So you’re thinking about learning Italian?

Molto bene!

If you’re looking for some guidance on how to get started, you’re in the right place.

When I first started learning Italian (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), there were a lot of things I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to learn words quickly, or that I should pay attention to things like prepositions.

Come to think of it, I probably didn’t know what a preposition was!

Had I known things like this from the get-go, it would have saved me loads of time and effort.

That’s why I’ve put together this complete guide to learning Italian for beginners. It has all the things I wish someone had told me before I started and the exact steps you can take to pick up basic Italian quickly.

You’ll learn things like:

  • Essential Italian travel phrases
  • How to roll your Rs
  • The best way to remember Italian words, phrases and grammar
  • Action points you can follow to make sure you succeed

Throughout, you’ll find links to audio files and mini lessons you can use to start learning Italian straightaway.

And – we’re opening a programme that will help you speak and understand basic Italian fast. It’s free if you get in there quick, so read till the end if you want to find out how to join us.

A 4-step roadmap to learning Italian

What should I learn first? Which method should I use? How can I stay motivated?

When you learn a new language, there are so many things to think about that it’s easy to get lost. In fact, one of the main things that can slow your progress in Italian is a lack of clear direction.

If you want to get somewhere fast, it helps to have a clear roadmap.

Here, you’ll find a 4 step action plan you can follow to start learning Italian successfully:

  1. Find your motivation (know why you want to learn Italian).
  2. Learn the essential phrases (so you can start talking straight away).
  3. Go into detail (start learning grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation).
  4. Take action (so you can achieve your goal of speaking Italian).

Let’s get started shall we?

Cominciamo!

1. Find your motivation

Learning a new language takes time and commitment. If you’re not clear on your reasons for wanting to speak Italian, somewhere down the line you may find yourself wondering if it’s really worth it.

On the other hand, if you’re excited about learning Italian, that enthusiasm will pull you to your desk, even on days when you don’t really feel like it.

When you’re motivated, it’s easier to overcome the obstacles that normally get in the way of learning a language, like lack of time or tiredness. As the saying goes:

If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way, if not, you’ll find an excuse.

That’s why motivation is number 1 in our roadmap.

Before you start learning Italian, take some time to get excited about it. Think about all the awesome things that will happen when you speak Italian, and come back to them whenever you need a motivation top-up.

If you need a little inspiration, here are my top 3 reasons for learning Italian:

You’ll experience the real Italy

Italy is one of the most popular destinations in the world, and with good reason! With stunning countryside, mediterranean beach towns, a rich history and arguably the best food and wine in the world, Italy has a lot to offer.

But if you don’t speak the language, it’s difficult to get out of the tourist bubble.

You’ll get so much more out of Italy if you understand and speak a bit of the language. It’s all part of the experience: laughing with the waiter, chatting to a little old lady on the train (with the help of a few gestures!) or playing with Italian kids at the beach. When you have a go at speaking Italian, you’ll come away with better holiday memories.

Even a handful of phrases can help you feel like a local. It’s a great feeling when you can order a meal or ice-cream in Italian and they understand what you’re saying.

You can also get insider recommendations from Italians about the best places to go in their town – no more frozen pizza and reheated pasta at tourist restaurants!

When you have a go at speaking Italian, you’ll come away with much better holiday memories. You can get to know some of the locals and you’ll feel more confident wandering away from tourist areas.

You’ll get to hang out with Italians

There’s an Italian saying: “il dolce far niente”, which means the sweetness of doing nothing.

Italians are masters of the art of living: most have a relaxed pace of life and love meeting new people. This is a huge plus when it comes to making Italian friends and practicing italiano with the locals.

When you have a go at speaking, Italians are usually patient and friendly. And many feel more comfortable speaking Italian compared to English (especially in small towns and villages). This gives you a real reason to use your Italian, which helps you learn faster.

Italian people know what’s important in life: they’re not constantly running from one thing to the next and they always have time for you. This is a huge plus when it comes to practising italiano with the locals!

You’ll feel a little bit Italian, too

Romantic, musical, expressive – people often say Italian is the most beautiful sounding language in the world. When you learn Italian, you can have loads of fun getting into the role and trying to adopt the distinctive accent.

 

2. Learn essential Italian phrases for travellers

Hopefully you’re now feeling excited about learning Italian and ready to get started. Before we dive into the details like grammar and pronunciation, it’s a good idea to get some essential phrases under your belt so you can communicate straight away.

Don’t worry if you say things a bit wrong, or you can’t understand what people are saying back to you yet – that’s normal at first!

Getting started is the hardest part. If you’re willing to have a go at using basic phrases, everything else will feel easier from there. And Italians will appreciate it if you make a little effort to communicate in their language! 

Phrases like “where is…”, “how much…?” and “can I have..?” will take you a long way. Once you learn the basic structure, you can adapt them to say loads of different things in Italian. 

For example, when you know how to say “can I have” = “posso avere”, you can use it to ask for anything anywhere: the bill in a restaurant, a pillow in your hotel, a ticket on the train… All you have to do is look up the name of the thing you’re asking for. 

Here are a few Italian travel phrases to get you started.

Essential Italian travel phrases

Dov’è…? = where is…?

Dov’è il bagno? = where’s the toilet?

Dov’è la stazione? = where’s the station?

Quanto costa? = how much does it cost?

Quanto costa il caffè? = how much does the coffee cost?

Quanto costa la pizza? = how much does the pizza cost?

Posso avere….? = can I have?

Posso avere il conto?=  can I have the bill?

Posso avere il menù? = can I have the menu?

