Hacking Italian

Italy-flagIf your living long-term in a country where English is not widely spoken, the one thing you can do that will enormously enhance your experience is to learn the local language, there’s really no good reason not to. I currently find myself living in a quiet corner in the south of Italy where, as you can imagine, very few speak English.

Over the previous months I’ve been back on the language learning path with Italian. For many, the task seems daunting, and although it’s never straightforward, I believe a second language can be acquired in a fun and fulfilling way.

Why invest 6 hours per day when 45 minutes of focused study using an efficient method oftentimes renders better results? When I want to acquire skill or knowledge, I’m all about the minimum effective dose, and in this post I’d like to talk about a few ‘hacks’ which helped me learn Italian.

Traditional language learning methods don’t work.

Almost everyone has some experience learning languages, and unfortunately, for those of us who are native English speakers, almost all of those experiences ended up in the person not acquiring the language. The reason is simple, an ineffective teaching or learning method, and a lack of motivation on the part of the student. The former provokes the later in most cases.

They say youth is wasted on the young, but look what they have them doing 8 hours a day at school. Studying languages with no context, or learning algebra as if their brains were by default hard-wired to see, interpret and interact with the world in terms of its mathematical properties.

Most things are set up to be taught via a method which is simple to evaluate in the form of exams. It makes the very nature of education egoic, where verbal or mathematical reasoning are seen as something to admire in others regardless of how that knowledge is applied. Once you remove the egoic motivation of educating yourself, and you wake up each morning wondering how the knowledge that you have can be used to benefit others, then it becomes an entirely different game. For many they simply don’t have a valid “WHY” and their motivations are superficial in nature. I have come to understand that to acquire a language, you need to have a valid reason to do so, motivation and consistency are the two things you will need most.

I studied French for 5 years at school and am incapable of holding a conversation which extends beyond, “Hello, how are you”! More tragic again, I spent 14 years studying Irish at school and am unable to speak it to any level whatsoever. It was torture. I hated it. And I was no different from the majority of my childhood friends. My memories consist of vocabulary drills, verb conjugation drills, accompanied by punishment, criticism and ridicule for not being able to adapt and thrive to this flawed method of teaching. In short, it was a tragic waste of time I’ll never get back.

Compare the methods we are exposed to at school where verb conjugation drills were part of the daily routine and contrast this with someone using learning methods whose goal is simply to converse and bond with someone using expressions that capture the emotions of specific moments in a language they barely understand. The later is undoubtedly infinitely more fulfilling and is also what endears you to the locals you interact with.

For anyone who has ‘gone solo’ dabbling in language learning after completing school, you’ll have no doubt heard of Michel Thomas. It was he who said that “Learning shouldn’t be work, learning should be excitement, learning should be pleasure, with a constant sense of progression.”

Now with that rant aside, I’d like to discuss my own experience of learning ‘la lingua più melodica del mondo’!

I speak Spanish, and somehow learned it without every being able to articulate how at the time. Now however, with a very different mindset I’d like to describe how I set about learning Italian. I’m still a way from fluent, but think that for the limited time I’ve invested, I’ve gotten a reasonably good return on it. You may not agree with everything, but I hope at least that you find some value in the following list of approaches.

Methods I have found useful

If you want to learn anything in life, then go to the top. In the digital age, it has never been easier to tap into the consciousness of the greatest minds among us. Enda Mc Nulty, an ex gaelic Footballer, turned psychologist, said in an interview I recently heard “Not everyone has a Mandela in their lives, but you can read about him!”.

I’ve tried many methods for language acquisition, learning from my mistakes as I went. However, it’s much more time-efficient to learn from the mistakes of others! There are countless experts out there who speak a host of languages who will quickly point out the approaches which are a waste of your time.

1. Exposure to interesting comprehensible input

Stephen Krashen

Stephen Krashen

Stephen Krashan, a professor at the University of Southern California has done a huge amount of work on second language acquisition. His findings have withstood the test of time to a large extent, and to summarise briefly his main point, it boils down to having interesting and comprehensible input as the catalyst. You can read more about his theories here.

His studies show that improvements in language learning come about through an unconscious acquisition of the language and to a much lesser extent on time spent consciously studying. Spontaneous speech, and the ability to interact and become part of a conversation come about through this unconscious uptake, and not as a consequence of the time spent learning. My own experience is in line with this and I have found this method to have been the most beneficial of all for me.

The secret to this method is finding comprehensible content in the form of books, audiobooks, podcasts, videos etc. The content must be of great interest to you, which therefore implies that you’ll have no issue in listening, watching or reading it several times over.

