How to speak Italian: A practical guide
Practical advice on learning the bella lingua.
I can speak Italian and speak at around a B2 level according to the CEFR Scale. This means that I can chat about a wide range of subjects.
According to the various sources quoted in the above wiki page the time investment needed to reach this level is somewhere between five and six hundred hours
This seems correct to me, and is about the length of time that I've spend in learning to speak Italian. I've probably averaged about 30 minutes a day over the last five years. Some days, I've done a lot more, and some a lot less, and for some weeks I've not studied or thought about Italian at all.
But, I have been consistently improving over the years, bit by bit and step by step, and I am still learning.
So, that is my level, I wanted to provide a road map of sorts as to how I reached this level, although with language learning there is no one size fits all approach.
But before beginning with any practical suggestions, I would emphasise that the most important point to remember is consistency.
If you learn some Italian every single day, then you will improve, every single day. It might not feel like you are improving, but you will be.
So consistency is key. In fact, I believe that whatever method you use to move through the various phases of learning Italian (or any other language), will bring you success – provided that you are consistent with your learning.
Recognising that there are different 'phases of learning', is important, as it prevents you becoming stuck in a particular level or phase and not progresing.
For example, in the beginner phase (which I will go into more detail later), you will need to learn basic vocabulary such as 'hello' or 'my name is' and so on.
However, if you remained stuck in this phrase indefinitely, you would never move beyond the basics. In an intermediate phase, you might be reading graded readers but again, if you never move beyond these, your vocabulary will never expand sufficiently for you to be able to tackle novels. It will always be constrained to the type of vocabulary found in graded readers and lack the richness of expression found in books for native speakers.
I've mentioned two points so far. Consistency and phases. These are of course generic ideas and apply equally to learning French, Spanish and indeed anything, but both are important and often forgotten.
Interestingly, the idea of phases, or that different types of learning are needed as you progress and improve with a language, is often not mentioned when (or if) you buy a language course.
This isn't surprising. Many courses use a similar style of learning throughout the beginning, intermediate and (so-called) advanced stages whereas different learning methods are often necessary as you improve. This requires you to take charge of your learning, and think about the best way to progress. Learn Italian actively, and not passively.
Everyones language journey is different, and this is the path that I have followed so far, and might work for you. It is crucial to take charge of your learning, and by that learn in an active manner. Learn Italian words that are likely to be useful to you. Don't learn (at least at the start) anything that you won't use.
As is made obvious by my timescales, I've not been rushing and if you are in a hurry, compress the time-scales.
I've broken the phrases into three parts: beginner, intermediate and advanced. This is a simplification, but is enough to explain how I learnt (and continue to learn) Italian.
This in many ways is the most difficult part of learning a language, but also the most exciting. It is difficult knowing where to start, and this isn't helped due to being spoilt for choice in terms of possibilities both if you want to learn Italian for free, or if you choose to pay for a course to follow.
I like the Teach yourself series, and like having a structure to follow, so I bought and used Teach yourself Italian at the outset.
The Teach youself series isn't perfect, but provided me with a useful structure to follow at the start.
I also bought the BBC Italian grammar as a reference, as I like having a physical book containing most of what I will need. Although you can find numerous pages on almost any aspect of Italian grammar on the internet, a basic reference book is useful – especially if you are not certain what it is to search for.
I didn't at this point, use any of the well-known courses like recommend Assimil Italian, Pimsleur or Rosetta Stone.
I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the Assimil courses, and periodically complain/praise them on my blog. If you don't want to read any of that, I think that they are great but with caveats. This is true of almost any course, language learning or otherwise. Nothing is perfect.
I'm using Assimil German to obtain a working knowledge of German for a planned trip), and later in the year intend to use Assimil Romanian. Maybe it's fair to say, I can't live with them, can't live without them.
I spent the three or four months working my way through the initial chapters of Teach yourself Italian. I was only picking and learning words that I thought would be useful in conversation, and doing the same with grammatical structures.
At the same time, I also worked my way through FSI-Italian. FSI-Italian can be downloaded for free from www.fsi-language-courses.net.
After four months, I had learnt around four hundred words and the present and imperfect tenses and it felt like time to find a teacher (whom I found on iTalki).
I subscribed to and used ItalianPod101.com for six months.
Now, I speak Spanish and as there is a large grammatical and lexical overlap between the two languages, didn't have any particular difficulty stringing basic (but error laden) sentences together in Italian at this point.
The point at which you decide to start speaking is somewhat controversial in the language learning world, with some thinking that there should be a long silent period during which you absorb the language. Others think that you should start speaking immediately.
I don't think that it matters, but one thing is certain is that you need to speak Italian to learn how to speak Italian. Start speaking at a point that feels natural for you.
I started speaking at around the four month period. The time felt right.
The Italian sentences on SurfaceLanguages are perfect for beginner to intermediate, and ideal for when you start doing language exchanges. These cover about 500 words and common grammatical constructions. I'd love to know if you found them useful. If you do it'd be great if you could leave Feedback at blog.
I spent the next eight months having a weekly Italian lesson lasting an hour on iTalki. I was set homework, and did it diligently. I wrote down the most useful new words that arose in the lessons and homework, and tried to learn them.
I tried some language exchanges (found using MyLanguageExchange). If you are a native English speaker, it is extremely to find language exchanges in commonly spoken languages such as Italian.
While fun these were not very effective as my level of Italian wasn't good enough, and none of them lasted long. I now know from experiece, that for a language exchange to be successful for me, I need to have a similar level to my partner.
Bit by bit, and week by week, my level improved, and this is what I mean about consistency. Learning a language is a journey to be enjoyed. There is no end point, and so you need to enjoy the process.
I'm also a big fan of reading as a method of vocabulary aquisition, and reinforcing an understanding of grammar and grammatical structures. The series (although it didn't exist when I was beginning to learn Italian) Italian Short Stories For Beginners by Olly Richards is extremely good for low intermediates and advanced beginners.
There is a lack of free resources for intermediate Italian language learners, and this is the point at which spending money becomes more productive.
I subscribed to the following at different points and for different lengths of time – but no more than six months each.
ItalianPod101.com and News in slow Italian both have a free trial, and most importantly transcripts.
I used each in conjunction with my weekly lesson to improve my comprehension and passive vocabulary. It was around this time that I found a new Italian teacher, not because of any criticism of my previous teacher but because your requirements inevitably change as you progress with a language. Some teachers are better with beginners, and some with intermediates and so on.
Italianoautomatico has a lot of resources but I would say these are more suitable for the upper intermediate level. Some are free and some are paid. I've only listened to the free podcasts and enjoyed youtube videos.
After another year of lessons, I started several language exchanges and was speaking twice a week for months and stopped having regular lessons.
In a few words, read, speak and listen as much as you can. Once you have reached this point, learning Italian becomes free once again as there is absolutely no need to pay for anything (apart from books).
I'm not going to write much about the possible resources as the net is so wide at this point.
I like listening to the Italian podcasts by SRS Australia.
I like listening to Radio Ascolta.
I still do weekly language exchanges.
I am reading Morte a Firenze on my kindle and have read a large number of books to improve my comprehension and passive vocabulary. The kindle has the advantage that it is easy to install an Italian dictionary.
Have fun and you will learn how to speak this beautiful language. Enjoy the journey. Don't rush. Make mistakes and be happy.