Learning a second language (or third or fourth or twelfth) can be challenging, enjoyable, frustrating, rewarding, and just plain ol’ take a lot of your brain power, thoughts, and time.
If you weren’t lucky enough to grow up immersed in a bi or multilingual family, then you can hop on the struggle boat with the rest of us while learning another language.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably studying or thinking about starting to learn a new language, maybe Italian, and I commend you! Or, maybe you are curious as to what it might take, or are looking for resources for someone else. Whatever brings you, I’m glad you’re here, and I hope this post might help you or a friend out.
When it comes to learning a language, you will be most successful if you are fully immersed. You’ve probably heard this before, but it bears repeating because it’s true.
If you aren’t immersed, don’t despair. Taking a trip to a country that speaks your desired language or finding a friend, community, or group in your city or online that you can practice with can make a big difference! Even if these are not possible for you, there are still ways to learn a language successfully.
I for one will do everything in my power to search and learn things for free. I don’t want to pay for school, tutors, programs, books, more books, some more books, and a couple more programs if I don’t need to. (Yes, you can say it, I’m a tightwad.:) Those are all helpful and good things, and if you have the resources to do those things, go for it! But there is more to the equation than just “intensive Italian school = Italian fluency.”
There is a principal ingredient you need to learn Italian or any language: drive. The drive, desire, patience, and determination to learn and work through the moments of frustration and plateaus. If you have the drive but don’t live in Italy, you will still make good progress. On the other hand, if you move to Italy and have no great desire to learn Italian, you will probably pick up very little Italian. It still surprises me how many people I come across who have lived in Italy for years and still can only speak very basic Italian. Some people learn quicker than others and the younger you are the easier it is, but still. You’re only doing yourself a favor if you learn the language and it’s respectful of the culture you are now in. I know it’s way easier to live with and hang out with your culture and every once in awhile order a gelato in Italian…but if you want to learn, get comfortable being outside of your comfort zone.
This may leave you asking, “How long does it take to learn Italian?” I asked people I met and friends this a lot my first year in Italy, those who weren’t native Italian-speakers. Almost everyone responded with “about a year.” Knowing various nationalities who speak varying levels of Italian, I would like to amend the 1 year guideline so you don’t feel too much pressure or behind. You will probably have learned Italian fairly well after 1 year IF you are immersed in the culture and also consistently speaking with others in Italian. If you have Italian friends, live with an Italian roommate, work in an Italian setting, study at an Italian school, or date/marry an Italian speaker, this 1 year guideline could very well be true for you. Otherwise, expect longer and no shame! As long as you are learning new words and concepts and they stay with you, you are on the right track.
Enough philosophy-ing and let’s get to these resources, most of which are free, or if they’re not, I truly think they’re worth it! Keep in mind that the more resources and ways you can expose yourself to a language, the more success you will have. Try not to ever get stuck using just one, i.e. Duolingo or the back of Rick Steve’s Travel Guide. :)
Resources and Tricks for Learning Italian
This Italian Verb Drills book
One of my best friends went to Italy as an au pair and she used this book while learning with her Italian family. Shortly after she got back I went to Italy, and she passed it on to me.
It’s not overly complex because it only covers verb forms, but it’s the simplicity of its layout I think that makes it so useful. And once you understand the verbs, it’s like a door opens for understanding the language.
Honestly, if you were to take just one of the suggestions from this post to add to your current learning methods, I would probably recommend this one.
Pros: Easy to use, excellent for learning verbs, a main component of any language. It’s also pretty cheap. You can also find French, German, Latin, Spanish Verb Drills easily on Amazon, all for about the same price, $10-$12.
Cons: Not free, and will only help with verbs and not other aspects of the language.
If learning a language has ever been on your radar, you’ve probably used or at least heard of Duolingo.
Pros: Free, tons of languages to choose from, easy to use, fun, and accessible. You can use it on your computer or download the app on your phone to use anywhere, anytime.
Cons: New words aren’t always easy to remember, and there is no way to go back and easily reference what you’ve learned without doing the lessons over again. They recommend you write down the words you’ve remember after each lesson, but I think they could also provide a list of things learned for each section/level.
I also think they could explain concepts better. While you can often click on words or phrases which opens up a discussion board, that becomes quite entailed to do so every time especially since anyone can comment on the message boards and they can be quite long. For example, I’d rather have someone explain to me that when “a” and “an” in Italian (un/una) is in front of a masculine word that starts with a vowel, it remains separate from the word, but when it’s in front of a feminine word that starts with a vowel, it is separated by an apostrophe.
Un amico (masculine) - or - un’amica (feminine).
Otherwise in Duolingo they would just give me sentences that include this idea, but without actually explaining it. It’s up to you, as the learner, to notice that, hey, why do un and una sometimes stay separate and sometimes are separated by an apostrophe? See what I mean? If not, don’t worry, suffice to say that Duolingo as you’re only learning source will only get you so far.
Another online resource similar to Duolingo. Trying new programs and keeping a variety may be more fun and thus make you more likely to want to practice every day instead of the “I should….” Plus every program has their unique approach and you might learn some words you wouldn’t with other programs.