Some great sources of comprehensible input for Italian that I have found most useful are the following:

  • Psicologia e Crescita Personale – A podcast presented by an Italian psychologist. It may not be everyone’s idea of interesting content, but it is similar in nature to the sort of stuff I listen to in English. The added bonus is that the presenter is very easily understood and his content is excellent. I have no issue listening to the podcasts over and over. Even if you are Italian, I’m betting you’ll get great value from listening to this guy.
  • ItalianoAutomatico – A podcast and youtube channel presented by a young Italian from Brescia, many years ahead of people of a similar age. Much of the content revolves around learning languages, book reviews and personal development.
  • News in Slow Italian – A podcast where the hosts read the news in a slow, more easily understandable tone. I make a conscious effort not to watch the news, so haven’t gotten much mileage from this one! However it may be of interest to some.
  • SBS Italian – A podcast similar in format to a current affairs radio program. The two presenters are easily understood, and oftentimes a caller will ring in with a backward accent to test your comprehension skills!
Youtube Channels
  • One word Italian – A youtube channel with Italian lessons presented by an extroverted Italian girl who is super easy to understand. I used this a source of comprehensible input due to its basic nature when I began learning. One of the major initial barriers to learning a language is finding interesting comprehensible content when you do not yet have a basic understanding of the language. This may tick that box for you to get you started.
  • Learn Italian with Lucrezia – A vlog presented by a young Italian girl targeted towards Italian learners. Many of the videos are in Italian with English and Italian subtitles, which again make it a good source of interesting comprehensible input for those who are beginning.

2. Spaced Repitition

Spaced Repitition

Spaced Repitition

Firstly, let me explain the basic premise behind this technique. In spaced repetition, words, phrases and grammar etc are introduced to you. You don’t make a conscious effort to try to remember any of it. For example, you may see and hear pronounced the word, “consapevolezza” (awareness). The software will again remind you of this word a minute of two later. Based on how well you recall it (you tell the software how well you remembered it, if at all), the time until its next appearance is set.

You will eventually get to a point where you won’t see the word “consapevolezza” again for 2 months. By this point it will be buried deep in your hippocampus! The algorithms really do work!

I think of this as an approach which to an extent imitates how we are evolutionarily hard-wired to learn a language, similar to the way in which a young child learns by continuously being exposed to it, hearing native speakers and then repeating the sounds they hear.

Once our brains are developed we no longer have that abundance of neurons and nueroplasticity to learn a language as quickly as a three-year old, but it can be done. I really like the concept of spaced repetition for language learning, it absolutely works, and I have tried a few different methods in my approach.

The Supermemo app is undoubtedly my favorite. Language courses can be bought, and an investment of 30-60 minutes first thing each morning has brought me on immeasurably.

I have tried a few other popular methods including Pimsleur and Anki. My take on Pimsleur is that it works to an extent, but takes a huge investment of time and the vocabulary is not always that useful or interesting. For me, boredom set in in the opening weeks and I decided to move on. Having said that, on another occasion when travelling China a couple of years back, I gave Pimsleur a fair shot and I still have quite a number of useful Mandarin phrases still embedded in my long-term memory. I feel I can reproduce these with quite an acceptable accent, still able to remember the tone inclination and the voice of the instructor.

I have dabbled in Anki, but without being able to find a useful pre-made deck for Italian, I lacked the discipline to build my own. I did at one point start taking photos on my phone of any object that I thought might be useful to know the name of, and added them as cards to a deck. It may have its uses if you have the discipline, but I don’t think it’s the best investment of your time to learn isolated nouns, for reasons which I’ll explain later. However, I can see Anki being extremely useful for someone learning Chinese characters.

For me, supermemo wins hands down, and the “Non c`è problema” courses are excellent.

3. Speak it!

Language Exchange

Language Exchange

It seems obvious and it is what everyone will say. There are however a couple of issues I have with this. Firstly, as beneficial as it may be, if you’re shy like me, it’s not easy to walk up to someone and start conversing. Even if you do, you rarely get into a meaningful conversation with anyone using this approach. Going to different cafe’s and ordering a coffee using different words each time, don’t really deepen your understanding or the profundity to which you can express yourself in the language. Secondly, your speech is a form of output, which is in turned fueled by previous comprehensible input that you have exposed yourself to. While speaking is important, the science and my own personal experience suggests that initially, at least, the majority of your time is better spent acquiring comprehensible input through books, podcasts, audiobooks etc.

