Some *limited* advice on learning a language

October 14, 2016

Did I mention that I'm learning Italian?

Yeah, thought I might have. Once, or twice, or maybe a few times...

Anyway, I've now been 'learning' Italian for a year. (I'm using those little quotation marks because I've mainly taught myself - possibly, now I think about it, a major reason why I'm not yet fluent).

I've never been much of a languages kinda girl - I dropped French after GCSE because my accent was so bad even my dad was surprised I passed. I've never imagined I could speak a foreign language and never been passionate enough about it to put in the effort - and BOY does it take effort.

A year ago I pictured myself gliding through Italy, throwing a casual 'ciao' out here and there, stopping to chat to good looking Italians as I passed etc etc. In reality, I still stumble when I ask for something and they don't immediately comprehend, then say something incoherent and go red and start speaking English. Good job Mir.

So this year, in an effort to throw myself into it, I've moved in with some lovely Italian students and signed up for a month-long intensive course. And although I can just about understand my favourite Italian film (Io e Lei, for those interested) when I really concentrate, have my headphones in and the sound at full volume, I still can't have a conversation with my flatmates - two of which are from Rome and very concerned that I learn 'Roman' rather than real Italian. But I'm hoping that will improve - it's only week two after all.

Anyway, without further ado, here are the very few pieces of advice I feel qualified to give on the subject of learning a language.

Pay for lessons 

I wish I'd paid to do a course before I arrived in Italy last year, rather than just assuming I'd 'pick it up'. Even the course I'm doing now has helped me heaps - all that grammar stuff that is too boring to teach yourself is actually really important, and it's much more fun when you're doing it in a class of others in the same boat. And, because it's Europe, you get to stop for a cappuccino and a croissant halfway through.
Plus, you get to go to some pretty funky places. Like Monte Carlo. 

Read books, watch TV, listen to music 

95 percent of the vocabulary I know I learnt from reading books. When I started I had to translate every word - but after a while you notice all the common ones, and once you've got those, you realise you can read an awful lot. And that's a good confidence boost. TV is trickier, but it's so important to listen to it spoken. On TV they tend to speak fairly clearly and correctly, so it's probably easier than striking up a conversation with someone in a shop.

And Portofino.

It takes time...... lots of time. 

Unless you're one of those people that picks up languages really quickly, it probably won't come that fast. Because even when you start understanding Italian news articles or Facebook statuses, speaking it is a whooooole other story.

Which tense should I use? Did it happen this morning or in the distant past? Is it an ongoing action? An opinion? Am I speaking about he, she, they, formal, informal? Is the word masculine or feminine?

When you're trying to fit all of that into the five seconds you have to reply to a question, it takes time to get used to it.

It is frustrating, or at least it is for me. I know what I want to say but I can't seem to say it and for me as a people kinda person, not being able to communication with others is unsettling - and a little embarrassing. I'm still very nervous when I'm speaking because I'm a perfectionist - I want to say it completely right, or not at all. But I do know its important to just say it and make the mistakes and allow yourself to be corrected - it's the only way I'm going to learn and improve.

So I'll repeat what everyone has told me - don't rush. It will happen.

Just do it 

The last thing I'll say is that, if you want to learn a language but never got round to it, it's never too late. It's hard and frustrating and it can be really, really boring, but its also kinda magical and exciting. And being able to understand a whole other country and their culture and their TV shows and their politics is pretty cool (especially if the country is like Italy and have much better looking - and therefore infinitely more interesting - politicians).

Most of my language class are older than me - some are retired, some are learning for work, some are using their holiday to do something they enjoy. Just because you haven't started yet, doesn't mean you can't - and when you finally get it, it must feel like you've really achieved something.

(And if I ever manage to reach that stage, I'll report back and let you know.)

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