Posso avere un caffè? = Can I have a coffee?

 

Numbers

Numbers are usually one of the first things people learn and with good reason – they pop up everywhere! From buying things to asking about public transport, you’ll need to master numbers if you want to get by in Italian.

You can learn how to count to 100 in Italian with the 5 Minute Italian episodes below.

 

Learn more Italian with fluency phrases

When you start speaking a language, it’s normal to have communication breakdowns, for example, when you don’t know a word, or when you don’t understand what someone just said.

With the right strategies, you can actually turn these moments into opportunities to learn more Italian.

Imagine you go into a bakery and you see a delicious pastry, but you don’t know what it’s called. You have two options:

  1. You can point and say “one of those please”.
  2. You can point to it and ask the barista in Italian “come si dice quello in Italiano?” (how do you say that in Italian?)

Most Italians will respond really well to this kind of curiosity. Once you open the conversation in this way, you’ll probably get the chance to chat to them a little more, and learn new words in the process!

There’s nothing wrong with using English when you get stuck, but the more you can use Italian to manage communication breakdowns, the longer you can keep the conversation going.

And the longer you can keep the conversation going, the better you get at speaking Italian.

Here are 5 fluency phrases that will help you turn communication breakdowns into opportunities to learn more Italian:

  1. How do you say X in Italian? = Come si dice X in Italiano? 
  2. Sorry, I didn’t understand. = Scusi, non ho capito.
  3. Could you repeat that please? = Potrebbe ripetere per favore?
  4. Could you speak slower please? = Potrebbe parlare più lentamente per favore?
  5. Can we speak in Italian? I’d like to learn. = Possiamo parlare in italiano? Vorrei imparare.

 

Want to learn more Italian so that you can get by in in Italy? In the 5 minute Italian podcast, you’ll learn how to deal with a common travel situation each week, like buying ice-cream or getting from the airport to your hotel.

Click here to subscribe to 5 Minute Italian on itunes.

 

Speak and understand Italian faster by joining 5 Minute Italian

If you become a 5 minute Italian member, we’ll send you bonus materials like quizzes, flashcards and cultural tips, as well as invites to online speaking workshops. It’s free to join.

Click here to become a 5 Minute Italian member.

 

3. Going into detail: Italian grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation

Now you’ve picked up some basic Italian phrases, it’s time to learn about the big 3: grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. 

At this point, it’s a good idea to get yourself a beginner’s textbook or audio course and work though it systematically so you can build up a foundation of these 3 aspects. Michel Thomas and Assimil both have great Italian courses for beginners.

This section will give you an overview of the main things you need to know about Italian grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, together with tips on how to learn them effectively.

You’ll be pleased to know that these aspects of Italian are relatively easy for English speakers compared to languages like German, Russian or Chinese because:

      • Italian grammar is simple-ish (no complicated case systems!)
      • 1000s of Italian words are similar to English
      • Italian pronunciation is quite straightforward: there aren’t many new sounds to learn and the spelling system is simple.

Italian grammar: How is it different to English?

In this section, you’ll learn about two very important features of Italian grammar which don’t exist in English:  verb conjugation and the difference between masculine and feminine words. 

 

Verb conjugation

Verb conjugation is just a fancy way of describing how verbs change depending on who’s doing the action (just in case you need a little reminder, verbs are words which describe actions or states, like jump, speak or be).

We can see this with the verb “be” in English: we say “I am” but “you are“.

But the verb be is actually a bit of an exception in English. Normally we don’t change the verb much, apart from in the third person.

To speak

I speak

You speak

He/she speaks

We speak

They speak

Italian verbs

Italian, on the other hand, uses looooads of verb conjugations. Here are a couple of examples (click below to listen to the pronunciation):

Essere = to be

Io sono = I am

Tu sei = you are

Lui/lei è = he/she is

Noi siamo = we are

Voi siete = you all/both are

Loro sono = they are

Parlare = to speak

Io parlo = I speak

Tu parli = you speak

Lui/lei parla = he/she speaks

Noi parliamo = we speak

Voi parlate = you both/all speak

Loro parlano = they all speak

If you’re observant, you may have noticed that there are 6 forms of the verb in Italian, while English only has 5. That’s because Italian has a plural “you” that’s used for when you’re speaking to more than one person. It’s a bit like saying you both/you all/you guys/y’all.

If you want to learn more about the Italian plural “you”, you can listen to 5 minute Italian episode 4: excuse me, do you speak English? and episode 24: how to order food in Italian.

 

Little by little

For many learners, verb conjugation is the most intimidating thing about Italian: one look at a list of Italian verbs and you might worry that you’ll never fit it all in your brain.

But you will.

Little by little is key.

And it’s not as complicated as it seems. Most verbs follow one of 4 patterns, which don’t take too long to learn. It’s true that there are quite a few irregular verbs, but many of these are similar to other irregular verbs, so you can learn them together in groups.

Importantly, don’t feel like you have to learn all the verbs at once. Focus on the ones you’ll use the most, then learn the others gradually as you go along.

 

Masculine and feminine words

The Italian word for “female friend” is:

“Amica

But for a “male friend”, it’s:

“Amico

Italian has gender, which means that nouns can change based on whether they are masculine or feminine (just in case you need a little refresher, nouns are words which describe people, things and places).

Feminine words often end in “a” and masculine words often end in “o”.

Here are some more examples:

Female Male
Ragazza (girl) Ragazzo (boy)
Bambina (female child) Bambino (male child)
Fidanzata (girlfriend)

Fidanzato (boyfriend)


The word for “a”, as in “
a girl” or “a boy” also changes depending on whether the word is masculine or feminine. To say “a girl” in Italian we say una ragazza, while to say “a boy”, we say un ragazzo.

