivederci, per favore) and that was basically all.
I started by redownloading Duolingo and selecting the Italian course. I’d used this app in the past when I started learning Spanish and always found it to be so random. There is no explicit teaching, you are just presented with short translation tasks for random phrases such as ‘The elephant eats apples’ or ‘The bread is angry’.
It helps you pick up some words but it feels fragmented and it’s really hard to put what you learn together in any useful way. Lots of people find Duolingo to be helpful and it is massively successful across the world and it’s not terrible for free but it gets quite tedious after only a short while. The owl that pops up once a day to nag you to use the app and the emails get so annoying you disable your account and delete the app just so it leaves you alone!
A Conversation Course for Beginners in Italian
I already knew of Irish polyglot Benny Lewis from his YouTube channel so I looked online to see if he had an Italian course and lo and behold he did! Italian is one of his 8+ languages. I ordered the above-named book which also gives you access to a library of audio files for use with the activities in the book.
I found the layout of the exercises along with the explanations and footnotes to be easy on the eye and easy to comprehend. It didn’t feel like information overload and I quite liked being able to write in it like a workbook as I worked my way through the exercises whilst listening to the audio. I tried to find time each evening after work instead of watching TV or scrolling on my phone. I tried to do at least half an hour each weekday evening but it’s not always possible to spend time on a hobby or something you’re learning every single day.
I’d definitely recommend Benny Lewis’ Language Hacking courses as a great introduction to a language which feels enjoyable and rewarding and boosts your confidence at this early stage.
As of April 2021, he has this book available in French, Spanish, German and Italian.
Volume One for Beginners
Olly Richards is another polyglot, from England, who speaks 8 languages. (@iwillteachyoualanguage on Instagram). He encourages people to learn languages through stories. When I was learning Spanish, someone gave me a book of short stories in Spanish written for people learning the language. The simple language and grammar makes the stories accessible and gives you an immediate sense of navigating this new language. There you are, reading an actual book in your target language, after only a few weeks of learning! It really helps expose you to the grammatical structures and see past, present and future tenses. The more you see these tenses and how the verbs are conjugated, the more it becomes familiar and embedded into your mind.
I purchased this book after around 2 months of casually learning Italian and found it challenging to read and understand the short stories but very helpful. I read several of the stories near my boyfriend so I could ask him the meanings of certain words which I would then jot down in my notebook. Throughout the chapters, keywords are printed in bold then at the end of each chapter, there is a glossary with the English translations. Richards uses repetition and revisiting across these stories to allow the words to be committed to long term memory.
Following Social Media Pages for Learning Italian
It’s a good idea to expose yourself to your target language as much as possible so a great way to do this is to follow social media pages as that means you’ll encounter the language daily even if you forget or don’t have time. You can follow pages which have been made specifically for learning the language or you can follow everyday pages intended for Italian speakers.
I figured that if I had a nice notebook to write in and read from then I would be more inclined to use it and learn more. I bought myself a gorgeous Italian-made notebook from Homesense ♥️ and started to make vocabulary lists for categories such as animals, colours, food, family, days of the week and so on.
Post-It Notes and Word Charts around the house!
Again, this was another trick I used in my first flat in Spain to learn common domestic words. I did the same with my current house here in Liverpool with Italian words. I took them down after a week and tested myself to see if I remembered them.
I’d been following Italian Pod 101 on Instagram for some months and screenshotting their word lists so I decided to sign up to their website and see if it was worth a subscription. So far, I’m really enjoying their online lessons which take the form of audio lessons, video lessons, word lists, flashcards and tests.
You choose your level then choose the pathways (modules) you want to learn. You can have as many of these on the go at once as you want and some of the lessons are featured in other modules so it’s quite satisfying to see your completion percentages going up across more than one pathway as you go.
Where I’m at now– April 2021
It’s hard to gauge but at this stage I’d describe myself as upper beginner or lower intermediate.
