My New Year Language Challenge: The First 15 Days of Italian

Ciao everyone, today I'm quite excited to be sharing my guest writer Tanja's first update on how she is getting on with the italki Language Challenge.

“Monolingualism is curable”

italian challenge2

Ciao a tutti! Today’s title is quoting a local professor who always used to say this to her students. I think it’s a charming notion - and a good one. I am now a little more than two weeks into my italki Challenge adventure, I have had eight sessions since January 15th, so I’m slightly ahead of schedule. I said my first sentences in Italian in November and now I am reading a book about Greek philosophers, watching films about murders in Sicily and having conversations about social movements in Europe during the 70s, all in Italian. None of this comes easy, but it’s doable.

Staying motivated

italki is providing the challenge participants with weekly motivational emails. As they have correctly pointed out, most people remain motivated in the first week - it’s further on that it gets harder. I admit I initially did not even consider three hours a week too much of a challenge. Intensive courses with five hours a day: that’s what I call intense. And yet, there have been midweek 9pm sessions after a full day of work and appointments when “sleep” seemed like a much more attractive option. No matter how tired I was, I always felt a sense of achievement after attending. It's similar to the feeling you get when you’ve made yourself go for a run - both because I’d opted out of being lazy and because my lessons have in fact been enjoyable throughout.

I did cancel my offline lessons (for the duration of the challenge, at least), for two reasons: a) It would have been tricky to fit more lessons into my week, b) I figured that it’ll be easier to eventually assess my “italki-progress” that way.

Learning with italki

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to pick a second teacher. Three lessons a week with one person seemed excessive, especially with my usual teacher's very time-consuming (for him) method of making Anki cards to address frequent mistakes I make. Since we are not following a strict course of study anyway, I opted for asking another teacher whether she’d like to help me along. It’s working out very well - I stick to similar grammar topics across the board (recently: pronouns, next up: future tense) and yet they both do things very differently. My second teacher sends me stuff in advance while I receive my other teacher's materials after the lesson. The homework varies, the conversations focus on very different topics.

The Skype sessions feel more one to one than even offline lessons, because everyone is so focused. At the same time, exercises deemed too time-consuming are immediately assigned as homework, so that no valuable teaching time is wasted.

I can see myself taking Skype lessons for a while

Are there disadvantages? Well - depends. What you don’t have in these lessons is interaction with other learners, so for people who like to compare themselves with others that might be a disadvantage. The lessons are also intense and you can’t escape your teacher - which is what a surprising number of students in classrooms seem to try to do. For me that’s not an option, there is nobody else except the native speaker teacher to listen to me, so I am not nervous to speak “in class”. Personally, I can see myself taking Skype lessons for a while, while I had not committed to regular courses for a long time.

Have I studied hard?

Surprisingly, with three lessons a week, I lack the time to do my “usual” kind of studying: making lists, checking them twice etc. Both teachers give me a fair amount of homework, which I appreciate. Since life continues on, however, I have not had huge amounts of time to do other studying with my own books. I have tried hard to get my hands onto “immersion materials”. In an attempt to familiarise myself with Italian culture, I have developed a slightly unhealthy obsession with Commissario Montalbano, even though I don’t even like detective series very much. I first checked it out because it was on Prime (editor note: This is Amazon Prime, click here for a free trial through Fluent's Affiliate link) for free, and now I have ordered the DVD set (with English subtitles). I have also watched a few episodes of other shows on youtube, and while it’s still very difficult to even get the gist, it’s nice to be able to listen to “real conversation at original speed”.

It’s all Greek to me

Speaking of comprehension: I’ve noticed a number of weird issues. A few weeks ago, I downloaded some podcasts and it took me until the third one to notice that the guy was alternating between Spanish and Italian, using the former to explain the latter. Clearly my brain was just set to “foreign”. I hope this will stop happening in the future when Italian becomes much more “my language”.

Also, accents: My new teacher comes from a different region which I assume means she speaks with a different accent. I couldn’t say, though, and I have long had the theory that learners can’t really tell accents apart in the early stages of learning. How else would any young Brit on a language exchange ever understand Bavarians?

Core Language Skills

Practising reading, writing, listening and speaking at the same time is essential for my personal definition of “becoming fluent”. Various blogs suggest learning very basic grammar and then spending most of your time learning vocabulary. This seems a fair approach if you are learning a language for communication, because as we all know it’s perfectly possible usually to understand speakers with poor grammar skills. This is true, by the way, for native as well as non-native speakers, and that is my issue with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). Their tests, similar to language entrance exams at national universities, would be quite a challenge for a lot of native speakers who can’t actually summarise articles in their mother tongue, or find it hard to have an ad-hoc conversation about “advanced” topics. When “measuring” language skills, the inventors seem to more or less cater for an “academic” clientele. I have a lot more to say about that (maybe some other time) but, for now, I’ll admit that I am said clientele and that I do want to know the stuff required on those levels.

With my knowledge of language structures and my familiarity with cognates, I have a fair understanding even of intermediate texts because I just know the words from other languages and have a knack for guessing from context. What I lack is a solid grammar foundation that is taught at levels A1 and A2. That’s because my lessons are mainly focussed on speaking, with the “learning” happening in between sessions. This suits me fine, because I really don’t need to have someone sit on the other side of the internet while I do gap-fills. Grammar is not, however, drilled into me. As I have mentioned before, drills never made me fluent in French, so I am interested to see if I become better at the basics as my speaking and my comprehension progress. The above-mentioned approach insists that grammar will become much easier once you already “know” the language. Also (and I am sorry I forgot the source, I have been reading zillions of blog posts) it was said somewhere that you can’t learn a language, you just get used to it. That sounds good, right?

What have I learned?

I have learned that Italian has some seriously long words, that language apps are not always perfect (for example, one insists that “tazza” is another word for “toilet”, but all my dictionaries disagree, though who knows about colloquialisms) but mostly useful (I think the 3400 words app has had some real effect on my vocabulary skills). I finally figured out my HD receiver and found out that I have an Italian news channel! The most important insight however is that I really like Italian, so I am very glad to be diving into it.

Note from Kerstin: Core Skills Book

If you are interested in finding out more about the four core language skills and how you can train them in your language learning, I recommend you check out my book Fluency Made Achievable, which comes with targeted exercise ideas and a 3 Week Planner for Fluency.