Whether you’re a seasoned learner of the most delicious language on the planet, or have never even tasted the word buongiorno (good day, hello), it’s wise to step back and look at why you want to speak Italian, and how that motivation can directly correspond to your day-to-day learning activities.
All too often, people try to take on Italian without a real sense of what they want to do with the language. Then, when they’re flooded up to their eyeballs in verb tenses and pelted by an evil rain of Italian prepositions, they simply give up and go under. But if they just had clear a direction, they might swim.
This post concerns the highly individualized motivations that can lead you to success with Italian, and how to apply them to your course of studies. It comes from my personal experience as a language learning addict and language teacher, and also from the book “How Languages Are Learned,” which is an excellent academic take on the subject.
Identify Good Personal Motivations for Learning Italian
The idea of motivation is central to everything that follows. Here are the motivations that some people have for learning Italian:
- “I don’t want to be monolingual; I want to be cultured.”
- “It would be so sexy to say that I can speak Italian.”
- “It would look good on my CV.”
Now compare those to some more personal and concrete motivations for learning the language:
- “I want to retire on the Amalfi coast.”
- “I want to understand what my new Italian lover is saying to me.”
- “I want to really understand Fellini films.”
- “I want to enjoy Italian music.”
- “I need Italian for my job in order to communicate with clients.”
Which of these sets of motivations is going to lead to specific reasons to want to communicate? Which is going to drive you to study particular aspects of the language? Which is going to make you want to keep moving forward when the going gets rough? Clearly the second set.
Learning Italian is a serious commitment, and is rarely achievable without genuine, personal motivation. If your motivations don’t involve a personal drive to understand and/or communicate in Italian, I urge you to reconsider even trying now, before losing a lot of time in what is an arduous—though very fun and rewarding—venture.
Setting Achievable Goals for Italian Learning
Once you’ve identified your overarching motivation(s), you need to translate that into achievable short-term goals that you can use to plan your lessons.
For example, if like me you value culinary experiences in Italy as one of your main drivers for learning the language, an early step might be to learn to place a simple order in perfect Italian. If you need Italian for business, a good early-intermediate step is to learn to call and leave a message to be called back in passable Italian. And if you’re hoping to understand the overwrought sweet somethings of an Italian lover… well, good luck with that. Just kidding—you can start making headway on that by indulging in romantic, dramatic movies, songs and TV shows in Italian, and imagine what sorts of romantic things you might say to the characters.
Even grammar lessons should be related to your overall motivations. From the point of view of a motivated Italian learner, taking on the rules for when to use which auxiliary verb for the past tense isn’t an abstract exercise in self-torture. It’s really a shortcut to being better able to make quality, straightforward sentences about your past, such that your new Italian friends will better understand you.
5 Tools for Learning Italian at Any Skill Level
Your goals will determine the learning tools that you use. Here’s an overview of the best tools and how you can relate them to your motivations. Your choice of tools will vary according to what you’re trying to do.
1. Language exchanges and tutors
Unless your motivation is simply to read Dante, you’re going to want to practice actually speaking, listening and exchanging with human beings in Italian—preferably with native speakers.
If you’re a cheapskate and highly self-directed, this can be done entirely through free online language exchanges, for example with partners you can find on PolyglotClub or italki. The latter is also a great way to find private tutors, which I personally think is the best way to learn.
Tutors usually charge $8-20 per hour for Italian lessons. The great thing about personal lessons is that you can plan them yourself, and thus ensure that you’re focusing on the short-term goals you identified above. If you’re not yet comfortable planning your own lessons, you can ask your teacher to focus lessons around structures and vocabulary that’s most useful given your goals.
2. Videos in Italian
FluentU is hard at work tracking down the best native Italian videos for learners at all skill levels and covering a variety of interests.
Not only does FluentU offer video, but it offers scaffolding that isn’t available anywhere else. This means that you’ll find authentic content approachable and within reach.
All the videos are grouped into six skill levels, and every word in every video is carefully annotated so that learners have plenty of support. You can hover your cursor over any word in the interactive subtitles to see an in-context definition, image and multiple example sentences. You can even click on a word to see how it’s used in other videos across the site. Vocabulary lists, fun exercises and tailor-made flashcard decks will help you learn actively while watching your favorite videos.
You can learn vocabulary in context, as it’s actually used and pronounced by natives. Then you’ll have ample opportunity to review and practice what you’ve learned.
3. Textbook or self-teaching guide with exercises
Your goals should determine your choice of text-based material.
If you need formal Italian for academic or business settings, you’ll want an academic textbook that focuses on helping you write with perfect grammar. On the other hand, if your motivation includes a vision of yourself someday as a feeble old man hashing things out in a small-town Amalfi bar with other retirees, you might opt for a book that focuses on oral communication. The best book I’ve ever found with a communicative approach is “Complete Italian: A Teach Yourself Guide.”
4. Written materials
Don’t limit yourself to your textbook for written input of Italian! There is a world of Italian writing out there to fit any learner motivation.
For example, if you’re into Italian food, look up the ingredients in your fridge in an English-Italian dictionary, then google those ingredients plus ricetta (recipe) and see what an Italian might do with them. You’re thus forcing yourself to absorb concrete, useful Italian, as well as cook and eat some excellent food.
My favorite way to memorize is with the smartphone app Anki (although tactile learners will do better with paper flashcards). Lots of premade Italian decks are available for download, but I highly encourage you to create your own decks of flashcards instead, based on what you’re learning in your lessons and from the other tools mentioned above.
That way new vocabulary and structures are strongly connected to context, and the context is in turn connected to your motivations for learning the language. For example, it was important for me to make a card to memorize caffè corretto (espresso with a shot of grappa), because this is what I’ll be ordering when I’m 70 and living in Amalfi. That drink isn’t in standard Italian flashcard decks, however.
Staying Motivated as You Learn
If you have an excellent, personal motivation and goals from week to week that are related to it, staying motivated should be a matter of course.
But life happens, and you may get sidetracked or run into obstacles. One of the best ways to stick to constantly learning Italian is to have a daily schedule. Even 15 minutes per day can be enough to keep you thinking about Italian and focused on improving. With 30 minutes a day you can make real progress. One day might be devoted to reading, the next to a lesson over Skype to discuss what you’ve read, another to grammar, another to wonderfully trashy TV shows, another to a language exchange to practice your new structures, and so on.
While having such a routine can help you keep at it, make sure that there’s still lots of variety. Italian won’t be fun if you do the same kind of work every day. Learning from a variety of materials and about a variety of communicative points that relate to your goals is much more intriguing. As you get further along with your Italian, you can try to replace some of the activities that you currently do in English (listening to podcasts, reading the news) with Italian versions.
For those of you with only a tepid interest in Italian, I hope that this has given a realistic picture of both the effort required and the joy that can come from the adventure.
If you already have a strong desire to learn, or have already started studying Italian, I hope that this has helped you to focus your learning choices around your overarching motivation in such a way that it will keep you moving forward throughout the process.
Hopefully a few of you will drop by that small Amalfi bar some decades from now and tell me how it went.
Mose Hayward blogs in Italian and English about picking up Dutch men, kissing Brazilians and other adventures.
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