Learning Italiano

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From a young age I have been enamoured with languages; when I was 12 years old I spent my pocket money on Italian language books (sad I know) which I still own now and after being forced to drop Spanish at school (Italian wasn’t an options) decided to take “twilight” Spanish lessons at my school and do a class outside of school with ADULTS for the Duke of Edinburgh Award. I say ADULTS because at the time I was a dithering 16-year old shell of a girl who didn’t even have the confidence to ask questions and felt embarrassed about my age in a class where everyone was in their 30s.

Learning languages for me, was an uphill struggle and if I didn’t have the passion for them that I do, I would have been monolingual for my entire life. Unfortunately, Britain is besieged with an inefficient, moronic school system that fails to teach more than merci beacoup and mi casa es grande, after half a decade of lessons. This was the stage I found myself in and I was forced to try and learn languages in my free time and take on additional classes. Even at university, there wasn’t much freedom to learn a foreign language outside of your degree, unless of course you had £140 spare and fancied an extra exam or two at the end of the year! No thanks.

After high school I couldn’t even conjugate in the present tense and I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t even know the pattern, but yet still got an A! A-Levels (age 17+) is where the Spanish learning really got underway and I learnt so much more in this one intense year of lessons, which again, I was forced to take outside of my timetable. Language degrees in the UK recognise this and so have a mandatory year abroad as part of the degree, which of course ends up being the highlight of most students’ time at university.

In my first year though, I was able to take a beginners Italian course that provided me with a great foundation for learning now, even if I am only using it 5 years later. After reading language-learning blogs online, you start to learn fast that the current methodology for teaching foreign languages is effete and after six years of “learning” Spanish, I could say very little and I’m sure it wasn’t just me. It was only when I spent 10 weeks in El Salvador that I built my level of Spanish and got to speak it confidently and with ease. 10 weeks of practicing for hours a day, living with a host family and interacting with Salvadorian friends was superior to six whole school years of classroom teaching. It was only then that I realised that language is a living thing. You can’t read about it and study it and expect to be able to use it well; you need to practice. Day and night!

I’ve tried to keep this in mind with learning Italian and I dropped out of traditional Italian classes which I found incredibly dull and far too focused on grammar. The mistake with teaching languages that most countries make, is obsessing over grammar over and above conversation and practice. I hear people mentioning transitive verbs, auxiliaries and all of this other crap that you shouldn’t be bothering with at the beginning of learning a language. Hell, I don’t know any of this stuff in English, but you can bet I’m fluent! At the beginning, you should start simple; work on building vocabulary and improving confidence, occasionally dipping into grammar to brush up what you’ve already got.

So how do I get around learning Italian now? Through language-exchanges! For a few hours a week, I meet Italians who want to practice their English with me and we take it in turns to correct each other’s mistakes and improve our skills. I also hang out and live with Italians and work in an Italian public school, where I eavesdrop on everything the students are saying! This has helped me lots with my speaking. I’ve also used online games and other fun, interactive activities to boost my vocabulary and knowledge. It’s definitely not easy-going; some days I really think I’m getting the hang of this language and other days like today I just think “oh god I’m never going to be fluent!” After 4 months I think I’ve gotten a solid intermediate level. I have 5 or more months left  so hopefully I will leave fluent 😀

Here’s a link to me in the Guardian talking about languages.

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