The funny thing is, languages with gender use the same system for objects, like chairs and books.

In Italian, a chair is feminine: “una sedia”.

While a book is masculine: “un libro”

This can feel a bit strange at first – how can a chair be feminine and a book be masculine? 

Gender isn’t based on any logic about whether things have “feminine” or “masculine” qualities.

When it comes to learning the gender of objects,  just think of the words as being split into two arbitrary groups: masculine and feminine. When you know which group the word is in, it will help you make decisions about the grammar, like whether to use the word “un” or “una”.

How can you remember which group a word belongs to?

Try using imagery. For example, you could imagine “una sedia” as pink chair with a bow on it and “un libro” as blue book with a moustache on it (of course if you prefer to avoid gender clichés, you can choose different images!)

 

Common mistake alert! Prepositions

Prepositions are little words like “in”, “over”, “on”, “off” and “for”.

They’re not always logical: for example, if a light “goes off” it means that the light stops, but when an alarm “goes off”, the sound starts!

Because they’re not always logical, they vary a lot between languages. Here are some differences between Italian and English:

  • Italians don’t say “welcome to Italy”, they say welcome in Italy: benvenuti in Italia.
  • Italians don’t say “on the TV”, they say “in the TV”: in TV.
  • Italians don’t say “in the papers”, they say “on the papers”: sui giornali.

Italian learners often struggle with prepositions. But if you pay attention to them from the beginning, you’ll have a much better chance at getting them right in the long run.

Italian vocabulary: how to remember Italian words and phrases fast

Learn the words which are similare

One of the best things about learning Italian is that a lot of the words are very similar to EnglishIn fact, when you start learning it, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to notice that you can already say loads of Italian words by simply saying English words in a hammy Italian accent. Similare (pronounced sim-ill-ar-ray) is one example – no prizes for guessing what it means!

How do you say fantastic in Italian? Try to say it in your best Italian accent.

If you guessed fantastico, you were right!

There are 1000s of words like this, and they’re handy because you can start using them almost straight away when you learn Italian. To learn some simple rules about how to convert English words into Italian, listen to 5 Minute Italian episode 1: Why Italian is easier than you think 

 

Coke for breakfast: Remember Italian words and phrases with memory hooks

What happens when you drink cola for breakfast? The combination of sugar and caffeine gives you an energy boost and you spring into action.

Colazione

You’ve just learnt the Italian word for breakfast, using a technique called mnemonics: a memorisation strategy inspired by the ancient Greeks and endorsed by memory champions as the most effective way to quickly remember large amounts of information.  The trick is to create a little memory hook, by linking the sounds and meaning of the new word to words you already know. 

Let’s learn another one. Imagine you’ve planned to go for a walk with your friend Arthur. He knocks on the door and you shout “come in Arthur” = kam-in-ar-ta.

Camminata

You’ve just learnt the word for “walk” in Italian.

If you want to remember new words quickly in Italian, try creating memory hooks like the ones above. Get creative – the sillier the image, the easier it is to remember!

It might take you a little while to come up with memory hooks at first, but the more you do it, the quicker you’ll get. And it will save you a lot of time and effort in memorising Italian words.

Italian pronunciation: why it’s easier than you think

Say what you see!

Italian pronunciation is relatively straightforward compared to many other languages, especially when you take into account the spelling system.

English has a complex spelling system where different combinations of letters can be pronounced in many ways. To demonstrate this point, George Bernard Shaw once pointed out that the word fish could be spelled “ghoti.”

gh = /f/ as in enough.

o = /i/ as in women

ti= /sh/ as in nation

Luckily for us, Italian has a very phonetic spelling system, which means that most letters can only be pronounced in one way. Once you learn a couple of spelling rules, you’ll be able to pronounce the words you read without difficulty.

 

The Italian spelling system: C and G

One of the rules you’ll need to learn is the pronunciation of C and G, as it’s not always the same as in English.

Generally, C is pronounced as a hard K sound, like in the word cake. Similarly, G is usually pronounced as a hard G sound, like in game.

Examples you may recognise

Carbonara

Origano

The same rule applies when C and G are followed by the letter “h”.

Examples you may recognise

Spaghetti

Gnocchi

However, when you see C followed by the letter I or E, it’s pronounced as a soft C sound, (like the ch sound in the English word chocolate).

Examples you may recognise

Cappuccino

Pancetta

Likewise, when you see G followed by the letter I or E, it’s pronounced as a soft J sound, (like the j in jeans)

Examples you may recognise

formaggio (cheese)

gelato

If you want to learn more about how to pronounce C and G in Italian, and hear some more examples, listen to 5 Minute Italian episode 11 and episode 12 on how to pronounce an Italian menu.

 

How to roll your Rs in Italian

You’re probably already familiar with the fact that Italian has a rolled R sound. Some people can do it naturally, but for others it takes a bit of work.

I used to really struggle with the rolled R. In fact, I had just about given up, until one of my Italian teachers insisted that I could learn to do it. She was right! I practised and practised and practised until eventually, I managed it. 

So don’t get discouraged if you were born without this skill – most people can learn with the right techniques.

If you want to find out how I learnt to roll my Rs in Italian (and a quick trick to make your R sound more Italian even if you can’t roll it), listen to the tutorial below.

