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What is the best way to learn Italian?

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What is the best way to learn Italian?

On February 13, 2016, Posted by , In Learning Italian, By , , With 45 Comments

I often get asked what is the best way to learn Italian by those who are contemplating moving to Italy or are Best way to learn italiancoming 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?

 

Motivation

 

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 learn italian 24/7time, 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 yourosetta stone italian 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

 

il postino movieI’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:

  1. you hear words and phrases that crop up repeatedly and soon you are using these without thinking
  2.  you start to understand the sounds and rhythm of the language
  3. hearing the language as much as possible in any day helps with your immersion
  4. 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
  5. 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:

  1. 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!)
  2. if you are just reading the subtitles then it becomes a reading lesson rather than a listening lesson
  3. 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!)
  4. 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

 

learning italianThere 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 aslearning the italian language 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

 

Next step

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

45 Comments so far:

  1. Diana Worley says:

    Hi Brendan,
    I have to say I really love our website. I am of Italian heritage but never learned to speak the language eventhough it was spoken at home. I will try some of your ideas, especially reading Italian books. I think watching movies could help with pronunciation and then understanding once you have an understanding of the words.
    I’m going to keep following you. This is great! Thank you.
    Diana

    • Brendan says:

      Hi Diana,

      Thank you for the kind words, it’s a pity that Italian wasn’t passed down to you but your never too old. I’m glad that you are going to try some of the ideas, let me know how they come along….especially the drinking one!

  2. Jovo says:

    When I was a student I passed all available Italian courses and I was almost fluent. My reason for learning it was motivation, which you put in the first place. I loved the language and I was motivated. Unfortunately I lost my conversation skills, but I am simply in love with Italian culture and their language. The methods you describe can be applied for any language.

    You know my problem with languages: I do not drink alcohol.

    Il padrino is my favorite as well, watched all of them a few times. Thank you, it was pleasant to read about Italian language. I assume you are fluent yourself.

    • Brendan says:

      I’m definitely not fluent yet but working on it. We have only been here 2 and a half years so there is still a way to go. It’s great to hear that someone else apart from me loves the culture and the language. If you are ever want to visit then let us know.

    • Derek says:

      Jovo,

      I am currently trying to learn Thai watching videos, It can be done, just as long as the subtitles are using English letters and not squiggles .. so yes, the methods mentioned can work for many languages.

  3. roamy says:

    Hello there Brendan
    Im not so far from Italy and do go to Italy from time to time to shop,even lived in Italy temporarily.
    But l never made an effort to learn the language, l do feel there is an age that if you reach it gets more difficult to learn a foreign language, this is what has stopped me from learning Italian.
    After reading your post, I feel it`s doable no matter how old one is.
    Although we speak Italian in Switzerland, im from the German speaking part.
    My biggest disadvantage when learning a new language is lack of confidence, l feel people will judge me in my bad speaking skills so l never try to practtice.
    Will see if there are Language courses here l can join.Really l have wished for long to live in the ltalian part of Switzerland because of the weather but language barrier has always stopped me.You have given me real motivation.

    • Brendan says:

      Hi Roamy,

      I’m delighted that I was able to motivate you. Believe you me at my age if I can do it, anyone can!
      I wouldn’t worry about lack of confidence.Would you give someone the time of day if they tried to speak German to you rather than them saying nothing? Of course you would and Italians are very forgiving.

  4. Joon says:

    I totally agree with u on best way to learn is total immersion. That’s how I pick up foreign language the quickest. I try to stay away from anyone who speaks English or speak languages I know, but dive into the crowd of locals.

    Second best option would be the popular media. Movies, tv shows, music they all work pretty well. I know a person who never been to a different country but speaks like natives of other country because she obsessedly watched tv shows and movies of that country

    • Brendan says:

      Hi Joon,

      I didn’t think of music which is definitely a useul medium to use in order to learn Italian.

      That is a tremendous amount of discipline to have never visited a country but to immerse oneself in the media of that country. They have more discipline than me and I live here!

  5. Great advice on how to learn Italian. My Mom was Italian and French and she spoke both fluently. Me I’m just a munji-cake, lol!
    These are great tips and where to go on learning a most difficult language. this is something I want to pick up when I retire and have the time. Thanks for this.
    ~Peter

  6. Maurice says:

    Wow very well done website. Also the theme considering your niche site. It suits it very well. The text you have written is truly engaging and compelling to the target audience. Thanks for that info. I would love to learn spanish though italian is the second on my list. This definitely helped me out in the chaos of language learning. Thanks for this man

  7. Tom says:

    Hello, I agree with you that learning any language is with total immersion.
    I once took a foreign language class and it did not go well since there was no use outside of class.
    I think its very important to realize that this not only the best way to learn Italian, but to learn anything. Just immerse yourself with content.