I can read Italian news, social media posts or Whatsapp messages without a problem, knowing most high frequency words but having to translate words here and there. The gist of a text can still be easily understood without knowing the meaning of every word. That is something I tell my students at school when they say they find a text difficult. Read around the word and contextualise it and the meaning often makes itself obvious. I then write these words in my notebook to try to remember them.
A common error I keep making is typing ‘y’ instead of ‘e’ for the word ‘and’. This is because ‘y’ is the Spanish word for ‘and’ and it is so strongly ingrained in my memory that it is hard to replace it with the Italian ‘e’. I installed the Italian keyboard on my iPhone so I can switch depending on who I am writing to so it uses autocorrect and suggestions and adds accent marks in etc which can help.
At this point I can listen to Italian people having a conversation or a YouTuber speaking and can understand the majority of what they are saying. When it’s super fast, no, I don’t catch much. Fortunately, Italians famously tend to use plenty of hand gestures to help convey meaning which helps! Listening to songs is a bit harder so I don’t catch a lot but I can get the general gist. It’s nice to notice how I’m increasingly understanding more of people’s conversations, videos and audio lessons as time goes on with more practice.
There are two types of listening and both are very useful for language learning:
Active listening- this is where you listen to Italian intended for learners where you listen carefully and pay it your full attention.
Passive listening- this is normal, everyday Italian intended for native or highly fluent speakers; you play it in the background while you’re occupied with other tasks. The idea is that it sinks into your unconscious mind which stores language. This is the same mechanism behind listening to language while you sleep.
My speaking is still at quite a rudimentary level. Speaking generally comes last in the four primary modes of communication. I am well versed in the basic Italian pleasantries which flow quite naturally now.
When I speak Italian, I speak slowly with pauses after every couple of words. I have to scan my memory to recall words and I have to carefully plot out the structure of the sentence before I say it and as I am saying it.
My spontaneous spoken sentences (other than greetings and other well-practised phrases) currently go something like this:
“La…. prossima? settimana, andrò al centro per….. comprare….er….. how do you say clothes again?”
I can however spontaneously say short phrases in response to other people’s conversations e.g:
“Sì, mi piace molto. È la mia canzone preferita!”
I can also confidently say seasonal phrases such as:
“Buon Natale!”, “Buona Pasqua!”, “Buon compleanno!”, “Tanti auguri!” or “Congratulazioni!”
I also think I’d be able to order food and drinks in a restaurant albeit slowly.
The key to speaking another language is ALWAYS speaking the language. The more you speak it, the more you will form the muscle memory to be able to speak it even more proficiently.
Main difficulties after 8-10 months
- Confusing Spanish with Italian
- I am not yet familiar with the subjunctive mood
- Remembering low frequency vocabulary
- Speed of recall and slowly formed sentences when speaking
- Gaps in knowledge which cause obstacles in writing sentences
- Agreement of prepositions, articles, and the plural form
Some favourite Italian words and phrases that I’ve picked up so far include:
Allora- so/then 🗣
Bambola- doll 🧚🏼
Nonna- grandmother 👵🏾
Farfalla- butterfly 🦋
Primavera- Spring 🌷
Isola- island 🏝
Riva- shore 🌊
Mezza luna- half moon 🌙
Colomba- dove 🕊
Forza- strength 💪🏽
Pomodoro- tomato 🍅
Bambino- child 👶🏿
Ragazzo/a- boy/girl and boyfriend/girlfriend 👩🏻👦🏻
Pisolino- nap 😴
Tuta- comfy clothing/ loungewear! 🩳
In bocca al lupo- Good luck! (“in the mouth of the wolf!”) 🐺
A tavola!- To the table! 🍽
Una notte in bianco- a sleepless night (“a white night”) 😓
To conclude for now…
So that’s where I am with Italian after around 8-10 months. It’s been a useful exercise to reflect on where I began, what I’ve been doing to learn, obstacles along the way, what I’ve found challenging and words I love. I haven’t even spent any time in Italy yet so I hope I can get there this summer to pick up a lot more and put it into practice.
I’ll write the next update in 3 months time- July 2021- to see where I am at that point!
Please leave your language learning tips and experiences in the comment section below 😊.