 

The smiley L

Another Italian sound which may be new to you is the smiley L (known formally as the palatal L). When you see the letters gli together, as in famiglia, it’s pronounced similar to an L sound, but instead of putting the tongue tip behind your teeth (like in the English one) you spread the whole tongue out across the roof of your mouth. If you smile when you say it, it helps to put the tongue in the right position, which is why we christened it the smiley L.

This sound is much easier to learn when you can hear it being pronounced and get some examples. Listen to the tutorial below for tips on how to pronounce the smiley L in Italian.

 

The smiley N

Italian also has a smiley N sound. When you see the letters gn together, as in lasagne, smile, push the whole tongue flat against your mouth (like in the smiley L) and try to make a N sound.

As with the smiley L, it’s much easier to learn with audio instructions and examples. Listen to the tutorial below for tips on how to pronounce the smiley N.

 

Common mistake alert! Double consonants

In Italian, when you see two of the same consonants in a row, you should make that sound longer. For example, the word “sono” (which means I am) has a single consonant: “n”, while the word “sonno” (which means sleep) has a double consonant: “nn”. The “n” sound is held for longer in the latter.  

Can you hear the difference?

Don’t worry if these words sound very similar at first, with practise, you’ll be able to differentiate them. 

Many foreigners continue to mix up single and double consonants, even when they speak Italian very well. If you pay attention to them right from the beginning, you’ll have a much better chance of getting it right in the long run (in fact, I wish someone had given me this advice when I first started learning Italian!) 

 

Common Mistake Alert! Not pronouncing the vowels properly

In English, we don’t always open our mouths fully to pronounce the vowels.

For example, in the word “responsible”, the letter “i” is pronounced as a kind of lazy “e” sound, which is produced with the mouth and tongue in a completely relaxed position. In the phonetic alphabet, it’s represented with the upside down ə sound (called the schwa).  

responsəble

However, Italian vowels are always pronounced fully. Can you hear the full “a” sound in the Italian version?

responsabile

The lazy “ə” sound doesn’t exist in Italian, so be sure to pronounce each vowel fully.

 

Time for some action: how to achieve your goal of speaking Italian

So far so good. You’re excited about learning Italian, you’ve got some essential phrases and you’ve started learning about the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. You even know which common mistakes to look out for.

But there’s one last step.

If you want to make real progress in Italian, it’s important to turn your good intentions into actions.

As Leonardo da Vinci says:

Being willing is not enough; we must do.

In this section, you’ll learn 4 strategies that will help you take action and get you closer to your goal of speaking Italian.

 

Use it or lose it

Bear in mind that no textbook or audio course will give you everything you need to speak Italian.  

Textbooks teach you a lot about the language, but they don’t really help you use it in real life. Think of them like a book on how to play the guitar. It gives you a lot of useful information, but unless you actually put your hands on the guitar, you’ll never be able to play.

If you want to be able to use Italian in real life situations, you need to practise first. Practising helps you turn the Italian words and phrases you learn in books into active knowledge that you can use to communicate with Italians.

If the idea of speaking straightaway makes you feel nervous, don’t worry. You don’t have to walk up to an Italian and start talking after your first lesson. There are other ways to practise using your Italian:

  • Take the new words and grammar points you learn in your textbook and try using them to write sentences about your life.
  • Write a diary entry about your day.
  • Talk to yourself in Italian in your head: What are people around you doing? What objects can you see?
  • Practise speaking with a language exchange partner or conversation tutor. If you don’t feel comfortable attempting conversation yet, you can tell them about new words or grammar points you’ve learnt and ask them to give you examples of how they’re used in real life.

These activities help you connect what you learn to real life, which makes them easier to remember.

If this feels tricky and you make lots mistakes at the beginning, don’t worry. It’s a normal part of being a beginner. The most important thing is to start – that’s how you get better!

As a 5 Minute Italian member, you’ll get lots of beginner-friendly opportunities to practise your Italian, including:

  • A “use it or lose it section”, which helps you use new Italian words and phrases to talk about your own life.
  • Speaking workshops, where we help you get over your nerves and have a go at speaking Italian.
  • Personal feedback and corrections from Italian teachers.

If you’re ready to take your Italian to the next level, click here to join 5 Minute Italian. It’s free. 

 

Get into the habit of learning Italian

In January, around 35% of people in Britain go on a diet. 

By February, most have given up.

When it comes to goals like losing weight or learning a language, most of us start full of optimism, only to run out of steam a few days or weeks later. This happens because willpower is a limited resource: when it runs out, we fall back on old habits, like eating peanut butter out of the jar (just me?). 

Even if you’re really committed to learning Italian at the beginning, your determination might fizzle out somewhere down the line.

You probably know that the best way to learn Italian is to study regularly over a sustained period, but that’s not always easy when your willpower waxes and wanes. The key to solving this problem is to make Italian a habit. Once you’re in the habit, learning Italian feels natural, so you don’t have to rely on self-discipline all the time. 

Here are a couple of things you can do to get into the habit of learning Italian:

  • Find little ways to introduce Italian into your daily routine. For example, you could listen to a podcast at breakfast, read a book on your commute, or review vocabulary while you’re waiting for your computer to load. 
  • Start small: just as bad habits can be difficult to break, good habits can be difficult to make. Start with something so easy you can’t say no to, like 5 minutes a day. Then add an extra minute each day. Built up gradually until you find a length of time that a) slots easily into your daily routine and b) feels like you’re making good progress.

Find a community

Science shows that if you work towards a goal as part of a group, you’re more likely to achieve it, compared to if you try going it alone. Joining a group of people who are learning Italian helps you learn faster for a couple of reasons:

  1. If you study alone, it’s easy to make excuses in your head and slack off. Teaming up with others who are learning Italian makes you accountable to other people, which gives you an extra push.
  2. The group gives you moral support, opportunities to practise and practical advice that will help you progress quicker.

