What is the best way to learn Italian?
I often get asked what is the best way to learn Italian by those who are contemplating moving to Italy or are coming for an extended period and are concerned about their lack of knowledge of the Italian language. I was talking to a friend about this the other day and we very quickly came to the same conclusion – ‘go drinking’! I jest, but if the opportunity arises there is generally no better opportunity to speak or hear the language than in a social environment. Alcohol generally loosens the tongue and as the glasses of vino go down the confidence levels rise. For most of you this is not really the response that you want to hear so we can look at this from a number of perspectives – do you have limited financial resources and so are looking at options to learning Italian free or funds are plenty and so tutors and language courses are your most favoured options? Do you have limited hours during the week? Do you have access to Italian movies, literature or Italian clubs in your area?
I think there is no doubt that following just one avenue i.e. a single Italian language course will not give you the desired result as quickly as you’d like, no matter what these courses tell you. A combination of things will take you to the point were you need to be prior to your departure. Exposure to different media will also keep it exciting as motivation is a difficult thing as the weeks go on. People do lose interest, particular if there is no end goal, so it is important that you set one of these at the outset. Some of the things that I did and experiences of my friends are outlined below.
Practice, practice, practice….
There is no doubt that the best, quickest and most effective way to learning Italian is total immersion. If you can then there is nothing better than travelling to the Bel Paese (Italy is affectionately known as the Beautiful Country) for a period of time to study at an Italian language school, getting a job for a period of time, taking an extended holiday or enrolling in some sort of student exchange programme (even if you are a little older) . The idea being to live, breathe and dream in Italian. Unfortunately, not everyone has the time or money to embark on such a journey and so one or some of the other options below need to be followed. But it is extremely important to remember that whatever route to learning Italian that you take you need to practice, practice, practice! As part of your daily routine you need to spend some time each day speaking, reading, writing and listening to Italian so that you get used to the sound and structure of the language. There is no doubt that as each day goes by and as your vocabulary expands your confidence levels rise and understanding of the language develops. From my own experience in the early days the radio was just a babble but today there is certainly more clarity. Believe you me, if I can learn the language, so can you.
1. Language courses or adult education
Fortunately for us there was a 6th form college close to us that offered an Italian language course for different levels. The advantage of this was that this instilled routine and discipline into our lives and it became habit. There was now some structure and because we had paid for this there was the desire to see it through rather than wasting money. We knew that at least every week we were getting a 2 hour fix of Italian and as we progressed from one course to the next there was certainly a lot more homework and a lot more reading and writing of the language, which was only a good thing. I must admit as I progressed to a more advanced level of Italian it was quite difficult after a hard day at work to trudge off to classes when all I wanted to do was to go home and have a beer or a glass of wine! Doing homework a few nights a week after work was also a challenge but as far as I’m concerned there is no better feeling than receiving the gift of another language and being able to converse with an Italian in his own language.
2. Italian Language courses – software and online
There are a wealth of these available to buy or download or available online and there are some for free. I think its safe to say that you pay for what you get and so the free Italian language courses online may be great for beginners where you can immerse yourself in Italian vocabulary, grammar and verbs but as you progress you will need some depth and maybe better language learning techniques. Some Italian language courses are better than others and some of the techniques developed over the years have had better success than other and so if you want better results or need to learn the language faster then you may need to purchase one of the many Italian language courses available online. I have only used a few of these over the years. The ones that worked best for me were Rocket, Rosetta Stone and for quick results Michel Thomas (I used this one for quick results before my first Italian holiday). A good review of these can be found here.
The advantage of following one of these courses again is the structure and discipline that it will give you as you go through the stages and if you are also doing a language course in the evening and are unsure about any aspect of the language then you can normally follow this online. If you are not self-disciplined then you may find that you have wasted a fair amount of money one of these.
3. Watching Italian movies
I’ve heard many different views on the best way to watch Italian movies and I think its safe to say that sitting down one afternoon and watching 5 Italian movies back to back it really not going to get you off first base. Ideally you should watch the movie in your home tongue first so you get the gist of the story line and then watch it in English again with Italian subtitles and then progress onto watching it in Italian with Italian subtitles; you can do this iteratively until you have a good understanding of what is being said, you know it off by heart or are sick of looking at it! The last step would be to watch it in Italian without the subtitles. This worked for me but not for everyone.
The advantages of watching Italian movies are:
- you hear words and phrases that crop up repeatedly and soon you are using these without thinking
- you start to understand the sounds and rhythm of the language
- hearing the language as much as possible in any day helps with your immersion
- it can supplement another part of your learning experience, so if you were leaning grammar or verb conjugation that same day then you may come across these expressions or verbs during the movie
- if you were going to watch a movie anyway then you might as well do it in a foreign language and increase your education
The disadvantages of watching Italian movies are:
- it may be too advanced for you and so goes over your head, making you think that you just wasted an hour and a half of your precious time (on the upside…something will have sunk it!)
- if you are just reading the subtitles then it becomes a reading lesson rather than a listening lesson
- there is no interaction. Most studies would indicate that interactive learning is more beneficial than passive learning and watching a movie is definitely passive (unless you act along!)
- the one and a half hour movie become a three hour movie as you look up every third word in the dictionary! So there is definitely a time commitment needed.
At the end of the day you need to find the right balance here. You need to find a movie that is at a level of Italian slightly above were you are and decide what you are trying to get out of the film; is it an understanding of the story-line or how they use the same verb in different contexts?
A wide selection of movies can be found on Amazon. Some of my favourites are il Postino (The Postman), Benvenuti al Sud (Welcome to the South) or il Padrino (The Godfather).
4. Reading Italian books and newspapers
There is really no better way to understand the structure of Italian than in reading the language. For those who love to read books this is an ideal way to learn. Written Italian is also very beautiful and what this medium will show you is that you can’t take an English sentence an translate it verbatim into Italian. Still to this day I use English expressions believing that they are the same in Italy and then wonder why the puzzled look?!
Similar to movies it’s best to choose a reader that is slightly above your level and even better if you can find a dual language reader (and even better if there is audio that goes along with it). The advantages of reading books and newspapers is that although there are a wealth of free Italian books and free Italian newspapers online you don’t need to be online and you can study anywhere and anytime. Again, if you have limited time then you can read as little or as much as you wish, even just a small article or chapter.
The disadvantages as I see it are that they aren’t interactive (and interactive learning is generally more effective than passive learning). You also can’t master your speaking skills as you can’t learn pronunciation through books and newspapers. Books can be quite expensive.
5. Italian cultural events
If you live in or close to a big city then you are bound to find a plethora of Italian clubs or Italian cultural events or an Italian market and this really gives you the opportunity to practice your Italian language skills as well as learn more about their culture. You certainly can’t beat an interactive experience for expanding your learning skills. This opportunity will allow you to exercise most of your language learning needs (except possibly writing). Asking for a cup of cafe (coffee) and a tramezzino (sandwich) in Italian is very satisfying. Even if no such events occur in your area there is always the possibility of going to an Italian church service or making use of an online one-on-one conversation exchange with a native Italian speaker
By using a combination of the above you will be well on your way to mastering the Italian lanuage. Its really important to strike a balance. If you love reading then you can’t just follow this medium. It is important that each day you spend some time speaking, listening to, reading and writing Italian. In this way as your confidence grows (without alcohol!), so will your vocabulary and understanding, your pronunciation will improve and you might even be mistaken as a local. It hasn’t happened to me yet!
But bottom line…Do something, anything!