So regarding speaking, my advice is to find a social group where you can bond with and talk with people who have a similar interest. For me that’s road cycling, and by joining a local team I was able to find an excellent outlet for which to practice. Long 4 hour rides a few times a week have brought me on no end. When you have a passion for something, you are never short of things to say about it. I could talk about cycling all day to anyone who’ll listen, but if I’m in the company of people discussing Serie A football I’m likely to tune out.

So, my top tip is to find a social outlet which enables you to speak on a regular basis with like-minded people. The constant exposure to the native accents will improve your pronunciation, and, because you are having deep meaningful conversations about something of great interest to you, this produces a two-fold advantage, firstly you acquire heaps of interesting input, and secondly because you are consistently embedded in deep meaningful conversations, you will consistently rack your brains trying to express yourself with new vocabulary. This is an infinitely more powerful technique than talking to someone with whom you have little in common. For anyone who has read Steven Covneys “7 habits of highly effective people” you’ll remember one of the rules is to look for “win win” situations. This is one of them. Your opinion on your passion will be of relevance and of interest to the peer group, so the deep conversations are enjoyable for both parties once you become reasonably proficient.

Another idea is to offer a language exchange with people living nearby, where you speak for 30 minutes in the local language followed by 30 minutes in English. I do this on a regular basis. It’s hit or miss on whether you find someone super interesting to talk with, but it does provide both value to you and the other person.

If you can’t find a social outlet for your language practice either because you don’t live in the country, or because you have obscure hobbies, then I recommend ITALKI. It’s a website where you can either pay for classes, or find people to partake in a language exchange over skype with you. I have been doing the later, and it is incredibly simple to find people who are fluent in your target language, and also want to learn English. It’s a win win situation for both parties. It works well, but I have found it difficult to find someone who I could really get into a deep meaningful conversation with.

4. Learning Italian through another language

This one won’t apply to everyone, but if you speak another latin language, try learning Italian through it. I stumbled across this hack quite unwittingly by myself and was pleasantly surprised by its benefits. I speak Spanish, and with its similarities to Italian I found that studying Italian through Spanish helped significantly. Youtube is your friend here, and for the Spanish speakers out there, here is a useful course I found.

Even for English speakers, you will find many similarities between English and Italian. The sound of a certain word, or the structure of certain phrases will automatically allow you to quickly learn a significant amount of vocabulary and structure. One example would be the present perfect tense. By conjugating the verb ‘to have’ in the present, and using the past participle of another verb you can effectively speak in the past. You may not always be grammatically correct, depending on the context, but you will be understood, and it opens doors for the beginner to express themselves, primitively at least, in the past. There really is no difference to how this is expressed in English.

  • Ho mangiatoI have eaten
  • Hai mangiatoYou have eaten
  • Ha mangiato – He/She has eaten
  • Abbiamo mangiatoWe have eaten
  • Avete mangiato – You have (pl) eaten
  • Hanno mangiato – They have eaten

Another example would be the gureund. Again it is expressed in a similar way in Italian to English and can there be easily picked up. The “-endo” or “-ando” endings equate to the “-ing” in English and this coupled with a conjugation of “stare”, “essere” or “avere” in the present simple will allow you to form the gerund and give a deeper ability to express yourself more profoundly in the language.

  • Sto guardando I am watching
  • Stai guardando – You are watching
  • Sta guardandoHe/She is watching
  • Stiamo guardando – We are watching
  • State guardando – You (pl) are watching
  • Stanno guardando – They are watching

One more. You can begin to make more complex structures which are very easily understood. Have a look at the following examples, where simply using the word ‘after’, with ‘having’ (the verb avere) and the past participle of any verb, followed by any additional vocabulary you know, you can begin to speak in a way which adds much more depth to how you express yourself. Speaking in this way makes you a much more interesting person for a local to speak with, or certainly more interesting than a beginner speaking what I call “Caveman Italian”!

  • Dopo aver avuto successo After having had success
  • Dopo aver visto la partita – After having seen the match
  • Dopo aver fatto le mie ricercheAfter having done my research

Merely seeing this links between the way certain structures exist in English and Italian will automatically enable you to understand how they are formed. With minimal effort you learn how to express yourself in more complex ways. There are countless hacks similar to this, I could go on and on. Via exposure to comprehensible input you will unconsciously obtain the ability to express yourself using them.

However, the way of saying certain things in Italian will often appear alien to a native English speaker, and this is where having the knowledge of another language will come in. Whether it’s Portuguese, French or in my case Spanish that you speak, I’m betting that there are countless such similarities that merely by hearing them, or having them explained to you once, will trigger the mental understanding of it. Once a mental link is made between the way something is expressed in a given language, and that commonality is extrapolated to Italian, then it is almost by default understood.

