My Experience in Learning Italian

It was really in the summer before 8th grade that I actually started learning Italian, but for whatever reason, I stopped until the second semester of 10th grade. I was going through my documents, cleaning out unwanted junk, and saw all my old Italian notes, which I decided to look at. I thought to myself, “Hey, this looks pretty similar to Spanish, and I’m sort of familiar with it.” And with that, I started researching all the grammar topics and compiling the vocabulary lists that now make up Scoprendo l’italiano!. The cultural information was added quite a bit later, after I went to Italy for a second time. In Rome and Florence (not so much Bologna), I got to practice a lot of spoken Italian, because neither my parents nor my brother spoke a word of Italian. It was a pretty fun experience, with people correcting my sentences every now and then. I was complimented on my relatively good Florentine accent (which is the accent taught to most foreign learners of the language), especially considering I had been self-taught. One waiter at a restaurant in Pisa asked me why I was even learning Italian, because he thought it was useless outside of Italy. I’ll admit, even though I’m very much a believer in practical application, I learned Italian largely for fun. I mean, that’s not to say I didn’t have practical uses for it. In fact, it helped me out on my SAT and Spanish, because it expanded my understanding of both English and Spanish by building my vocabulary.

Despite getting as far as I did in Italian, I realize that I still have a long way to go. I took a practice test for the AP Italian Language and Culture Test (for multiple choice), and saw how little vocabulary I actually knew. I was nowhere near having that amount of knowledge. Of course, now I’m trying to read more texts in Italian to improve my vocabulary and contextual experiences with the language.

However, I also have the problem of getting speaking practice. I’ve tried to get sessions with Italian speakers through a bunch of different language exchange sites: Polyglot Club, italki, Interpals (which I’m still trying out), and WeSpeke (which I’ve gotten a couple of audio/video calls on). But it’s not really enough, because the AP Exam has very specific situations, such as telling stories, describing a photograph, or something else. Obviously, I’m not planning on taking the exam, but I am continuing to study Italian to keep myself in practice. Hopefully, one day, I can study abroad, or spend an extended period of time in Italy.

Some of the resources I found really useful for practicing were the WordReference Dictionary, which helps with finding all sorts of words and Duolingo, the famous language-learning application. Hopefully, this post helps anyone looking to practice Italian!

Practicing a Foreign Language By Yourself

Even if you’re enrolled in a class for a foreign language at school, chances are it’s mostly grammar drills and writing exercises, in my experience. I’ve started to read Fluent in 3 Months (the book), by Benny Lewis, an Irish polyglot who runs a blog with same name as his book (here’s a link: http://www.fluentin3months.com). In his book, he describes how conventional methods that schools use to teach foreign language might work for some people, but it’s hard to practice outside the classroom. I highly recommend that language learners read his book, by the way. It’s fascinating and really helpful. Thinking about this conundrum, I’ve thought of a couple of my own methods (which may look similar to other methods you’ve seen on the Internet):

1. Talk to yourself. This may sound really strange, but trying to speak the language you’re learning to yourself lets you practice and iron out awkwardness when you talk. If you don’t know a word, say it in English (or whatever your first language may be), and write it down to get the word later from a dictionary.

2. Go electronic with your learning. Take your electronic device (a good example is a smart phone), and go to settings, and change the language of your device. Recently, I changed my phone and computer to be in Italian, to practice my ability to read it. This helps because you begin to correlate words that you’d normally see in English with words in the target language, because they physically replace those words, and your usual instinct is to go to the location, without really looking at the word. Changing Siri on iPhones also helps, because then you can practice speaking a little bit.

3. Write more in the target language. Whether it’s posting on Facebook and/or Twitter, or going old-school with a notebook, write as much as you can in the language you’re learning, because it helps you become more literate in the language, and for kinesthetic (learn by doing) learners like me, it solidifies the foundation in your brain for learning the language. Although when you post on the Internet in your language, you should probably include a translation, so that friends who are fluent speakers can correct your mistakes by seeing what you want to say, and non-learner friends can read your posts without feeling excluded. Italki is a great way to do this with its notebook feature.

4. Get books in the target language. Whether they be children’s books or full-on Michael Crichton novels, reading is a surefire way to build vocabulary, due to the variety of contexts, and the fact the good writers usually use a wide range of vocabulary, allowing for a potentially greater number of words for you to learn to appear. Highlight words or phrases you don’t understand, or write them down. For popular book series such as Percy Jackson and the Olympians or the Harry Potter series, compare your native version and the target language version to see what it might be trying to say. You should also read out loud to practice your speaking.

5. Talk with other learners! You generally have more confidence when speaking with other learners of your language, because you know that you’re both still learning, and can’t be expected to be perfect right off the bat. Besides, it can be more social experience, and they’re more accessible, if you’re good friends with them (as you’ll probably become while learning together). Language is inherently social, so not talking with others is no excuse!

Anyway, thanks for reading! Please leave any thoughts you might have on this!

