Whenever I asked myself this question in the past, I only considered widely-spoken languages like Spanish or Mandarin.
This is because I’d always assumed that widely-spoken languages lead to better travel options and more opportunities to practice with natives.
So when I came across Fran, who’s learning Sicilian, I followed her progress with admiration and curiosity.
Sicilian is a minority language spoken on the island of Sicily and in some areas in the south of Italy. Although a close relative of Italian, linguists consider Sicilian to be language in its own right, because Italian speakers need a translator to understand Sicilian and vice-versa.
Why did Fran choose a minority language like Sicilian, instead of Italian? And given that so few people are learning Sicilian, how did she cope without the usual language learning tools like textbooks, audio courses, apps, and websites?
Fran’s story shows how learning an endangered language like Sicilian can enrich your travel experience by giving you a unique way to connect with the community. She also found that learning a minority language can actually increase your opportunities to speak with natives and that having fewer resources is sometimes a good thing!
Keep reading to learn:
Why you should consider learning an endangered or minority language.
How to learn a language without a textbook.
Over to Fran.
Learning Sicilian: Fran’s story
It’s Thursday morning at the local market in Trapani and there’s a very stern-looking Sicilian lady standing in front of me.
It’s one of those bustling markets where you have to squeeze through the crowds to get to the next stall and you can barely hear a word over the stallholders shouting to attract customers. I’d just bought some tablecloths which had caused some confusion between the vendors, and I was trying to explain the situation in Sicilian.
“C’è l’haiu, grazii” (I have it thanks).
As soon as I opened my mouth, her face changed from a frown to a soft smile:
“Siciliano,” she said.
Why I decided to learn an endangered language
I decided to learn Sicilian recently for family reasons, but I wish I’d thought of it years ago.
I was born in Australia to a Sicilian father and an Australian mother. My mother learned to speak Italian (which was really a mixture of Sicilian, Italian and Calabrese she learned from her sister-in-laws) so they spoke mostly Italian/Sicilian together, but when it came to us kids, they always spoke English.
Dad would say “you liva in tisa country you spreaka da English.” So we didn’t learn Sicilian or Italian.
Just before I turned 50, my husband and I decided to visit the birthplace of my father, Salaparuta, a small town which was devastated by an earthquake back in ’68. So I thought I’d better learn some Italian first. I bought a couple of online programs, hired every teaching program from the library and found an online tutor to practice with. But when we visited my family in Sicily, I was too scared to speak. Luckily, my two cousins spoke a little English.
Over the years, we returned a few times and although my Italian improved, I still couldn’t communicate very well with my Sicilian relatives.
Last year, I went with my sisters who couldn’t speak a word of Italian, so I did all the talking for us. My sisters were impressed with how well I managed to communicate with Italians speakers, which helped them pinpoint my problem with my Sicilian relatives: they understood what I was saying in Italian, but I didn’t understand what they were saying in Sicilian! So they asked me if I’d ever considered learning Sicilian.
It was a light bulb moment. My sisters were right! No amount of Italian would help me to understand my Sicilian speaking family.
So I started learning Sicilian. It’s been challenging (I’ll talk more about this in a moment) but truly worth the effort.
Recently, my husband and I returned to Sicily and this time I was determined to communicate in Sicilian.
It paid off!
Although I’m learning the Catanese dialect and my family live in the Trapani region on the other side of the island, we communicated well. For the first time, I understood. My relatives were so pleased to hear me speak their language and encouraged me to keep learning Sicilian.
Learning Sicilian: the advantages of learning an endangered language
Encouraged by people’s positive reactions to my attempts to speak Sicilian, wherever I went I’d say something, anything in Sicilian. Sometimes people would try to correct me, thinking that I’d just mispronounced Italian. But when I explained that I was learning Sicilian, they stared in disbelief, then smiled with approval. Most people couldn’t believe that a foreigner would actually want to learn it!
As we visited different towns around the island, my husband let me do the talking: the Sicilian people seemed friendlier, more accommodating and really appreciated me taking the time to learn their beloved language.
But with minority and endangered languages, your attempts to speak are often met with surprise and delight. Sicilians are proud of their language, and it saddens them that it’s fading away. The people I met were so pleased to find a foreigner learning Sicilian that they went out of their way to help me practice speaking it.
The challenges of learning Sicilian
That said, learning an endangered language like Sicilian can pose a few problems.
The main one is a HUGE lack of resources. The Sicilian language is a spoken language, so there aren’t many books or documents to learn from.
There are a couple of online dictionaries and textbooks, but I’ve learned that most teachers do not accept these books. This is because each region of Sicily has its own dialect, and within these regions, family groups can have their own “version” of that dialect. When a family moves, say to an English speaking country, they take their spoken dialect with them and pass it on to the next couple of generations, which is a great way to keep the language alive. Years later a well-meaning family member decides to share his beloved language and publishes a textbook. Unfortunately, the dialect that it teaches is now out of touch with modern Sicilian.
So, no recommended textbooks, no podcasts and at the time, no teaching videos on YouTube. But after ten months of learning, I’m quite happy not to have all the language learning choices that are out there. I don’t get distracted exploring all that’s on offer, and I’ve been able to stay focused, which has helped me progress faster.
