Better than you’d imagine, actually.
At least, once you get used to it.
And assuming your teacher knows what she’s doing.
But why won’t you teach me in English??
Lots of reasons.
But most obviously, people come to us to learn to speak and understand Italian.
Should we insist that they have an excellent working knowledge of English before we allow them to study Italian?
Of course not.
Clients come from Spain, Brazil, Japan, China, Russia, Germany, France, not just from English-speaking countries.
They MAY know English, but often they don’t. Or not much.
Were the teachers to explain things in English, people would be excluded.
Learn how to not understand
Then there’s the fact that, by explaining things in English, our teachers would be denying you the opportunity to listen to Italian during your lessons.
“But I don’t understand Italian” you protest.
True. But that’s why you’re taking a course, right?
And the first thing you need to learn, ironically, is how to not understand.
Yes, you read that correctly.
In the medium term, you will be able to understand what people say to you.
But at first, it’ll be just a stream of sound.
That can be upsetting.
But getting upset (and insisting that someone translate every word into English, so you can be sure you didn’t miss anything) doesn’t get you any nearer your medium-term goal.
What you need to do, and as soon as possible, is get used to the idea that you won’t be able to understand everything (anything?)
Oh, and you won’t be able to express your thoughts, either.
At least for a while.
That can be frustrating.
Learn to stay calm. Go with the flow. Smile and nod.
But don’t stop listening. Try to get some idea of what’s going on. You’ll have to guess, but that’s OK.
By all means, ask for repetition (in Italian) of things that seem like they might be important.
Or for them to be repeated, slowly. Or written down.
Usually, people will be happy to help you, especially if you’re calm and positive.
Just don’t expect to be able to understand and participate as if you were speaking your mother tongue.
Conclusion? To learn Italian, you also need to learn to manage the situations in which you will have an incomplete understanding and a limited ability to express yourself.
Even advanced students of the language will certainly always find it harder to speak Italian than to speak in their own language.
But they’ve gotten extremely good at not understanding!
Does your teacher have a clue?
Untrained teachers talk too much.
Their students can get demotivated quickly, as they are exposed to a constant stream of unnecessary chat that they have no hope of following.
The poor students may ask questions, hoping to better undestand what the teacher has said (which they assume must have been important).
So the kind teacher “explains”. At length, using more words they don’t know. Which, of course, just make things worse.
Zoom. The teacher crashes and burns. Though he may be completely unaware of the damage done, and assume the class is going fine. After all, he’s talking a lot and everyone appears to be listening politely and learning, right?
And yes, the class learns: they quickly understand that, when the teacher’s speaking, you can just switch off.
It won’t be anything important. And you won’t be able to understand it anyway. And don’t bother to ask questions. It just makes things worse.
People are nice, they tend not to blame the teacher for being incompetent. They’ll assume it’s their fault, that they’re incapable of learning Italian.
That really makes me angry!
The right way to teach Italian
We’re talking beginners, here.
The right way to teach a foreign language to beginners, using ONLY that language, is to go slowly, step by step, with lots of repetition (LOTS of repetition), each step building on the last.
Naturally, the lessons must always be stimulating, never boring.
But the teacher must never say anything important unless she already knows the class will understand it.
How does she know what they will understand and what they won’t?
Because she must use words and grammar that she has already taught, and must constantly verify that everything has been understood, and remembered.
Nothing is assumed. Greetings, instructions, common phrases, all will form part of the syllabus for the first few lessons, so they can then be used to comunicate with in subsequent lessons.
Mimes, gestures and pictures make it easy to get meanings across without “explaining”.
Everything is practised, until it can be done with ease, ideally by everyone in the group.
Meaning builds on meaning, day after day, the end point being clearly understood, at least by the teacher.
The secret is “control”.
The teacher needs to know exactly what she’s doing, and why, and what she’s going to do next.
She needs to know how often to revisit what she has taught before so that the students will truly learn it, and how to do that in interesting and motivating ways.