Community is a powerful thing: if you’re serious about learning Italian, joining a group will help you succeed.

 

Join 5 Minute Italian (it’s free if you get in there quick!)

If you want to learn basic Italian fast, you’ll get the exact steps and support you need by becoming a 5 Minute Italian member

Sign up to get all the bonus materials for free including:

– A weekly podcast, where you’ll learn how to deal with Italian travel situations.

– Quizzes and interactive tasks, so you can practise using what you learned.

– Flashcards to help you review and remember words and phrases.

– A “when in Italy” section with cultural tips.

– Lifetime access to our private Facebook community, where you can team up with your classmates and practise using your Italian.

– Italian teachers who are available to answer your questions 

– Invites to monthly live lessons, where we’ll help you start speaking.

Click here to join 5 Minute Italian for free

 

The best way to learn a language is to go to the country.

How many times have you heard that?

There are lots of smart reasons to think this. When you try learning a language in your hometown, lots of things work against you:

  • Going to classes after work is expensive and a pain in the behind.
  • You can try working without a teacher, but you don’t know if you’re focusing on the right things.
  • It’s hard to motivate yourself because you don’t need it in your everyday life.

If you lived in the country, you’d need the language to survive, so you’d pick it up naturally. You’d hear it all day long and those words would finally stick. And you’d meet tons of people to practise with.

It seems logical.

But when I decided to learn Chinese, I couldn’t use any of these excuses.

Moving to China wasn’t an option: I had a great job, friends and family that I didn’t want to leave behind. And, I’d already spent a few months in China, without speaking Chinese.

A few bits of chicken in hot water

Summer 2013. My boyfriend Matteo and I are sipping Tsingtao beer by Houhai lake, waiting for our food to arrive. Pointing at pictures on the menu, we’d ordered some noodles with fresh vegetables, chillies and one little adjustment – chicken instead of beef. It was only when the waiter brought over two bowls of water with floating chicken pieces that we realised something had gotten seriously lost in translation.

In China, I survived by pointing at stuff. I’d get on a bus, shove my Lonely Planet under the driver’s nose and pray he’d take me where I needed to go.

During my travels, I met lots of expats who’d been living like this for years.

You can learn a language in your pjs

A couple of years later, I still really wanted to learn Mandarin.

I decided not to let the fact I was living in London stop me – I already knew that being in China wouldn’t necessarily make learning Mandarin any easier.

I also knew that language classes didn’t work for me. I’d tried before: if I wasn’t falling asleep or doodling, I was wondering what to buy for dinner on the way home.

So I started learning Mandarin from my living room. Mostly in my pyjamas.

I squeezed study time in here and there between work, friends and family. Day by day, almost imperceptibly, I learned a little more and a little more, until I could have conversation in Chinese. Here I’m chatting to my tutor Jane (turn subs on to see what we’re talking about). 

My Chinese still needs a lot of work, but I’m thrilled that I can now chat to native speakers. And I know if I keep going, it’ll get easier and easier.

Through trial and error, I’ve learned a lot about what to do (and what not to do) when learning a language at home. Here are 11 steps that really helped me in my quest to learn Mandarin on my sofa. I hope you find them useful!

 

1. Practise with native speakers

If you want to be able to chat to native speakers, you have to practise chatting to native speakers.

This sounds obvious, but most of us don’t do it and it slows us down. We put it off because we feel nervous about speaking and we want to prepare as much as possible before taking the plunge.

But in my experience, the stuff you learn from textbooks and audio doesn’t truly stick until you start trying to use it in conversation. There’s the catch 22: you want to learn more stuff before you start speaking, but you can’t learn it properly until you start speaking.

My suggestion: start before you feel ready. As soon as you’ve learned some essential phrases, get out there and start practising with native speakers. Especially if you feel like you’re not ready yet.

My favourite way to find native speakers is via italki. For $5 – $10, you can book one-on-one conversation lessons with native speakers, known as community tutors. They’re friendly, supportive and used to working with beginners.

Yes, even you.

Lots of people worry about being slower, or worse than other beginners, but I promise you you’re not! Everyone is slow at the beginning, it’s called being a beginner 🙂

If you’re really strapped for cash, you can use the language partner page to find a language partner who is learning your language and set up a language exchange on Skype. 

Practising with native speakers was the important thing I did by a mile: I never would have learned to chat in Mandarin if it wasn’t for my online tutors. If you only do one thing on this list, find yourself some native speakers to practise with. I know it feels scary, but you’ll be so glad you did. 

 

2. Ear flooding

This one may sound like a weird sinus problem, but it’s actually a powerful technique to improve language skills at home (or anywhere for that matter). Flood your ears with as much of your target language as possible, wherever you are. Download audio tracks to your smartphone and listen in the car, on the train, while washing the dishes or cleaning the bath.

Extensive listening boosts your speaking skills as the more you hear common words, phrases and sentence structures, the more they sink in, and the more naturally they come to you when speaking.

 

3. Find the right level

Listening to an indecipherable stream of words isn’t helpful: it’s frustrating and you don’t learn much as you can’t follow what they’re saying. Similarly, with reading, if you have to stop every two minutes to look up a word or grammar point, you’re going to get fed up very quickly. 

Research shows that a great way to learn a language is by reading and listening to things which are slightly above your current level, so you can get the overall meaning, but you meet some new words and phrases. Start with materials aimed at language learners like textbook conversations, simplified audiobooks and slow-read materials, then gradually increase the complexity as your level improves.