    • Brendan says:

      Hi Tom, thanks for the comments. I think there has to be an end goal, even if its just to order a coffee while on holiday. I have the same problem when it comes to dieting or exercising. If I don’t sign up for a half marathon then I find that I lose motivation early on.

      Total immersion is best but a language course can give you discipline and if there is the ability to converse with like-minded students in chat rooms or forums then this can be almost as good.

  8. Ilyssa says:

    great information! I have used Rosetta Stone and it was great! I highly recommend it. I also had success with watching tv programs as well as writing to friends in the language I was learning. No question, motivation is key. You have to really want to learn and be willing to make a significant effort.

    • Brendan says:

      Hi Ilyssa,

      Writing is probably the area where I struggle the most. Because I’m writing and working in English I generally caste this off to the side as being least important. I must do something about that!

  9. Derek Marshall says:

    Hi There,

    Italian is actually a very easy language to learn. Somewhat of a mix between Spanish and French. Lot of Catalan words in there also.

    Suffice to say, if you can Speak Italian, you will find Spanish very easy to learn.

    I would nt say I speak Italian fluently but when in Italy I just ask that they speak slowly and I can understand everything and If reply in Spanish, speaking clearly they too can understand.

    • Brendan says:

      Hi Derek,

      You are quite right about the similarities between the two. There are lots of Spanish songs on the radio here and sometimes its only after listening to 3 or 4 lines that I realise that in fact its not Italian.

  10. Edwin says:

    Totally agree with being immerse in deep conversation really helps in getting use the language and tenses. I speak English and a little Spanish, thus I always wanted to do a better job with my second language. I think you post on learning to speak Italian is a great example for any looking to learn a second or third language.

    I personally like the audio CD since they are very portable and you can listen to as much as needed.

    Great Info!

    • Brendan says:

      Hi Edwin,

      A second language is such a gift. I am delighted that I have been able to do this for my kids. I’m generally not a big fan of the audio cds as they get damaged quite easily. I prefer the online learning process personally. There is quite a good review of some of these options on http://www.italianlingo.com

  11. William says:

    Good morning Brendan. I really enjoyed your post on the best way to learn Italian. I like a lot of the alternative suggestions you offered. I think we always think you have to sit down with a book or a listen to a cd, but you illustrate that their are several ways to begin learning Italian and many of these ways are not super pricey. I think, utilizing multiple methods, will get you the desired result faster. Again thanks for the great post. Keep up the good work.

    • Brendan says:

      Hi William,

      You definitely need to use a combination of mediums otherwise you will get bored and may find yourself a better reader of Italian than writer, which is certainly my case. You are quite right, fortunately leaning Italy is a gift that can cost nothing.

  12. Chris says:

    This is a very in depth article and I found it at the perfect time as one of my goals this year was to speak Italian as I am going to Italy in October, I have family in Sicily! I like how you suggested drinking is the way to get to know the language as it is in a social setting, this was humorous as well as informing as I didn’t expect it but can relate because we had a friend from Germany come to stay with us and knew little English, but he actually stated that he learned a lot of the English he learn in the bars and clubs we went to as he was forced to interact! Awesome article, I can see your dedication to helping us readers learn, great addition to the web. Chris

  13. angelce903 says:

    Hello,

    I love your website ad your suggestions! As for me, I went to Italy in 2012 and I bought a book on the way with basic sentences and phrases. I must say that Italian is a beautiful language and it’s so musical… When I hear someone speak Italian, I have nostalgia because I only have good memories of my trip in Italy!

  14. tatihden says:

    I think watching movies will work best for someone like me who can’t get enough of them. Learning any language requires a lot of practice. A supportive environment too matters. I never learned my African dialect till I was 20. I learned from children; they were not judgemental and when they laughed at my mistakes, it was just funny not intimidating.

    • Brendan says:

      Hi Tatihden,

      Whatever works for you. I don’t know if just watching movies would work; you probabaly need to combine this with some other resources but its a great start.

  15. Travis Smithers says:

    I would say how you explained to learn Italian with your five steps makes a lot more sense to being successful in learning another language.

    I have heard of some other methods, but they only have mentioned part of what you say one should do, and your way has incorporated a much more solid base to understanding and applying what one could learn.

    Great post.

    • Brendan says:

      Hi Travis,

      Thanks for your comments. I’ve given guidelines that have worked for me and that many polygots have mentioned as being effective. This doesn’t work for everyone, but generally if someone follows these steps they SHOULD progress nicely in their language development.

  16. Win Back Your Ex Comments says:

    Great website and information thank you.

    I learned Italian some years ago as I was in a relationship with a girl from Biella in the north of Italy.

    I wish i had found you then as at the time i was struggling to find some online tuition and ended up spending a lot of money with a monthly payment in order to succeed.

