Since meeting and falling in love with Gianluca, I have made some sporadic, half-hearted attempts at learning his mother tongue. My (minimal) efforts have been somewhat fruitful- and I thrill at announcing the subject of any overheard conversations in Italian. Actually speaking the language is another story. It usually happens like this: we are sitting with a group of Italians, most of whom have some English, but who know I’m there to learn. They all want me to succeed. They are willing me to get it right. One correct sentence from my lips will result in uproarious fanfare. Then it’s my turn to speak and I clam up. The pressure is too much.
Fezzano, Gianluca’s home town in Portovenere, Italia
I should note, at this point that we are not living in Italy at present, but in Abu Dhabi where Italian is almost never useful, let alone needed in order to survive day-to-day life. Everyone keeps telling me not to worry, that I’ll learn quickly when I need to, when I live in Italy… and, as a nursery school teacher, I understand that more than anyone. Invariably, the first English words I hear from non-English speaking children at nursery are: ‘pee pee’, ‘water’, ‘Mama’. Children learn to speak to communicate what they need – the toilet, a drink, their Mama - and because they know that’s the only way I’ll understand and respond. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s more difficult to learn a language when you can get by just fine without it.
As a mindful adult, that’s not really good enough, is it? To carry on in English because (most) people will understand me anyway. To expect other people to adjust. So, after all this time of doing just that, I’m making this a very important high-priority goal this year. No more half measures.
Inspired by how David Bailey learned to speak French in 17 days (!), I’m adopting some of the components of his approach. However, since this goal will have to fit neatly into my regular daily routine and since I’m not yet in a position to immerse myself completely in Italian culture, I’m not confident I’ll have the same dramatic results.
But here goes. This is the plan:
The Michel Thomas Method
Having used Michel Thomas CDs for learning conversational French a while back, I have a lot of faith in his approach. Michel’s method focuses on my main problem area, speaking and constructing sentences. Rather than learning grammar and vocabulary in the traditional way, you begin by learning the component parts of sentences, enabling you to start speaking straight away.
Duolingo is a free app for smartphones and tablets, which incorporates written (typed), oral and aural exercises to strengthen your language competency. What I really like about this app is the lessons are quick and you can do as many/ little as you like at a time. It is easy to slot into a busy day – I’ve done a lesson or two while waiting for my lift to work in the mornings.
I may have posted about this before but the BBC have excellent free resources for learning a language: videos, written guides, online tests and links to Italian radio and TV channels.
When I was studying for my Leaving Certificate (10 years ago – phew!), I wrote everything I needed to memorise down on paper. Then I would read through and write it down again. And again. Science formulas, facts, Maths equations, historical dates, even English essays. It took ages, and some people might say it is a massive waste of time, but for me it paid off. Learning something by heart can seem a daunting task, while simply writing it down is not and the repetition can even be relaxing. I still believe that writing things out by hand is the best way to memorise things. Just trust that it is going in.
The first books I read in English were by Roald Dahl, so it makes sense that they should be the first in Italian too. Gianluca will be in Italy soon and is under strict instruction to pick me up some copies of Matilde, La Fabbrica di Cioccolato, Il GGG, Le Streghe… or whatever he can get his hands on.
I call this part ‘Culture Immersion’ and for me, it is the most important piece of the learning puzzle. Pizza and pasta in large quantities. Okay, so eating Italian food is not going to help. If only learning to speak Italian was as easy as eating spaghetti, eh? Still, I say there’s no harm in embracing the culture!
Every day for 17 days, David Bailey would take a run in the French countryside while listening to catchy French music. He claims the rhyme and rhythm of the music will help you to learn the intonation of a language and train your facial muscles as you sing along. Lucky for me, there’s always Italian music playing in our apartment. I’m working on putting together a playlist for the gym too!
Talking to Italian-speakers
The most obvious one for last. I’m lucky (for countless reasons) to have a resident Italian, but he is too kind and lenient on me as a teacher. Talking to Italians, in Italian is obviously the best way to learn to speak it. Just make sure they are correcting your mistakes.
Finally, my sneaky tip is to learn the filler words and phrases that Italians use all the time in conversation – Allora, Dai, Prego, An diamo – but don’t really mean much. Also, adopt wild gesticulation when communicating any point. I have it on good authority that this New York Times guide to Italian hand gestures is accurate. Both of these will give the illusion of fluency while you continue to struggle internally.
There you go. Soon, I’ll be writing my blog posts in Italiano…