Monday, September 22, 2014

How I Started Learning Italian For Real

Right now, learning Italian, is the first time I've ever attempted to learn a language for real. Despite years of french immersion, starting at the age when my brain was supposed to be extra malleable, I cannot speak french, and the few years of high school German taught me barely enough to understand the lyrics to Autobahn (although the same amount of classes taught many of my German friends English!). In my cosy monocultural home town, people I might actually talk to in a foreign language seemed impossibly far away - even francophones - and so they were just school subjects I had to do, like Earth Sciences. But unlike Earth Sciences, my language marks were consistently crappy. I even tried to frame it as a personal quirk: That's my thing! I just can't learn languages!

The reality is I never seriously tried. And now I have a big motivation in the form of wanting to function in Italy. And do better than just function! I want to have an awesome time here! I also feel empowered by the fact that now that I'm older, I have a much better sense of how I learn, and what motivates me. Finally, it's a different world as far as possibilities for learning via the internet. All this made me gung ho about the idea of learning Italian, to the point that it surprised me!

I had two goals for the amount of Italian I wanted to learn: number one, emergency Italian, that would let me communicate if things went wrong. Number two, to speak enough that Italians would find it cute and be willing to talk to me. So here are the three things I did to begin to learn Italian, a few months before I left North America.

1) Duolingo
This is a free website, and also an app for iPhone and Android, that teaches languages by quizzing you constantly on the language, in short modules that escalate in difficulty. There are four main types of queries you get, all intermixed: translating words and sentences from your own language to the target language, translating them from the target language to your language, transcribing sentences spoken by the speech synthesizer, and speaking written (and spoken) sentences. The experience is very similar to a mobile game, and in fact is nothing short of genius in how it uses that same addictive stream of feedback, happy little "bling!"s every few seconds, to keep you coming back. It's a great way to fill a few minutes chilling out - I have even procrastinated doing it.

Another big factor in making it fun is the motivation to complete modules, much the same as beating levels in a video game. Which also corresponds to one of my favourite educational concepts, mastery-based learning. Unlike in a classroom, you proceed completely at your own rate, but you don't progress until you have mastered (for some definition of "mastered") the concepts in that module.

Modules don't stay completed, however, and after a certain time period you have to go back and practice them some more. This occurs on a logarithmic time scale, which means it's an example of another educational concept I believe in, spaced repetition learning, such as in the powerful flashcard program Anki. Basically the words and grammar concepts you had the most trouble with keep coming back. They come back frequently at first, and then at longer and longer intervals. I have found this to be very effective for memorizing vocabulary, phrases, and even grammatical concepts. Things that seemed weird and difficult at first, after many repetitions starts to seem like second nature - and because of the fun factor I actually do those repetitions.

I can't stress this enough: I actually do Duolingo. Learning a language takes so much practice, and I am historically very bad about practice. From an app that collects these stats on my phone, over a period of 155 days I used Duolingo an average of 22 minutes a day, or a total of 57 hours. I only skipped it entirely on 17 of those days, and my longest break was 3 days. Your mileage may vary, probably related to how addictive you find mobile games (for me, a lot!).

From my experience with Anki, I think there's particular memory benefits to doing a little at a time over the course of many days. I like to think of every night's REM sleep like a hammer blow driving understanding a little deeper into my brain.

I love how, like a videogame, you can make hundreds of mistakes with no consequences. I think vanity about my smarts was at the root of my difficulty with language learning. You can't avoid making mistakes, you just have to accept that your learning is sloppy and imperfect, and yet you gradually remember more and more. I have a theory that what burns something into your memory best is embarassment over not knowing something you are supposed to already know.

What is Duolingo bad at? Surprisingly, not grammar: it has no particular tutorial text, so it just throws new concepts at you, and they're often baffling at first. However, I think this is a wonderful way to learn too, since it makes me curious to learn about a grammar concept - so I can get past that fricking past imperfect unit. I have actually found myself googling italian grammar concepts when I was supposed to be working. I hate grammar!

But Duolingo is poor for spoken comprehension, and for speaking (although it attempts to help with those a little) Therefore it's not enough on its own. But I also did:

2) A beginner Italian class at the Dante Alighieri Society.
10 weeks, 2 1/2 hours a week. This was great for a few reasons: it forced me to actually speak out loud to another person, it got me into the adorable Italian cultural center in Cambridge MA, the Dante Alighieri Society, and I got taught by an actual Italian from Bologna. She gave us her recipe for Spaghetti Bolognese!