And she needs to know when to keep her mouth shut. To not screw things up.
It’s not rocket science, but it does take experience, so pick a school with a stable team of well-trained teachers who know all this stuff.
Oh, and by the way, in a “proper” language school, if we see someone is not making progress, we assume that it’s our fault, not theirs.
You pay to learn Italian, and that’s what should happen. If not, the school director will want to know the reason!
Hey, it really works!
Each week, students leave Madrelingua able to speak and understand Italian better than they could when they arrived. Often, a lot better.
Given enough time, and patience, we can teach more or less anyone to comunicate in Italian. Without ever using a word of English to “explain” things.
Early on, it’s normal for students to panic a little:
“Help! I don’t understand ANYTHING!”
But if you’ve made the right choice of language school, hopefully that feeling won’t last long.
Soon, you’ll relax, and even begin to enjoy yourself. You’ll get used to not understanding, and that’s when you’ll start to understand.
Funny, huh? It’s the opposite of what most people expect.
Remember, you don’t want to learn ABOUT Italian. You want to learn to get by IN Italian.
Which means actually doing it, right from Day 1.
And yes, it really does work.
More Articles About Learning Italian | FAQ
Matthew Schuler says
The first time I came to Madrelingua it was quite overwhelming. I was not a beginner, and had even been taught in Italian. But not four hours a day! And not trying to do Italian all day long, including living with a family and speaking Italian, speaking with shopkeepers, speaking with classmates, watching TV, going to movies…..
But at the end of two weeks, my comprehension and speaking ability had improved more than in the 2 or so years I had been studying prior to my arrival! It was amazing! I had headaches everyday the first week, but it was worth it.
A year later, my second two week class, I expected the same thing…..overwhelmed and headaches……but to my great delight that did not happen. I continued to improve. By day 3 or 4, I was thinking how to say things in Italian so reflexively that I found myself having to TRANSLATE MY THOUGHTS INTO ENGLISH for my emails to family and friends! That was amazing.
I can’t wait until I can come back. It is such a joy (yes, a lot of hard work too), but definitely a joy to learn and improve my Italian at such a good school where the teachers and staff really do care about you personally. Stefania even found me a doctor when I was not well, who didn’t even charge me. Turns out he was an English student at Madrelingua!
Thanks to all of you for all you do. I love Bologna and I love Madrelingua!
Thanks a lot for joining the debate, Matthew. And for the positive feedback, of course.
Your experience is typical, both the overwhelm and stress, and the “high” you experienced when you felt you’ve made progress.
Language learning is not a linear process, and is characterised by these psychological ups and downs.
It takes time, and plenty of exposure to learn to speak and understand Italian.
But the process is predictable. Most people get there in the end if they stick with it…
The theory is good, but in practice I found it frustrating to not be allowed any English (or German or Portuguese or Chinese) in class, especially when a single word would in many cases have cleared up a point of confusion. And while your point that Italian is the only common language in the school, it is also true that the teachers and all the students I came across had a pretty good level of English ability. (My B1/B2 class at Madrelingua had students from the U.S., Brazil, Germany, China, Sweden, and the Azores.)
I found that explanations of new grammatical concepts were especially difficult. For example, the Italian futuro anteriore was incomprehensible to me no matter how carefully I tried to follow the examples and explanations until I looked up on-line examples using English construction. It would also have helped me in that case and others if I had known the day before what we would be studying so I could do a little prep, rather than having these new ideas and their associated vocabulary hit me cold in class.
I loved my time in Bologna and at Madrelingua. The teachers were great and I certainly improved my Italian, but ultimately I felt stifled by what I felt was wasted time and effort on my part struggling to figure out underlying concepts. (I blame some of this on text books that all-too-often have insufficient examples and use vocabulary beyond the level they are teaching to.)
Thanks for contributing your thoughts, Roberto. I appreciate it.
I think, when it comes down to it, the point is about the purpose of the course.
a.) Is it to convey a clear understanding of Italian grammar, using whatever language is most effective at achieving that?
b.) Or is it to facilitate an improvement in the client’s listening and speaking (also reading, writing, etc.)?