Tradition

I’ve often thought about what it means to speak your mother tongue. When your parents raise you speaking the language of their ancestors, they endow you with centuries of tradition, faith, meaning, and lineage in doing so. Speaking your mother tongue, in addition to the language of where you live, is not something to be taken lightly. It is not something that you should throw away, as I have seen some of my classmates do. And it is this topic that inspired the poem below.

Forever marred are the broken statues of heroes,

Eternally rendered to rubble in mind and body,

And consigned to wither in the casket of human memory.

Their causes are quickly forgotten and shut inside

Dust-collecting archives that are prohibited to be opened

By the repressive force of the passage of time upon us.

Irrevocably disconnected are the children of migrants,

Who speak only in the tongue of their oppressive hosts,

From their perennial lineages stretching through time.

That immortal piece of the soul is forever lost to them,

Shelved in the library of forgotten faith and tradition,

Covered by a thin funeral shroud of empty sorrows.

Shall we forge tradition anew, to fill the empty void,

And try to hide the scars of dissociation and hate,

Only to be forgotten once again in the hearts of the people?

Need we recreate divinity time after time — Replace

The intolerant creator who rejects all but one aspect

And would damn those of contrary opinion?

What is tradition, what is faith, what is lineage,

When it can  so easily be erased and thrust

Into the depths of human experience as folly?

For what reason must we repeatedly remake ourselves

In order to fit the mold of foreign expectations,

And forge a signature onto a contract of oblivion?

So easily is the human experience made and dismantled

That the truth and untruth are not so far apart or separate,

Because time is beyond the power of individual remembrance.

We can only regard truth and untruth in the present

Because memory only persists then — It is replaced

In the future, and itself replaces the past, without remorse.

Levels of Fluency

I often discuss the topic of fluency in a language with my friends and family. I personally have a scale for fluency that my friends agree with, which I’m going to discuss in this post. This is related to my beliefs on what proficiency tests should call what level of competency in a given language. There are several tests, such as the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), the examinations for DELEs (Diplomas de Español como Lengua Extranjera – Diploma for Spanish as a Foreign Language), and DILF/DELF/DALF (French Language Proficiency Diplomas). Note that each level fluency implies speaking ability. One is not fluent in reading a foreign language, that is literacy. One cannot be considered fluent in a language if they can only understand the language, but cannot speak and make conversation. Fluency encompasses all forms of communication in a foreign language, including reading, as well as writing, speaking, listening. Disclaimer: This is largely based off of my discussions with my friends and family, my readings, observations, and personal views on language. This is not meant to be taken as a definitive scale either; this is flexible, as every language is different, with its own quirks and challenges.

Level 1: Basic (~1 year)

You can communicate on a very simple level, and understand slightly more complex conversations. Reading ability is limited to simple children’s books, short public notices/advertisements, and you can write simple things, such as short notes.

Level 2: Upper Basic (~2 years)

You can now participate in more complex conversations including the use of the past tense(s) and present tense. You can also issue commands. You can now read and write simple paragraphs and your vocabulary is expanded, but limited to local situations, and broader, more abstract topics are harder to understand.

Level 3: Intermediate (~3 years)

You can initiate conversations with relative ease, express a set variety of emotions in the target language, and respond to semi-complex questions. You demonstrate command over the use of present and past tenses, and the subjunctive (or equivalent), as well as some compound tenses. You can also write longer passages, and understand a wider variety of texts, including short novellas and simple essays. Your vocabulary is wider, but doesn’t include very abstract or complex topics, such as religion or politics. You understand most, if not all, of what is said to you in the target language.

Level 4: Competent (~5 years study)

Your knowledge of tenses has expanded to include more complex tenses, and you have an increased understanding of the subjunctive (or equivalent). Your vocabulary is now nearly complete, being able to discuss nearly all topics with ease. You can write complex essays, read somewhat scholarly texts with a moderate level of understanding. Your speech is nearly accent-free (that is, your native accent). You can participate in conversations with little to no difficulty, and others involved can understand you completely.

Level 5: Native (~6-7 years)

You have a complete understanding of all the grammar in the target language, and you have a complete set of vocabulary to discuss all topics without any difficulty whatsoever. You can read extremely long passages in the target language (such as novels and longer essays) and write comprehensive responses that demonstrate a higher understanding of the test. You effectively sound like you grew up speaking in the native country of the target language (depending on which variety or dialect you learn). You participate in extended conversations about complex or abstract topics, and can switch in and out of the target language with ease.

Level 6: Scholar/Intellectual (9+ years)

Your vocabulary is expanded to include higher level words, such as more complex or poetic synonyms for ones you already know. You can read and write scholarly texts in the target language, and participate in extended discussions on such topics with ease. You would be fit to be a professor in the language, nearly without exception.

Speak, Speak, Speak!

Every day, I see other students who reject their cultural heritage, particularly their languages. They consciously want to relinquish this part of themselves, and this saddens me to no end. Always be grateful for the gift of language from your parents and culture, for without it, you would be less than the person you are today because of it. Whether you speak a major world language like Spanish, or a minority language like Basque, it’s important to keep that speaking tradition alive, because when a language dies, an entire generation of potential speakers influenced and molded by that language dies with it.