For Chinese, I started listening to conversations in my assimil textbook, then moved onto the Chinese Breeze series and intermediate level videos on FluentU. I still struggle to understand things made for native speakers, but I know if I keep gradually increasing the difficulty of my listening materials, I’ll get there.

 

4. Don’t obsess over grammar

Tons of people learn to speak a second language without ever studying grammar rules – maybe not perfectly, but enough to have good conversations with native speakers.

No one has ever learned to speak a language by studying just grammar.

I’ve got nothing against grammar per se (unless you’re memorising lists of irregular verbs in alphabetical order, then maybe I do) but the standard approach of learning grammar rules first and using the language later is flawed. That’s why most people leave school with no language skills.

As soon as you’ve got a few basics down, start learning by doing: speaking, reading, listening and writing. Then learn bits of grammar as you go along.

 

5. Stop comparing yourself with native speakers

The phrase “like a native” pops up everywhere in the language learning industry. The result: we spend most of the time comparing ourselves to native speakers and feeling like poop every time we see the big gap.

This is an insane way of looking at things, and here’s why: native speakers are surrounded by their language for an average of 16 hours a day. That means a 25 year old native speaker has been exposed to his or her language for around 146000 hours.

It’s estimated that language learners can get to an advanced level in around 1000 hours. Advanced learners can do amazing things in their second language like debating politics, working in specialist jobs and chatting to close friends without noticing a language barrier. But most still sound quite different to native speakers, and that’s OK.

Instead of comparing yourself to natives, compare yourself to the level you were at when you started. When you stop focusing on the difference between yourself and native speakers, you enjoy the ride. You spend less time worrying about your shortcomings and more time feeling good about the progress you’ve made.

 

6. Learn the right things

Without a teacher, it’s difficult to know if you’re focusing on the right stuff.

But here’s the thing: teachers don’t know what’s best for you.

The only person who knows what you really need to study is you. Only you know what you talk about on a daily basis: your job, your family, your hobbies, the questions you like to ask people, whether you like using lots of slang and swearwords, or whether you prefer to be a bit more formal.

Think about what you normally talk about and the kinds of things you need/would like to say in your target language, and focus on learning that stuff. This way, you’ll learn words and phrases that will help you speak quicker, rather than wasting time learning “what’s in your suitcase” and other not-so-useful classroom topics.

The next questions is: where can you learn to talk about things that are personal to you? There are two ways:

  1. Ask native speakers. As you try to communicate, you’ll naturally start speaking about your life, so you’ll learn how to talk about things which are important to you.
  2. Listen to and read about subjects you like – photography, football, dance, politics – in your target language. You’ll naturally pick up some useful vocabulary that you can use to talk about your interests.

 

7. Revive dead time 

One of the biggest challenges when learning a language at home is finding the time to fit it all in.

To get more study time in, I use language learning apps on my phone to fill dead time, like waiting in line at the supermarket or if my train gets delayed.

You’d be surprised how much it all adds up!

My favourite is my flashcard app, which I use to review vocabulary. Another great app for these times is duolingo.

 

8. Be consistent

You can do all the right things, but if you don’t do them consistently, you’ll never learn that language. That said, knowing that you have to be consistent and actually being consistent are two very different things!

Though I’ve struggled with this a lot in the past (and still do today!) I’ve found a method that works pretty well for me. The “don’t break the chain” method involves deciding how long you want to study each day (make sure it’s realistic!) and putting a cross on the calendar for each day you achieve it.

Once you get a streak of crosses, you’re more motivated to keep going because you don’t want to break that chain!

 

9. Chill out for a bit (but stay in the game)

We all have those days where we don’t feel like doing anything. I often can’t be bothered to study for days, sometimes weeks in a row. This is dangerous because if you stop completely, it’s really hard to get back into the habit.

For these times, I have a few relaxing activities that may not be the most productive use of my time, but that keep me in my routine. For example, I know watching TV is not an ideal way to learn if the level is too high and I can’t make out what they’re saying (especially if I use English subtitles) but sometimes I do this during my study time so that I can have a rest and stay in the game at the same time.

 

10. Fall in love with the culture

When I feel my motivation dipping, it’s often because I’m getting so bogged down with studying that I start to forget the reason I want to learn in the first place: to connect with Chinese people and their culture.

When this happens, I spend a little time browsing articles or watching videos about China. This is enough to bring my motivation back and get me all excited about speaking Chinese again.

 

11. Join a community

Another tricky part of learning a language by yourself is staying motivated when you’ve got no one to answer to and share your struggles with. You make excuses to yourself and slack off one day… then the next day… then the next until you’ve completely forgotten about your language learning plans (together with that gym membership).

Community is a powerful thing: tons of studies show that teaming up with others helps you achieve your goals. Two language communities that made a huge difference for me were:

    1. The #Add1Challenge: The #Add1Challenge is a 3 month language challenge for people who are serious about learning a language from home. Everyone starts together on day 0, with the same goal of having a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker on day 90. I joined in December and made tons more progress than when I was studying alone. If you want quick results, this one’s for you.
    2. Clear the list: Studies show that writing your goals down, sharing them with others and giving updates is one of the best ways to get things done. Clear the List, run by Lindsay from Lindsay does languages and co. helps you do exactly that. Language bloggers come together once a month to share their language goals and report back on how they got on in the previous month. Since I joined this challenge, my language learning has become a lot more structured, and I’ve (digitally) met loads of fab, like minded people to share my struggles and wins with. 

