Learning Italian: My Learning Diary (20 months in)

I intended to write the second language learning diary after my 12-day trip to Italy in August 2021; I wanted to track my progress soon after spending some time in the country, surrounded by the language. However, the return to school in September and a few stalls in my learning meant I’m only just getting round to it now, 8 months after the first entry.

My first diary entry detailed the methods I had used and the point I had reached. Admittedly, I don’t adhere to a strict learning schedule as I work full-time and it’s harder when you don’t live in the country of your target language, plus it’s not urgent as my partner speaks fluent English. I have picked it up a bit more recently as I am entered in for GCSE Italian at the school where I work with a colleague, and we are helping each other. I also recently returned from a 6-day trip to Italy where I got to practice some more speaking than usual (more about that later). You can read about two of those days, spent in the Alpine region of Trentino, here.

These have been my main methods of learning Italian since my last blog entry in April 2021:

Reading

It sounds obvious, I know, but reading the language and seeing it in context is basically the foundation of learning a language. I find that reading is the skill that comes first as you start to see words and recognise them, then through contextualisation you can work out what words around them mean.

As an English teacher, I’ve told my students for years that the more they read, the better they’ll be able to write. Practising what I preach, and recalling something that really helped me learn Spanish, I have been making an effort to read in Italian where time allows.

I had completed the Short Stories in Italian for beginners book so I ordered the intermediate edition. Immediately, I noticed a marked jump in complexity but in the vocabulary itself more than the grammar. Once you have a competent grasp of grammar and the tenses, you are able to decode most things you read as long as you have the vocabulary. There are between 160,000-250,000 words actively in use in the Italian language today and obviously, even native speakers don’t know every single word; however, it goes without saying that the more you know, the more you will understand more complex pieces of writing. I have been having to stop every few words to translate and write them down in my notebook as the words in this book are a bit trickier.

It’s a great exercise though, some words I’ve learned from this book include:

  • Starnutire– sneeze
  • Occhiataccia– dirty look
  • Picchiare– hit
  • Sciocatto/a– shocked

Their English translations are not so uncommon but I hadn’t come across them in Italian before.

My boyfriend bought me ‘Il Piccolo Principe‘ (the Italian translation of the French classic ‘Le Petit Prince’) from a bookshop in Reggio Emilia and I started to read it whilst on holiday but I got distracted after the first few chapters. I understood most of what I had read but a few people have told me that it becomes quite abstract so might be difficult for a learner. I am going to return to this very soon!

He also bought me this small poetry collection entitled ‘Poesie D’Amore‘ by Antonia Pozzi. The poems are short and written in quite simple vocabulary about love and other universal themes which makes it a great learning resource. I’m going to use it to do some translation practice.

The story of Antonia Pozzi is fascinating and tragic by the way; she was a poet and photographer who had none of her work published in her lifetime and she took her own life at the age of just 26.

Andrea recently ordered me a book that he enjoyed as a child, called ‘La famosa invasione degli orsi in Sicilia’ (The Famous Invasion of the Bears in Sicily) which I will tackle next!

MUSIC. This was a key part of my Spanish learning so it only makes sense to apply it to my Italian learning. I have to admit that I’m finding it much harder to find Italian musical genres I like as the current charts are filled with Italian-version reggaeton and the older music is dominated by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. I’ve been seeking other, lesser-known songs on YouTube with varying degrees of success. (Signs by Beyoncรฉ and Missy Elliott is not on the Italian playlist btw!!! It was playing on shuffle at the time of the screenshot!)

Still, I’ve found a few songs I like and I’ve been listening to them quite frequently to let the lyrics sink in and start to register in my comprehension. Apple Music allows you to view the lyrics to most songs so I’ve been looking at them as I play the songs too. There is something about rhythms, rhymes and repetition that helps words to lodge in my memory so hopefully, the more Italian songs I find I like, the more I’ll have from which to pick up the lingo.

GCSE past papers! I’ve been taking a leaf out of my students’ books in utilising past papers to familiarise myself with the format, timings, question styles, and rubric of the exams I will sit in May 2022.

I like having a goal to aim towards and knowing I have to step up my learning for the GCSE I’ve voluntarily signed up for is a great motivator. My colleague Liz and I have been making an effort to meet up once a week to try listening or writing papers together. Some have been quite easy and given me a sense of ‘yeah I can do this no probs’ to others being really harshly hard and me thinking ‘sh*t!’.. but practice makes perfect so says the old adage! I haven’t even attempted the speaking component yet but that’ll be my next step. Living with Andrea means I get to speak some Italian quite often and I’ve noticed how we speak it so much more when in Italy as opposed to being in Liverpool.

Which brings me on to-

Speaking Italian whilst in Italy

My trip to Italy in December 2021 allowed me to have another go at wheeling out what I know so far. I found that on the whole, I was able to chip into chat quite easily and I had much more vocabulary to do so compared to my visit 4 months earlier. Andrea’s mum, sister and brother-in-law speak English but his mum’s partner doesn’t, which is great for some real, live practice.

I was recently really pleased to use the cute word ‘ridarella’ (the giggles) in context when we were at a restaurant and a customer couldn’t stop laughing at a trick the chef performed. I remember when I first learned this word and wondered when I would ever be able to integrate such a specific term into everyday conversation.

The best way to get better at speaking is…. to speak. I came back from this holiday with the resolve to speak more but it is quite difficult when you’re out of the immersion and your relationship has one language established as the mother tongue. It has increased though and I am making some spoken progress, although the improvement in Italian seems to be at the cost of my Spanish. I was at a dinner in Chester last week with a few Italian people and a few Spanish people. The two languages were criss-crossing over the table and I was getting tongue-tied and frustrated. I don’t want to lose my Spanish as it was hard-earned and it was at one time, a massive part of my daily life whilst living in Spain.

Some words are so similar between Italian and Spanish that it’s so easy to confuse them and so hard to rewire the neural pathways in the brain that offer up the correct word from the correct language. Sometimes I feel a physical swirling of words in my mind and I try to grasp the right one but other variables affect this such as tiredness, cognitive load when other tasks and responsibilities are weighing in, and so on.

Unfortunately, I don’t get many opportunities to speak Spanish and I should go to the intercambio events in Liverpool. Meanwhile, Italian is the more prevalent language in my life now and although it isn’t urgently needed with Andrea’s fluency in English, I want to learn it to communicate with his wider family and friends and to absorb his culture.

Next Steps

My next trip to Italy will be (all going well) in May half term 2022, to Rimini. This will be a week after my GCSE exams and I will hopefully be feeling confident!

In the meantime, I am going to look for more Italian music I like, read more from the above books, maybe attempt a short/basic novel, do as many GCSE past papers as possible, chat to Andrea more in his language, and maybe sign back up to Italian Pod 101 which really helped with the basics in the past.

I’ll probably next post about my Italian learning in May after the GCSE exams and the trip to Rimini unless other developments and methods lead me to write another post!

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