How I learn Sicilian: a step-by-step guide to learning an endangered language
1. Find a teacher or tutor
With most minority languages, you can’t just go to your local language school and sign up for a course, so you’ll need to explore other ways to find a teacher.
If you’re lucky enough to be in the area where the language is spoken, you could get in touch with language schools to see if they have members of staff who speak the language and would be willing to teach you. I emailed a language school at Trapani in Sicily and asked if any teacher there would be interested in teaching me Sicilian and the manager himself was more than happy to do this for me. If you can’t go to the country, you could call/email the school and ask if they’d be willing to do the lessons via Skype.
Alternatively, you might be able to find a tutor via the online teaching platform italki, as they are gradually building up a community of teachers who speak minority languages.
If all else fails, try looking for universities who conduct research on your language of choice, as the professors will probably have native speaker contacts who could help you find a teacher or community of speakers (thanks to Donovan Nagel from The Mezzofanti Guild for this tip).
2. Be prepared
With no textbook, you or your teacher will need to prepare for each lesson. I prepared word lists, sentences and dialogues for my lessons each week that we would discuss and correct. But then I found an Italian teacher on italki who is Sicilian and loves to teach the Sicilian language. She prepares her own structured lessons each week and on occasion, I still like to prepare something for us to work on together.
3. Record your lessons
If you do lessons via Skype, record them and make sure your teacher is typing as much information as possible in the message section. Most computers have a record function but I use the memo app on my phone. After the lesson, you can print out the Skype messages/notes (which I usually copy and paste into word).
If you’re doing face-to-face lessons, you could ask your teacher if you can record the lesson on your phone and work together on some detailed written notes that you can take away with you after the lesson.
4. Review what you learned
These notes now become your study sheet. Get colorful. Highlight words and phrases you want to remember. Circle things that you can’t remember or need more clarification on. Can you make a sentence or two from this week’s study? Note down other questions you would like to ask? This prepares you for your next lesson. I also rewrite previous dialogues to help consolidate words and grammar.
5. Make word lists
Make lists of new words. I have a book I like to write them in and then import them into apps such as Quizlet and Memrise.
6. Focus on listening skills
Listen to your study session a few times. Do 10 or 20-minute sessions over a few days. Listen to the grammar and follow along with your notes to hear pronunciation and explanations. If you’re anything like me, you might notice some questions you misunderstood, mistakes and parts where you could have responded better. This is an opportunity to learn from your mistakes. If anything is unclear, make a note to ask your teacher for clarification in the next lesson.
Also, try to find TV series, movies or songs in your target language. For Sicilian, YouTube has folk songs with the lyrics to sing along to (in private of course!) and I like the series Inspector Montalbano, although it’s spoken mainly in Italian, I get quite excited when I hear the extras speaking Sicilian.
7: Make your own materials
Now you’re in contact with the community of speakers, why not take advantage of this to create your own materials? I asked my teacher to help me prepare interview questions and she agreed to be interviewed. Then I contacted another Sicilian friend who also agreed to be interviewed. I put them on YouTube for easy access, originally as a private status but I later published them as I thought others learning Sicilian might benefit from these too. It was a lot of fun and I plan to do more in future.
Are you learning (or considering learning) Sicilian or another minority language? Which tip do you think is the most useful? Can you add any more advice? Leave a comment and let us know!
So you’re thinking about learning Italian?
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.
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:
Find your motivation (know why you want to learn Italian).
Learn the essential phrases (so you can start talking straight away).
Go into detail (start learning grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation).
Take action (so you can achieve your goal of speaking Italian).
Let’s get started shall we?
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 on 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!
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.
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 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:
You can point and say “one of those please”.
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:
How do you say X in Italian? = Come si dice X in Italiano?
Sorry, I didn’t understand. = Scusi, non ho capito.
Could you repeat that please? = Potrebbe ripetere per favore?
Could you speak slower please? = Potrebbe parlare più lentamente per favore?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
But for a “male friend”, it’s:
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:
Bambina (female child)
Bambino (male child)
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 English. In 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.
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.
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.
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
The same rule applies when C and G are followed by the letter “h”.
Examples you may recognise
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
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
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 soundwhich 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).
However, Italian vowels are always pronounced fully. Can you hear the full “a” sound in the Italian version?
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 importantto 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!
Join 5 Minute Italian to get lots of beginner-friendly opportunities to practise, including:
Speaking workshops, where we’ll help you get over nerves and have a go at speaking Italian.
Access to our private Facebook community where you can practice chatting to other learners in Italian and get personal feedback and corrections from Italian teachers.
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 take time 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.
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:
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.
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 want to learn basic Italian fast, you’ll get the exact steps and support you need by becoming a 5 Minute Italian member.
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 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:
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.
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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
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:
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)
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.
Finally, I’m going to include mini talks and recycling days to practice using what I learn.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Which language should I learn? Whenever I asked myself this question in the past, I only considered widely-spoken languages like Spanish or Mandarin. This is because I’d always assumed that widely-spoken languages lead to better travel options and more opportunities to practice with natives. So when
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.
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
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
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