5. Practicing in context and the initial stages of acquisition. 

c86f2273185e6e731e714e137270e6b8Exposing your self to interesting input is all well and good, but of course initially no content will be comprehensible. Initially you do have to go through a less enjoyable phase where you acquire the basics of a language.

My tactic for getting to this stage as quickly and efficiently as possible in Italian is to practice using the most commonly used 7 or 8 verbs in context in the following tenses, the present, the present perfect and the imperfect.

In my opinion, verbs in Italian worth considering for this are the following: Avere (to have), Andare (to go), Dire (to say), Fare (to do), Dovere (have to/should/must), Volere (to want), Potere (to be able to), Prendere (to take).

Being comfortable using these verbs in the three tenses mentioned will open up many doors in terms of how you can express yourself in Italian. I don’t recommend torturing yourself with tables of verb conjugations. Perhaps start with the most commonly used, which are the first person and third person, i.e. “I go”, “It goes” or “I do”, “It does”. When learning Italian you will rarely use the second person plural, the “Voi” form. Don’t fill your head with the lesser used forms initially, but focus on the forms which will give you the best bang for your buck. Later through exposure to interesting comprehensible content, you will pick up the remainder.

Practice using these forms in context. Speak them as often as you can trying to get to the point where the very act of saying them feels spontaneous without rehearsal in your mind beforehand.

Following this technique you will be quite surprised at how your speaking and comprehension improve. At a certain time you will come to a point where you feel you begin acquiring more of the language at an exponential rate, simply by being exposed to it. The large base which you have now acquired will only aid you in learning further and faster and the days where simple deviations in conversations stop you in your tracks will come to an end.

Regarding tenses, the imperfect tense will give you the best bang for your buck and it’s well worth practicing using it. Initially don’t waste your time learning the future tense, it’s not widely used, and you can get by using the present, locals generally speak this way in Italian. The future tense as it turns out is quite simple to learn in Italian, but save it for later. As you continue to improve, the remaining tenses can be tackled, but I’m betting that you’ll find yourself unbeknownst, with greater depth in other tenses without having even begun to formally study them once you expose yourself to the language.

As an aside, here’s a TED talk that’ll blow your mind! It deals with the idea that people who speak futureless languages (those that don’t have a future tense) such as German, Finnish, Chinese and Japanese actually end up saving more money, having lower smoking rates and obesity rates! The theory is that if the future feels like something very different and distant from the present, then it will affect your behaviour across time. Being required to speak in a distinct way about future events leads speakers to take fewer future-oriented actions. It’s not really so related to what I’m discussing here so I won’t go into the details, but do check the TED Talk if you’re interested in learning more about it. The study carried out really is quite fascinating.

A lot of people talk about obtaining a list of the top 100 or 500 most commonly used words in a language. The theory is that the amount of words that we use on a day-to-day basis is surprisingly small and that by learning the most commonly used words you can cover most bases with this approach. The problem is that by simply learning words in isolation, you don’t understand or practise them in context. When the time comes to use these words in a sentence as you speak, you haven’t trained your brain to associate and therefore reproduce them correctly and with fluency and spontaneity. The result is stuttering, with an abundance of grammatical errors. Anki decks with the top 500 Italian words don’t work in my opinion.

Final Thoughts

For those that don’t believe they are capable of learning a foreign language, remember that the barrier to skill acquisition is not intellectual, it’s emotional. A healthy sustained motivation coupled with the correct approach that works for you, will help you achieve your goal of learning a new language. My only aim for this post is that it will encourage someone who previously didn’t believe they could learn a language to actually learn one. The methods listed here won’t work for everyone, but I firmly believe they are a lot closer to the optimal method than the traditional methods we’ve all come across. My opinions on what methods work best for me may change over time, but at the time of writing this is what is working well.

If you’ve read this far and have anything further to add which may be of benefit to anyone studying languages (including me), please feel free to leave a comment below.

Finally, here are a list of useful resources for language learners:

  • Actual Fluency Podcast – A podcast presented by a young Dane who interviews many of the world’s top language learners.
  • Luca Lampariello – The youtube channel of an Italian polyglot who has many useful videos on language learning
  • Steve Kaufmann – The youtube channel of a Canadian language learning discusses various techniques for language learning.
  • Moses McCormick – The youtube channel of an American polyglot who speaks many obscure languages.


This entry was posted in Language.