Where to start when learning a language

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Learning the important stuff – thanks Duolingo!

Wow! It’s been ten days since my last blog post. That actually makes me a bit annoyed because this was something that I wanted to do regularly. The problem is, as with most people, work. Work has rather taken over my life lately. I am doing a lot more hours at the school (to be honest, probably too many) and on top of that, I am very busy with the COSI program. I read that we should all make time for the three most important things we want to do, but that’s easier said than done when you get home at 8 o’clock and have absolutely zero energy. I also don’t get in touch with my family as much as I should. In fact, I’m really bad at keeping in touch in general. It’s definitely something I need to work on. I mentioned to my colleague today that time just seems to be flying by. It’s a cliche, I know, but it’s rather scary how fast the week goes. One of my important three things would be spending time on  my languages each day. So, with that in mind, I have written a language-learning post. Hope you enjoy it!

Whether you need to learn a new language to prepare yourself for a big move to another country or whether it’s simply a New Year’s resolution, there are many ways you can go about it. Here I’m simply going to outline how I learned to communicate (not sure I can say I truly speak it yet) in Italian. Even though I have studied languages at university, speak four and teach English, I am far from being an expert on the subject. As I said, this is written from my personal experience and is not a perfect how-to guide.

Firstly, you need to understand that everybody learns languages differently. If you have a rough idea of what kind of learning style you have, it will be a big help. I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of the different styles here, that would take far too long, but here’s a quick guide:

  • Visual – You use pictures and images to process the information
  • Auditory – You prefer using sounds and music to help you learn
  • Verbal – You’re the word lover, in both writing and speech
  • Kinesthetic – You need to move and connect the information together
  • Logical – You use rules and logic to learn
  • Social – You like to learn in a group
  • Solitary – You prefer to learn alone

Now, many learners will be a mix of all of these traits and so they can all be harnessed to help you learn a language. For example, in my English classes, I will present new vocab with flashcards (visual), we will listen to songs and dialogues (auditory), we try to make it an Italian-free zone, which is not easy (verbal), new grammar concepts can be practised using sentence builders (kinesthetic), and we also teach the grammar rules (logical). Obviously, in the classroom setting, the learning is social but the students must also learn to study at home, in a solitary setting.

Flashcards can help you remember new vocabulary and they’re always fun to make

As I have already said, I cannot afford a private tutor, more’s the pity, and I can’t attend the cheaper public courses because of my work timetable. So what did I do?

Firstly, you need to understand a little bit about how I move country. Unlike my dad, who plans everything down to the last detail, I’m far more likely to find a job, book a plane ticket, pack a bag and go. Yes, there is a lot of running around and stressing, but that’s me. The average time span from deciding to leave to actually leaving is probably 2-3 weeks. This is fine if I’m heading to an English-speaking country or somewhere that I speak the lingo (French/Spanish) but it meant that I had only 3 weeks to learn Italian before I landed in the middle of nowhere. Ah, yes, that could be a problem.

As soon as the Skype interview was over, I opened Google and searched for the best websites/apps to learn languages. I downloaded Duolingo and Memrise and then spent a few hours in my room learning as many words as I could. I also used various websites to practise listening exercises, although they could be difficult if you don’t already have a background in learning. I did the best I could in the short time I had. It didn’t help that it was Christmas so I was also busy doing a lot of family stuff. What I didn’t do, however, was study grammar. I just wanted to be able to communicate when I arrived; sentence structure and verb tenses could wait.

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As an English teacher, I often find inspiration in my textbooks

Those three weeks flew by and I soon found myself arriving in a small town in the middle of the mountains. After getting off the bus at the wrong stop (my new-found linguistic skills were no help here), a quick call to the boss and finally getting to my apartment, I decided to try to put together some kind of study plan. Hahaha yeah, that lasted. I started off learning the most important verbs, the verbs that I would need every day. However, as Italian is like so many other world languages and conjugates its verbs (verbs change depending on who they refer to – think I play, he plays but worse), I decide to start off by learning the conjugations for ‘I’ and ‘you’, and only in the present tense. This helped me get through things like going to the supermarket or asking for bus information. Actually, the supermarket was a good learning curve. I noticed that they always asked the same questions in the same order, “Do you want a bag? Do you have a loyalty card? Do you want the stamps?” So after the first couple of trips, I was pretty confident, until one of them would throw in an unknown question and then I would just stare at them blankly. Another tip, before you head off on your weekly shop, make sure you translate the things on your list. My sister had a rather close call with a tub of lard thinking it was butter.

So, you’re able to navigate your local supermarket, what now? Well, for me, I used what I was teaching in order to help me. It’s inevitable that students will ask you for translations of the new vocabulary. If you do a TESOL or CELTA course, they will always tell you that it is a big NO to translate words into the students’ native tongue. However, depending on the level of the students, it is often easier and faster to just give them the Italian equivalent. It also helps you to learn as well. If you’re teaching beginner’s English, take the time to translate the vocabulary in the textbook. This vocabulary has been specifically included as it’s what new learners need to know. It makes sense that you would need to know these words, too.

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You know you’re fluent when you can use this gesture correctly

I also tried the Michel Thomas method of learning languages but I really couldn’t get on with it. The idea is that you listen to recordings of other people learning whatever language you wish to study and follow along with them, like a sort of classroom. There’s a teacher who gives you explanations and teaches you the most important vocabulary and phrases. They claim to get very good results but I found myself getting frustrated at having to listen to the other people. I stopped after the first few tracks.

Don’t stress about grammar. Read articles on the internet and listen to people around you. You will soon start picking up on the sentence structure. And don’t try to be too adventurous. Italian is a very complicated language, however, most of the communication is carried out in either the present tense, past simple, or future simple. I’ve been here two years and I still don’t use the subjunctive, and I very rarely use the conditional (usually only in the first person).

As I said at the beginning, this is my experience of learning Italian. If I asked my sister, who doesn’t speak French or Spanish, for her views on learning the  language, I’m sure they would be very different. There are a lot of websites and articles about how to learn languages but my best advice is to try a few different methods until you find the one that suits you.

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If all else fails, just wave your arms around – you’ll fit right in



8 thoughts on “Where to start when learning a language

  1. I’m right there with you about how work can take over. At times you can lose even more motivation trying to fight the trend. Go with the flow on the days that are most overwhelming and be sure to take a nap if you can on the weekend.

    It’s great to be on a regular schedule but if you can’t blog regularly use the time to plan the next posting. Even jotting down your thoughts or creating a very short outline will keep you flowing. I don’t meant for long periods of time. Just take down your thoughts in a small notebook or you the notepad app in your cell phone.

  2. I find learning Italian really hard, I read your post to Mrs Sensible and asked her which type of learner i am… visual etc she thought about it for a moment and then said Pigro!!


    • How long have you been learning Italian? Does Mrs Sensible speak it? I had a bit of a head start because I already knew French and Spanish. I think if Italian was my first foreign language, I would find it difficult. Even just remembering silly things like making adjectives agree can be frustrating.

      • Ciao (one of the few words I know)
        Mrs S is completely bilingual, at home we use English, I use English for work and Italian when I order from a bar.
        Italian is difficult, the grammar is complicated compared to English

        • So you could have your own personal teacher! Although, teaching family and friends anything can be stressful, to say the least. What methods have you been using to learn Italian?

          • For two years I went to the local Italian lessons provided free for immigrants, I received a level 2 certificate, but to be honest I think they gave me it so I wouldn’t return the following year

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