Pros: Free, easy to use, plenty of languages to choose from.
Cons: To get the full experience you will have to pay, but even just using the free part is worthwhile!
Having a trusty translator app on your phone can help you learn, too! Anytime you’re practicing, even if you’re just thinking through things, there will probably be words that come up that you don’t know what they mean or you’re saying or thinking a sentence and missing a word. Pop out your phone to translate throughout the day.
iTranslator is my favorite translator probably. It’s simple and I like that when you translate a word, below it often gives you all the person tenses (if it’s a verb) or all the different synonyms or similar words if it’s a noun or adjective.
Google Translate App is another good one. It’s a bit snazzier, you can even scan a chunk of text and it will translate it on your screen so you don’t have to type anything in, although it doesn’t always work super great.
A word to the wise, don’t trust a translator 100%, especially for longer sentences or paragraphs. It’s a computer and doing its best, but it can’t really know exactly what you’re after. Then add in all the dialects, slang, phrases that don’t translate well, and words that just may not exist in that language and well, just realize it’s not going to be perfect. Always run by new words with a native speaker if you can, especially if you have any doubts.
This is a podcast where you get to listen to a man with a lovely Scottish accent while learning Italian. They also have several other languages, I recently started Coffeebreak French to brush up for my impending trip to Paris. Eeeeeee!!
Pros: Listening to a language is SO important, and what better way than to have it clearly explained to you through a hands off podcast? Great for when you’re driving, making dinner, or anytime!
Cons: No visuals, so you can’t see how words are written, which isn’t helpful for my visual learning friends. It can also get annoying to have to keep backing up if you couldn’t hear over honking horns or you want to hear something again.
If you take a trip to Italy or can find some ones that interest you on Amazon, reading books in Italian is a great way to learn. I suggest reading children’s books (seriously, baby animal and counting books are wonderful for beginners!) and books you are familiar with unless you have a pretty good handle on Italian.
Pros: Reading is good for you, and reading in Italian is also so good for you! If you read adult books it can actually be quite difficult and you will quickly find out how many words you have to learn, but on the upside books contain so many words (no, really Jenny?) that you will see certain words over and over again, thus emblazing them upon your memory.
Cons: There is a special verb tense for writing in Italian. It’s not usually spoken so you really only learn it by reading. However, if you are an avid reader just beware that those verbs won’t serve you in everyday conversations.
I recommend keeping a small notebook handy with you, maybe in your car or purse, to write down all the new words you learn. Writing things down help to cement them in your memory, even if you never reference back to them. And when you can’t remember that word you learned yesterday, you have it handy!
You can also try journaling or writing out your calendar in Italian.
Now you can Netflix and chill and be “studying”…yesssss. If you have Netflix (or even Hulu or other paid prescriptions, but I’m not sure on the others) go into the settings on your profile and change your language preference to Italian. Now all the films that are available in Italian or with Italian subtitles will show up on this account. The selection will be different, so you probably want to keep at least one other profile with English or your native language. Similar to reading books, I recommend starting with movies or shows you are familiar with. Watching them in Italian the first time may crack you up, but it will help you understand them better. Disney was my best friend when I started watching films in Italian. I actually went to the Italian grocery store once when they had a sale on Disney movies for 5-7euro each…research, ya know? ;)
Language Tandem Partner
Having a language tandem partner ( a person with which you exchange languages, i.e. I, an American, might meet up with an Italian where we would spend time speaking in both English and Italian) is super helpful. You get to hear a native speaker and listen, I mean, pick up on their accent, and ask all the questions you want while practicing your language in real time.
If you happen to live in Italy, there are Facebook groups called AEGEE and Language Exchange that you can join. Depending on what city you live in, you will join your respective city’s group. I’m a part of AEGEE - Firenze and Language Exchange in Florence - Language Tandem. Usually you post in the group introducing yourself, English or Italian is best so everyone can understand, and ask if someone would like to meet up with you. I specified that I wanted to meet up with a woman, because I don’t love meeting up with strange men, ya know? Then you’ll probably get several messages from people who saw your post and would like to meet up with you. I still got WAY more men messaging me than women, even some offering me romantic sunsets and rides on their vespa…tempting, but no. Then you choose who you want to meet up with! The AEGEE group also offers free courses in various languages and organized events or trips.
Pros: Free and a good way to make new friends. Plus you get to learn all the best spots to eat and drink around the city, from a local!
Cons: This may only work if you live in Italy or can find someone who speaks Italian in your area. Also can be quite intimidating the first few times, especially for uh, introverts. But I wouldn’t know by experience, nope!
Think in Italian
This isn’t a resource as much as it is a suggestion. As you go throughout your day, try thinking in Italian! This is best done after you have a decent base, but you’ll soon find words you don’t know and become curious how to say them. As I hinted above, use a translator app to learn new words throughout your day. For a bonus, put sticky notes around the house with new words or phrases, or ones that you’re having a hard time learning.
Are you learning or have you learned a second+ language? What really helped you learn? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!