Is this what you really think about learning Italian?

Misconceptions about learning Italian abound, and can result in you making poor decisions or even failing to achieve your goals.

So recognising the myths that surround language study may help you succeed where others would fail!

Here are five of the most common wrong ideas about studying Italian:

1. Adults don’t learn foreign languages as easily as children

We’ve all heard stories about families with young children who move abroad. In what seems like no time at all, the children are jabbering away fluently in the new language, while the poor adults appear to make much slower progress.

It’s nonsense, of course, as anyone who has children can tell you.

It takes years, decades, for a child to learn to speak, understand, read and write their own language, let alone replicating that feat in a foreign language in just a few months.

The miracle pre-schoolers you hear about are immersed in the foreign language for eight or more hours a day, so it’s unsurprising they quickly work out how to follow the kindergarten teacher’s instructions and interact with other kids in the playground.

But mum and dad, while seeming to make less progress, are actually coping with a much greater level of complexity as they deal with the demands of living and working in a foreign country.

In short, there’s no evidence that kids learn faster. In fact, the opposite is true.

Any professional language school can take an adult learner from zero to proficient (including reading and writing) in much less time than it takes a young child to learn to write simple sentences.

2. If you work, you won’t really have time to learn a foreign language

If only you didn’t have all these commitments, you could really dedicate yourself to learning Italian, and in just a few months you’d be fluent!

Sorry, but that’s not true either.

Sure, time is a factor. But so are motivation, opportunity, experience, and various other ingredients in the learning mix.

If you can find time after work to visit the gym, watch TV or mow your lawn, you can certainly find time to study Italian. Assuming you’re reasonably well-organised, just an hour a day should be sufficient to get you to intermediate level in Italian within a year.

Day job or no.

3. Studying the essentials of Italian grammar is, well, essential

It’s certainly true that it’s hard to form even basic sentences in Italian unless you have a few irregular verbs under your belt.

But a lot of Italian courses contain much more grammar than is necessary… to the detriment of time you could be spending learning new words, or practicing speaking, listening, reading or writing.

Most ‘essentials’ of Italian grammar are not relevant to carrying on a normal conversation.

So while acquiring an in-depth knowledge of Italian grammar might be interesting or even enjoyable, the return on your investment of time is likely to be poor.

4. Living in Italy will really, really help you learn

Living in Italy for a while MIGHT help you learn Italian faster, but there’s certainly no guarantee. People being people, it’s likely you’d spend a lot of your time in Italy NOT speaking Italian!

At first, you won’t have the knowledge of the language to do much more than hold basic conversations in shops and bars. So it’s inevitable you’ll still be interacting in your own language.

And with the Internet, you can be anywhere in the world and still access your favorite newspapers and TV programs.

Unfortunately, keeping up with what’s going on at home, through Skype or social networks, is much too easy these days!

So assuming you won’t have taken a vow of silence, being in Italy is not going to be a magic solution.

Sure, once you make a few friends to speak Italian with, that will certainly help.

But with a little imagination, you could do that at home.

5. ‘Knowing’ Italian means speaking it reasonably well

Speaking Italian well is a start, but you also have to be able to understand the replies you get. Listening is a complex skill too, and one which takes time to acquire.

What’s more, even if you get to the point when you can understand all the words and grammar you hear (in any accent), you still might not have a clue what a conversation is really about!

Without a basic working knowledge of who’s who, and what’s happening in sport, politics or whatever, you won’t be able to understand or contribute much.

And if you wanted to work in Italy?

Reading and writing at a high level is a pre-requisite for a lot of jobs, but even, say, working as a waitress or bartender means you’d need to know your customers’ habits and preferences. Or no tips!

So, being able to form grammatical sentences, with appropriate vocabulary, reasonably quickly, is a good start. But there’s an awful lot more to ‘knowing’ a language than just speaking it.

More Articles About Learning Italian | FAQ

 

Comments

  1. Ancora, grazie Daniel. Un’ora al giorno. Provero’.

  2. Frances Kenny says:

    Hi Daniel. The article is great but I’m afraid I’m guilty of using all of the above excuses. Oh to have an hour a day! Recently I have made my self do at least 10 mins a day outside of my weekly class and following homework. I see improvements already. I think it is so much easier now than years ago with all that is available to us on the internet today. Online Italian school, listening exercises, grammar, movies, following recipes on utube, meeting language partners on language social media sites. I have a new Italian friend who I met on a site who I talk with regularly on Skype and who I even met last year. It has been this experience that finally got the Italian coming out of my mouth! Thanks Daniel for all your help and I hope to come to Bologna next year to do a course at your school.

    Keep up the good work. Frances (Ireland)

    • Sorry for not having replied earlier Frances! For some reason the system is not notifying me of new comments..
      Great to hear that Italian is finally coming out of your mouth! Keep it up!
      And we hope to see you again here in Bologna, of course.

      Daniel

  3. Matthew Schuler says:

    Good article, thanks. I personally think you would have to a pretty exceptional student to reach a true intermediate level in speaking, listening, reading and writing in just one hour a day, especially if you were working mostly on your own. I found my time at Madrelingua really helped accelerate my progress.