I appreciated very much how the curriculum for this level 1 class was constructed as a bare minimum survival kit: how to order food and drink, how to greet, numbers and letters, and basic small talk. On the wall for us to stare at every day were critical beginner phrases like "Cosa significa ___" (what does ____ mean) and "Puoi ripetere?" (could you repeat?) There was even a lesson on how the train system works in Italy. She made us all write a statement of who we are, where we're from, what we do for a living, etc, which has proven to be very helpful when I'm introduced to people. We watched web videos and listened to songs, all of which helped me to get the flavour of the country I was about to move to.

The big weakness of the course is in memorization: I simply don't remember enough of what was taught. There is no systematic reminding, on a spaced schedule, as in Duolingo - if I wanted to have that effect, I would have to construct my own self testing schedule for the weeks and months after the course ended (is this what people call "studying"?) It's fascinating, and frustrating, to think about all the thousands of hours of learning, over my decades of schooling,  which was then lost due to the absence of spaced repetition! So Duolingo, with its ability to ram hundreds of words of vocabulary - and dozens of weird grammar rules - into your brain, for the long term, is an amazing complement to this course.

Finally, I also watched,

3) Movies in Italian with Italian subtitles
This is me knowing myself, and how much I love to watch movies. I realized this was a way I could justify catching up on all the trashy ones I missed. Like the 3rd pirates of the caribbean movie. For the first little while the language just washed over me mostly, although I would look up words on my trusty Google Translate app when they recurred a lot. So one of the first words I learned was "Andiamo!" ("let's go!") because of how much they shouted it in Pirates of the Carribean.

So I mostly focused on special-effects-heavy American films dubbed into Italian. I knew this wasn't my time to get into slow, bummer artistic films - the movie can't also feel like work.

Where can you get such films while still in North America? You can easily buy them on Amazon, for about $10-$16 each, by searching for "italian edition" or "italian import". If you're looking for a particular film (like My Neighbour Totoro), you can look up the name in the language of choice ("Mio Vicino Totoro") You have to be a bit careful with european dvds, because you either need to use a region-free player (which most computer dvd players are not) or use up some of a limited number of region switches (although this can be hacked) Also, good quality dvds of italian movies, like the Criterion editions, usually have italian subtitles.

The other route is to bittorrent the italian dubs (search for "ita" or whatever the abbreviation is for your language), and then download the subtitles to go with them, from sites such as and Put the subtitle file in the same folder as the video file, rename it to the same as the video (everything but the extension), and then open the video in VLC. It will automatically be available that way under the "Subtitles" menu whenever you play it. Of course there are a lot of issues with subtitles being out of sync, but you can fix that with both the subtitle delay feature of VLC, or, more permanently, with a subtitle editing program, such as Jubler on the mac. Sometimes the subtitle is set for a 30 fps film and you get a 24 fps video, and then it just won't stay in sync (unless you do much more complicated, fiddly maneuvers).

Even though it might not be as efficient as classes or talking to people, and not as enjoyable as my more typical activities of sittin' around or rewatching 30 Rock, it worked for me as a way to make absorbing the language as pleasurable as possible. I discovered that my roommate in the States was only really excited to watch American romantic comedies with me, so that is why I have now seen, only in Italian, 27 Dresses, The Lake House, The Vow, and Letters to Juliet. Those movies were terrible. But figuring them out - and making fun of them - with my roomie was very fun.


I don't think simple exposure to the language alone does much, otherwise I would be fluent in Japanese from all the hours of 90s anime I watched in high school. Neither would a once-a-week class, or a mobile phone app. But with these three approaches working at once and cross-pollinating, it adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

Things I didn't do that might have helped: online language tandems, Rosetta Stone software, News in Slow Italian, Michel Thomas CDs.


Now that I'm in Italy, of course, there are many more opportunities for learning - and more frustrations too. This preparation didn't take me that far. But I can confirm that it did achieve my two objectives, of getting me through emergencies - of which I've had a couple - and getting me chatting with Italian speakers. If anything, the benefit of my prep was giving me an inflated sense of confidence such that I would attempt to strike up conversations, even at the beginning. Sincerely glad that Italians are both friendly, and absolutely unhesitating in correcting mistakes!

It's going to be a long, long, long, long, road to any kind of competency, especially in spoken italian, but I'm getting a lot of great support, and already some great payoffs, like new Italian friends and watching La Strada in the original language (Italian circus clowns!) The best part is knowing that I'm still capable of learning something totally new. I just have to: 1. throw a huge number of hours at it, 2. pay attention to how I actually learn, and 3. get comfortable with making lots and lots of mistakes.

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