Now I’d love to hear from you: Are you learning a language from home? Which step do you think is most useful? Can you add any more tips that will help other readers who are studying from home?

Happy learning,

The longest I’ve ever stayed awake is 52 hours.

It was 2010 and I was writing my university dissertation at the very last minute. I sat in the 24 hour library for 2 and a half days, fuelling myself with Red Bull and chocolate raisins. When I got home and looked in the mirror, my face had turned a weird yellow colour.

Just last year, I stayed up for 30 hours before handing in my Masters dissertation.

Let’s just say time management is not my forte.

Fortunately, procrastination has never caused me any major problems (I always manage to pull things off at the last minute) but it makes everything more difficult than it needs to be.

And that’s exactly what happened with my language learning projects in October. Overall, I pulled it off. I hit most of my targets and I’m pleased with how much I learned.

But my procrastination really got in the way. I knew I should be doing something, but I ended up fiddling with my phone, going on Facebook, getting lost in a wikipedia web, staring out the window with my finger up my nose etc. etc. You know how it is.

To hit my targets I had to cram lots in over the weekend. I felt like I was constantly “catching up” which was stressful. And stress makes things more difficult to learn and remember. 

If I can just break my procrastination habits, I’ll have more time, feel more relaxed and things will start falling into place.

War on procrastination

In November I’m declaring war on procrastination. I’ve got three weapons:

1. Tomato time
I’m going to use the pomodoro technique, which involves setting a timer for 25 minutes, working intensively, then taking a 5 minute break. Pomodoro means tomato in Italian, named after the kitchen timer that the inventor used to time his work intervals. It’s based on the idea that everyone can study for 25 minutes. It doesn’t feel overwhelming so it’s easy to get started.
2. Make a schedule
In October I knew what I was supposed to be doing, but I didn’t plan when I was going to do it. In hindsight this was probably the main problem as it gave me too much freedom to faff about. This month I’m going to make a daily study timetable and… actually stick to it!
3. Remove distractions
I broke the cardinal rule of studying as I often had my phone next to me while I was working. This month, I’m going to make a point of removing all distractions so I can really focus during my 25 minute stints.

As well as nixing procrastination, there’s one more way I’d like to improve my learning this month:

Use it or lose it!

In October I spent lots of time absorbing the language through listening and reading, and not enough time using it in speaking and writing. I’m a big believer of learning by doing, but my schedule isn’t reflecting this at the moment. In November, I’m going to focus more on using what I learn. I’ll do this in 3 ways:

1. Mini talks
I’m going to make listening and reading more productive by adding mini 2 minute talking sessions. When I’m listening or reading something, I’ll write down key words. Then I’ll use these keywords to speak aloud for a couple of minutes about what I just read/heard.
2. Recycling days
Every 3 days, I’ll do a session dedicated to recycling the language I’ve been learning over the previous 2 days. In these sessions I’ll use the language I’ve been studying by making videos, writing stories and giving example sentences. I’m also going to use them to write conversation questions, so I can re-use new words and grammar points in conversations with my language tutors.
3. Translate
I’m going to try the translation method which involves taking a short dialogue and translating it into your native language, then back again into the language you’re learning. This method helps you zoom in on the differences between your native language and the language you’re learning. It also helps you build sentences and gives you instant feedback so you can spot common mistakes and iron them out.

Language goals for November

At the moment I’m learning 5 languages. Each month, I have a sprint language which I focus on intensively  and 4 marathon languages, which I study in a more relaxed fashion. In the sprint language, I immerse myself in the language as much as possible through daily activities like watching TV, reading and listening to the radio. My sprint language for November is Italian.

Italian

I spent October studying for my advanced (C2) Italian exam, but I’ve just run into a big problema! The only exam session is on a Thursday, which I can’t do as I’m a teacher and I can’t take holidays during term time. The next one isn’t until June 2017, so I’ve decided to lay off the exam preparation stuff for a while and come back to it in April/May time.

On the plus side, I’ll have more time to focus on things I’ve been meaning to do for ages in Italian.

There are 2 main areas I’d like to work on:
1. Culture
2. Grammar

Culture goals

I live in Milan, and many of my friends are Italian, so I’m already immersed in Italian culture to some extent. But I know I can do more. The more I learn about Italian culture, the more I can integrate into the country I live in. And feeling close to a culture does wonders for your language skills. So this month, I want to dive even further into Italian culture. Here’s the plan:

Films
I’ll watch one classic Italian film per week. This month’s films are Gomorrah, Il Divo, La Grande Bellezza and Amici Miei.
TV
In my downtime, I’m going to get through the first two series of the Italian sitcom, Boris.
News and current affairs
In October I set myself the goal of watching 8 e mezzo, a current affairs programme which discusses the political situation in Italy. I used to love this programme, but forcing myself to watch it everyday has turned it into a bit of a yawn fest. So this month, I’m going to take it down to 2 episodes per week. I’m also going to start watching Report, an investigative journalism series which features interviews with people from all over Italy. This will be particularly good for finding out about different regions and hearing a variety of accents. Finally, I’m going to carry on watching the news every day.
Reading
I’ve just finished my book Gomorrah, so in November I’m aiming to read my next one, Cairo Calling by Claudia Galal.

My next Italian book
My next Italian book

Music
My playlists this month are going to be filled with classic Italian artists like Fabrizio de André, Rino Gaetano, Paolo Conte and some newer ones like il triangolo, dente and i Cani.

Grammar goals
I’d like to revisit some bits and pieces of Italian grammar, so I’m going to work through 1 chapter a day of my grammar book. I’ll also have a recycling day every 3 days so I can apply what I’ve learned in new contexts.