    I would also suggest keeping it fun and doing lots of different activities. I often listen to Italian talk radio on my smart phone when I do my stretching, or I watch Italian movies first with subtitles off, then on. And I read fun books that keep me turning pages, like Dan Brown’s Inferno translated into italian (my current project). I also have some old italian comic books for sometime when I want something different. Mix it up! Buy an Italian lunch or coffee to pay them for listening to your Italian stuttering. 😉

    • Excellent advice, Matthew!
      I’m sure YOU could improve approximately three levels in a year with just one hour a day! I’d put money on it. Wanna bet?

  4. Pam Wilkinson says:

    I was encouraged to see suggestion that “essential” Italian grammar might not be that essential! I was told by a (well educated and very cultured) Italian that I really didn’t need, at my stage, to be worrying about learning the subjunctive. Perhaps he was right!!

    • And now you’re being told the same thing by a (well educated but not so cultured) English guy!
      I’ve never bothered with the congiuntivo… It’s not used that much in speech, and my wife corrects my writing for me!

  5. I fully agree with Daniel’s article. And here are several of my thoughts on learning a Italian. Of the skills of reading, listening and speaking, I find reading is the easiest because you have time to think about the vocabulary, construction, etc.. Listening is next in the degree of difficulty. But Daniel’s exercises and direction have really helped with this, especially the one of always trying to get the general meaning. The most difficult is speaking Italian. If it is kept rather simple, it is easy. But once I began to think in my own idiomatic constructions, it doesn’t translate easily into Italian, and that ‘s when speaking becomes difficult. It is surprising to me how much we use these expressions and contructions. Also, on a final note, I have a friend from elementary school (many, many years ago) who has been living outside of Lucca for the past 10 years. In our conversation about learning Italian, he told me how each little town had it’s own words and expressions. And because of this, he sometimes didn’t understand what was being said at a bar. There is a saying in golf that fits this situation, “it is not a game of perfect”.

    Any thoughts?

    • Can’t argue with someone who begins with ‘I fully agree with Daniel’s article’!
      Just joking, of course!
      Thanks for taking the time to share your ideas, Lee. Language is indeed not ‘a game of perfect’! Good analogy.
      And I agree with you that reading is the easiest skill (closely followed by writing…), whilst speaking is perhaps the hardest.
      But one thing you say gives me pause for thought:
      “when I begin to think in my own idiomatic constructions, it doesn’t translate easily…”
      Indeed.
      We see a lot of students struggling to translate things that they would like to say, that they would say, if they were speaking their own language.
      When a wiser approach would be to focus on what they were able to say in Italian, and get busy saying that instead. Or better still, being a good listener and getting other people to do the conversational work!
      I guess what I was trying to say is that there’s a lot more to speaking Italian, than just speaking.

  6. Those 5 erroneous beliefs are indeed very convincing. I am left with some doubt as to what to believe. There is some real truth in each claim. My personal conclusion is that there is no substitute for academic teachings, structured learning, deliberately applied resources of time, financials and energies.
    Classroom learning and structured group conversations would certainly increase the speed of learning to speak and understand any new language.
    I agree that it is not necessary to know a county’s politics, geography, cuisine or sports stars, but a few idiomatic expressions do add significant comfort.

    • Thanks for commenting, Keith. I would go along with most of what you say, very much. But in the article I was suggesting that ‘cultural knowledge’ (i.e. who’s who in politics, etc.) IS pretty much essential if you hope to ‘know’ Italian. Imagine a Brit or Australian being suddenly set down in California and expected to survive – language is just a starting point without the knowledge needed to interpret and apply it…

  7. Peter Turtle says:

    An interesting read, and I largely agree with everything. My only reservation would be about living in Italy. I moved to Italy just over 4 years ago and on day one found that there were zero English language skills in my village, which equated precisely with my knowledge of Italian at the time – OK, I knew ciao and arrividerci, but that was it. Being thrown in at the deep end certainly forced me to learn the language a lot quicker than I would have done otherwise, and despite the internet being a great tool for keeping in touch with people back home, that communication largely took written form.

    However, as you say, it’s not a magic solution and even after all this time of only speaking Italian when I’m out and about, I still find great chunks of conversation that mean about as much to me they would if they were in Hungarian.

    It’s worth the effort though, being a scientist by training and a very poor language student at school I never believed that it was possible to think in a foreign language, whatever my teachers might have said – how wrong I was.

    Keep up the entertaining emails, I really enjoy reading them and comparing what you write with my experiences.

    • Thanks for contributing from your own experience, Peter. It makes interesting reading!
      And for the positive feedback on the article…
      Best wishes,
      Daniel

  8. All these are very true. The main thing about learning anything as an adult (in my case aged 63) is that you have to really want to learn the language/ skill/sport. Within physical limitations / eg deafness so much is possible. Time is one of those things that gets shunted around depending on your priorities. So many times we just make excuses to avoid finding effective motivation