You may assume that a.) leads to b.)
Decades of teaching experience tell me that that isn’t so.
In fact, a.) diminishes the chance of b.) happening. A lot of grammar is innate anyway.
There’s an exception, though. When the grammar is explained IN the language, the process of trying to understand what’s being said to you (and perhaps failing, and feeling frustrated) is useful in itself.
Famous studies on second language acquisition show that what’s happening in the student’s brain (in terms of “learning” the new language) is as much the result of the communication going on, as the actual thing being explained. Or more so.
In short, the teacher could be explaining grammar, or popular music, or Greek mythology, and you’d still be learning, as long as the interaction between you and the teacher was happening IN Italian, and at an appropriate level of complexity (not too fast or difficult).
That’s rather an extreme position, of course, and ideally we think students need to have a reasonable command of Italian grammar (it’s a very “grammary” language). But not if it’s to the detriment of building the necessary speaking and listening skills.
Oh, and by the way, what grammar is easy or difficult to understand depends on a student’s mother tongue (and other languages that they know). A Spanish or French speaker will find Italian grammar much easier than someone who only knows English, for example. A Chinese, Japanese or Turkish student may go over the same points, again and again, without being able to truly “get” them.
The teacher must take these potential problems into account when planning her lessons, and the whole course. Having as her aim, “perfect understanding of XX grammar point” is not only (in my opinion) a distraction from the important business of learning to communicate, but also potentially an impossible objective.
Peter Fryer says
What a lot of good sense you write! As a foreign languages teacher (French) for almost forty years, I recognise the techniques that you describe. The difference in my situation was that I always had English-speakers in my class and for this reason I usually introduced new grammatical elements in English. Thereafter, when revising or consolidating the topic, it was often possible to do so in the foreign language. All the transactional language could be in the foreign tongue. Pupils often felt that they were “rubbish at French” because their shortcomings could so easily be identified as soon as they met a foreign teenager whose production of their mother tongue was often as bad and as slang-ridden as that of their English friends. On a foreign language exchange, they invariably understood the parents more easily than their exchange partners, and the grandparents most of all as they generally spoke more slowly and more correctly! I consider that my French is better now than it was when I graduated at the end of the sixties; I have practised it and worked hard to improve my proficiency over the intervening years. Foreign language competence is something that takes patience and endurance. Targets must always be realistic. I remember well my first trips to France: what I encountered was a stream of sounds uttered with machine-gun–like velocity. Over the years, French speakers seemed to be slowing down. They were not, of course, since it was my grasp of the language that was improving. When you only comprehend three words in ten, it is quite difficult to guess the other seven. When you understand seven words out of ten, it is much easier to work out the meaning of the other three. Vocabulary acquisition, therefore, is important, but learning it off a page does not prepare you to hear it uttered in context at speed by a native speaker. The teacher must use the new vocabulary as often as possible in class so that the association of sound and meaning becomes instantaneous. The learner must be given as many opportunities as possible to use the new vocabulary, so the teacher must learn not to dominate proceedings.
Grazie per tutto.
Thanks so much for taking the time to write such a detailed comment.
It’s very interesting to read your ideas. Certainly you’re right that with a monolingual group the teacher has the option to explain things in the students’ language (assuming they share a common language, of course).
That would be the case with, say, an Italian evening class in the UK.
In our very much multi-lingual context, using the target language as a method of instruction is the obvious choice.
But interestingly, in Italian state schools these days CLIL is very much the in thing (Content and Language Integrated Learning). One of our Bologna high schools is massively over-subscribed because it offers maths and science subjects entirely taught in other European languages (they offer French, German and English).
Your comment also took me right back to my own experiences learning French at school, and on exchange visits.
Got my o-level, though I think that surprised everyone, especially my teacher. Can’t imagine what she’d say if she heard I was running a language school!
Hope to hear from you here again,