On days when I manage to fit 2 hours in (which probably won’t be everyday!) my timetable will look something like this:

Culture (1hr)
TV: news/8 e mezzo/Report/Boris + mini talk
Grammar (1hr)
25 minutes translation method
25 minutes from grammar book

I’ll read and watch films during my downtime in the evenings and at weekends.

German and Chinese

These two languages are my newest so I’m still building up grammar and vocabulary. In October I set myself the goal to do 1 chapter per day of my textbook (except weekends) and learn 40 new words per week. I also planned to do 2 lessons per week on italki to practice my speaking. I didn’t always stick to the plan perfectly, but I did manage it most of the time. I feel like I’m making good, steady progress, so I’m going to keep riding this wave. By Christmas I want to:

1. Finish my textbooks
2. Learn at least 1000 words in German (currently 878)
3. Learn at least 800 words in Chinese (currently on 550)

Learning Chinese
My Chinese textbook

I’ll be starting a new job in November, which means I’ll no longer have time to do 2 lessons each week. I’m going to try to squeeze one per week in so I don’t get out of the habit of speaking.

Learning German with italki
Online German classes

Finally, I’m going to include mini talks and recycling days to practice using what I learn.

French

In October, I set myself the delightfully lazy goal of watching 20 minutes of French reality TV per day. This is going well as hearing spontaneous speech is really helping my listening skills. I’m going to keep this up in November.

Learning French with reality TV
Learning French with reality TV

Although I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my lazy French approach, I’m starting to feel like I should revisit a little French grammar. So I was pleased last week when I came across a fantastic idea from Alex over at laptop and flipflops who gives himself a mini language goal each week. I’m going to steal this idea and learn one little grammar point per week. On Friday I’ll have a recycling day where I practice using what I’ve learned so far.

Spanish

In October I listened to the delightfully funny Gritty Spanish, a set of mini dialogues for adults where the characters do naughty things like go to strip clubs and rob ice-cream trucks.

Gritty Spanish
Gritty Spanish

This month I’d like to use the dialogues in a more active way. Each day I’m going to one of the following:
1. Dictation: listen to the dialogue in slow mode and write down what I hear in Spanish.
2. Translation method: translate the dialogue into English then back into Spanish.
3. Mini talk: give a quick spoken summary about the dialogue.

I’m also going to take the new words and add them to my Spanish flashcards.

My Spanish flashcards
My Spanish flashcards

Finally, I’ll keep uploading one Spanish video per week on our Spanish-English Facebook group, vidiomas.

It looks like November is going to be a very busy language learning month, I’m excited! I’ll be back next month to let you know how it went.

Now I’d like to hear from you: What are your language goals? How are they going? Share them in the comments below!

Happy Valentines Day everyone!

There’s an old Italian proverb that goes moglie e buoi dei paesi tuoi. Roughly translated, it means “choose wives and oxen from your own town.” Today, it’s often used to suggest that you’re better off with a partner who comes from the same country as you.

More people are living and working aboard than ever before. As a result, lots of people are proving the old Italian saying wrong and entering into happy relationships with partners of different nationalities.

For many, this means a relationship where both partners have different native languages. Like me and my partner Matteo: my native language is English, his is Italian.

I get asked tons of questions about what it’s like being in a relationship with someone who doesn’t speak the same first language as me. So in honour of the big V-day, I’m sharing the answers to three of the most commonly asked questions:

1. You must be completely fluent in Italian by now, right?

Finding a boyfriend or girlfriend from a foreign country is often singled out as the easiest way to learn a language. But this kind of relationship is a bit like moving abroad: it provides a good opportunity to boost your language skills, but it doesn’t guarantee success on it’s own.

Firstly, it depends on which language you speak together. If your partner is fluent in your native language, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of using that language all the time, particularly if that’s the language you used when you first met.

And even if you speak together in your partner’s native language, your other half may not be the best person to help you perfect your language skills once you get past a certain level. It’s well documented that people who spend a lot of time together develop similar speech styles: if your significant other communicates with you in their native tongue, they’re likely to simplify their speech to some extent.

Even though we communicate in Italian most of the time, my relationship with Matteo doesn’t stretch my Italian skills as much as you might imagine. He doesn’t dumb things down on purpose; he’s just subconsciously adapted his communication style to match mine. And I find myself doing the same thing when we speak in English.

2. Do you get each other’s humour?

Yes and no.

We have lots of laughs together and in many ways we share a similar sense of humour. But the language barrier means that sometimes we need to explain jokes to each other, particularly if they involve cultural references or wordplay. Some people might find that tedious, but we love sharing English and Italian humour with one another, and getting a laugh when the penny finally drops.

3. Is it hard to get along with each other’s friends and family?

Luckily most of our friends and family are open minded, loving and patient: everyone gets on well, even if they don’t speak the same language. In my experience, cultural awareness trumps language skills when mixing with family and friends: people tend to be more understanding of language mistakes than they are of cultural faux pas.

It’s surprising how easy it is to form bonds with people with non-linguistic communication like smiling, helping and sharing. When Matteo first met my family, he didn’t speak any English, but it didn’t seem to matter that much. My dad took him out to play golf anyway and they had a fun day together. When Matteo did things around the house, my mum was really pleased to see that I had met a nice, helpful bloke. For us, when meeting friends and family, it seems that actions really do speak louder than words.

Of course, if our mums meet, they won’t be able to talk to each other all that much. But that might not be such a bad thing after all!

Now I’d like to hear from you. Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who speaks a different native language? What did you find challenging? What did you find rewarding?