Whenever they start a new Italian course, my students ask me the same questions: how do I do well in this course? How can I improve my Italian? How do I get good at Italian? There is no simple answer to this question, as I always tell them. Learning a language — any language — is a matter of consistency and commitment. There are ten pieces of advice I give to all my second-language learners of Italian, which I am eager to share with you now. They don’t unlock the magic bullet or summon the magic wand which will make you fluent in minutes, but they will help you keep on track with Italian, if you truly want to.
1 – Make Italian a habit and stay consistent. Practice Italian for at least 20 minutes every day. Those 20 minutes need not always look the same. If taking an Italian class, you can review your notes on Monday, do practice exercises on Tuesday, listen to a podcast on Wednesday, watch a TV show on Thursday, read a short article on Friday, and talk to a friend in Italian on Saturday (for example). Work Italian into the natural rhythm of your week. But keeping the language in constant practice outside the classroom is key to succeeding.
2 – Pair Italian with something you truly love doing. If you love to run, slot those 20 minutes of Italian in before a run (so your run is your reward) or after a run (so you have released endorphins and can focus on the task ahead). Eventually, your happy connotations with running will also rub off on Italian, and you will want to practice it with just as much passion and consistency. If you already like the subject matter, you are miles ahead.
3 – Work toward a model of retention, not retrieval. When you speak to someone (in any language), you don’t say, “Hold on a second, let me just check the powerpoint presentation with all the adjectives in it.” Work toward committing to memory vocabulary that will help you communicate at a basic capacity. Do the same with any aspect of the language that is irregular — irregular body parts, irregular verb conjugations, irregular past participles. It’s not enough to just know where to find them in your notes or text book. You have to KNOW them. Working toward retention will look differently for different students. As a general rule of thumb, aim to put everything you see or learn into practice at least ten times in the days after you learn it.
4 – If taking a formal Italian course, go to class prepared. Mark down a few things you want to say about the preparatory work and the vocabulary you need to say them. Lead with these prepared remarks. They will give you confidence to move forward. Identify the exercises you had a hard time completing and ask for specific feedback on those. The more pointed your — and your teacher’s — focus is, the more effectively you’ll learn.
5 – Keep a vocabulary journal. Try to learn at least one new word per day and to put it into use at least ten times over the next few days. Repetition helps words and structures stick. If you are more hands-on learner, label everything in your house with post-its with the Italian word for them. Seeing those sticky notes over and over again and touching them every time you reach for your cellulare or borsa or portafoglio will help you remember their names.
6 – Form or join a peer group focused on conversation outside of class. Use it as a tool to share new words and practice structures learned in class. Peers are a HUGE learning tool!
7- Attend extracurricular events and activities hosted in Italian either at your school or outside of it. Go to conversation classes, go see an Italian play, attend an Italian film screening. Anything getting you exposed to the language in real contexts — not those necessarily contrived for your language course — will help you become more authentic users of that language.
8 – Practice something you love in Italian. If you like to run, learn all about running in Italian, then share what you’ve learned with your peers. If you love knitting, watching television, cooking, painting, singing, whatever, stock up on vocabulary related to your hobby and talk about that. It might not always be useful in class, but it is an easy way to strike a conversation with someone in real life.
9 – Listening to Italian podcasts, watching television in Italian, and reading in Italian will all help you build your vocabulary, but might not encourage you to use it actively. Try to create as many opportunities you can for yourself to use the new vocabulary you have accumulated. That might mean teaching it to someone else! Annoy your mom/roommate/significant other/best friend/pet with all the words and grammar structures you have learned. They might become your best conversation partners in the long run.
10 – Last and most important, do not be afraid to fail. You will make mistakes. Some will impede your interlocutor from understanding you. That’s okay. We all start somewhere. Be lenient with yourself and use those mistakes as opportunities for learning, rather than examples of failure or inability.
Buon lavoro e buon divertimento!