    Do you also offer other Language Courses? as now I am living in Greece and would like to try my chances 🙂

    Thanks, ill bookmark you and come back!

    Chris

  17. Michael says:

    This was a wonderful article to read. My mother spent a lot of her childhood in Italy and eventually learned the language very well to be able to hold a conversation even though she is not Italian. She speaks so greatly about Italy and she misses it, so I am going to take her there to experience it again. I want to learn a bit of Italian before I go so I will take all the tips into consideration when learning some Italian. Thanks for advice they will help tons.

    • Brendan says:

      Hi Michael,

      That sounds wonderful that you would do that for your mother. If you need any help in planning or such-like then drop me a line.

  18. Luis says:

    Hey man, great niche and content, however, I noticed a few things that you could do to improve your site. First of all, its a little plain. Try to add a header image. Secondly, move the location of your social plug-ins because they block part of your paragraphs. Lastly, the positioning of your images is a little awkward. I would recommend placing them top center, or top left above each paragraph. I hope this helps.

  19. Daniel Lara says:

    Hey, Brendan! These are great tips. I work for an American company with a factory in Florence, and I often have meetings with the Italian staff. It’s funny that they will often start speaking Italian amongst themselves whenever the discussion gets a little heated, but it provides a great learning opportunity. I speak Portuguese and Spanish, and because of the similarities between the languages I can pick up a lot of the conversation, and I often wonder I should just take the plunge and put in the effort to learn Italian. Who knows whether your post is the final push? Thanks for the article!

  20. Ashley says:

    Hi, I absolutely loved your post, probably because I’m an Italian speaker myself, a non-native one. I learned Italian from books called “Italian without a teacher”, that provided both grammar and words, at least until you learned the basics. It was a great method for me, but it was also a pretty difficult one, because there isn’t anyone who could explain you the things you don’t understand and there’s no one to correct your mistakes.
    But if you have ambition and you keep studying (even when you have the impression that you don’t understand too much). Repeating the things that aren’t very clear to you will help you understand them in the end, at least this was my case.
    Anyway, thanks for these great tips about how to learn italian, I really loved reading them 🙂

    • Brendan says:

      Hi Ashley, thanks for stopping by. I love your comment about having ambition, this is very true. Having the ambition and the motivation to learn another language is difficult to maintain. At the outset everyone gets excited but that can disappear quickly. The reason for learning ITalian needs to be written down early on and referenced repeatedly.

  21. Dawn says:

    As a Brit I know just how lazy we are at speaking other languages and this is really shameful especially when we travel to other countries and just expect the locals to speak English.

    Funnily enough I have just purchased an online French speaking course as my family are off to a small village for the second time and after feeling extremely embarrassed last year at the lack of French I was able to speak I have decided to do something about it.

    My husband actually bought the Oxford take off in Italian and found it quite useful, although it’s yet to be put to the test!

    Thanks for this post and for encouraging people to learn to speak Italian.

    • Brendan says:

      Hi Dawn,

      That’s a wonderful story. I know exactly how you feel when having that feeling of embarrassment and like you I try and learn some of a language when travelling abroad. I wish you lots of luck in your studies

  22. @Cloakedbeardco says:

    As someone who struggled to learn a language this is definitely what I needed to read. I think the motivation and practice portion comes to mind as my own major hinderance. I appreciate offering the places to read Italian for free. Will you be introducing your methods for learning Italian and offer milestone incentives to your readers?

    • Brendan says:

      Motivation is a huge hurdle to overcome. I’m experiencing this first hand with my kids who decide to learn German and French respectively after I they saw me reviewing Duolingo. Their enthusiasm tapered off after a few days because to them there was no real incentive, nor goal to achieve. I touched on motivation in my post ‘How to keep motivated when learning Italian’, you might pick up some pointers here.

      I have been trying in my posts to communicate what methods and resources out there and to do some reviews on these but I’m not looking to offer or develop any courses myself so I wasn’t planning on incentivising my readers.

  23. megan says:

    I really like what you have to say on this site! I also have the desire to learn a new language as well. Although it is not Italian (Spanish actually) You have given me many new ideas on how to better learn the language! I never thought of watching my favorite movies with Spanish subtitles or vice versa. Its kind of a passive, yet very helpful way to learn the language. i think its when learning a new language is like a job, that people become uninterested and give up. However, the watching movies, reading papers or articles, and listening to the music is a little more passive than language courses, but it is extremely helpful.
    Thanks for the ideas!

  24. Destin says:

    I think that going out for a few drinks is a really good way to go about hearing people talk in the Italian dialect. Motivation is definitely one of the most importing things when trying to learn anything because its all up to you how hard you try. Practice and perseverance are also great things to focus on when learning something and trying to get better. Great article.

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